MEA is proud to present a new edition of Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth, our third installment of the title. Blue Nostalgia is a unique publication in that it contains stories of veterans’ and family members’ stories of how they face the challenges of post-traumatic stress as well has how they grow in spite it – or even because of it.
Volume 3 contains works from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan veterans, each with a unique voice and perspective. They have in common the bravery to share their deeply personal stories in order to educate the public and let their fellow veterans know that they are not alone.
Blue Streak, Vol. 2 contains nearly thirty poems that illustrate a broad range of experiences both within the military and without. Some are sad. Some are light and humorous. All of them are worthy of attention.
You can reach Blue Streak, Vol. 2 by clicking on the links in this post or by navigating the “Publications” menu above. We hope you enjoy these poems, and, most importantly, we hope you learn from the poets who have lent their voices to this volume.
On a January 1967 patrol in a remote valley of the highland wilds in Binh Dinh province, South Vietnam, miles from any friendly force, United States Army infantryman Stephen Saunders screamed inside his head, “‘Nobody cough or move.’” His inner voice was trying to reach the inner ears of Ski and Hays, the other two members of three-man “pony team.” What he had just seen was a khaki-clad NVA soldier toting an SKS rifle four feet in front of and above him on a trail. Thankfully, his comrades somehow heard. He recalls that event regularly now in his Garnavillo, Iowa, home.
On May 8, 2002, in her home near Keysville, Virginia, Deanna Schwartz “woke suddenly, thinking I heard someone tell me to ‘pray.’ I looked at my alarm clock on the nightstand beside my bed. It said 4:00 a.m., much too early to get up…Without thought or question as to why I did what I was asked to do, I prayed to God, ‘Please take care of my boy [serving with the Army National Guard in Iraq]’, then slipped back into a peaceful sleep.” Weeks later she would realize that 12:00 a.m. Iraq time was the same time she had been asked to pray. “Chill bumps traveled up my arm. Did I save Dean from death by praying?”
When, in the fall of 2015, Longwood University (Farmville, Virginia) and Military Experience and the Arts put out a call to military, veterans, and family members to tell their stories, we were uncertain about who, if anyone, would respond. We named this effort “Home and Abroad” to emphasize that we wanted to learn about the personal experiences of those who served overseas in the military and those who supported them stateside. We have been surprised at the numbers of individuals who have contacted us and by the power of their stories.
In 2015 Thomas Bragg of Blackstone, Virginia, might have been hearing his own voice when he read for the first time a 1969 Newsweek story with the head-line, “Death in a Quiet Week.“ The reporter quotes “a close friend” of Edward Bartholomew Lama, from Mundelein, IL: “‘He was an unusual guy. You liked him from the first time you laid eyes on him. He could tell if you were feeling depressed or if there was anything wrong. And he could almost kid new men into forgetting they were in the Army.’” Thomas Bragg and Eddie Lama were fast friends until Eddie was killed in July 1969. Forty-six years later Thomas wanted to bring back his friend’s voice. He began by scrutinizing the photos they had taken with Polaroid cameras during their tour. Contacting members of the Lama family and childhood friends, he was able to put his fellow soldier’s story into words. He concludes in “Keeping it Lively: The Hunt for Eddie Lama” that he hopes his account of his friend’s life has made “him lively again” (25).
Who are the readers of these stories of military experience? One other writer can help answer these questions. Hospital chaplain and retired Navy veteran, Willie Smith, Sr. recounts a fictional version of one man’s experience of brutality, using graphic imagery in a terse, powerful poem, “The Patient.” Here a man tells “the visiting chaplain” that, coming out of the shadows, he had surprised his horse, who then turned on him: “He confessed of having only the living witness in him spared from the hoofs and massive muscles / Thrusting up and down from the high heavens, and falling upon his head, arms, wrists, groin, legs—as if all at once…“ Bearing “witness” here is not simply easing his conscience about how he has injured people he cares about but also attempting to prevent others from taking similar action. He knows he has hurt his family, perhaps not physically but certainly emotionally. And, like many converts, he hopes to prevent others from imitating his actions.
Home and Abroad authors are bearing witness to the trials, challenges, and rewards of military service. Their readers are fellow members of the military, veterans, and family members, but, perhaps more importantly, our current civilian population, which is often spared such realities. We acknowledge that there are many ways in which citizens serve the nation—as teachers, police, medical personnel, business leaders, laborers, farmers and many more. However, in other professions, individuals have the option of resigning if they feel their work situations are unacceptable. Giving up a job may cost salary, benefits, and future prospects, but members of the military do not have that option except at the end of their current time of enlistment. What they give up to protect our freedoms is their own freedom. Like firefighters and law enforcement officials, they are also volunteering to put themselves in harm’s way. And, unlike in past generations, today’s wars are carried on by a tiny minority of the nation, about 1% of its citizens. The remaining 99% can choose to take for granted what that 1% does. The hope of Home and Abroad is that many of us will agree that citizenship in a country with an all-volunteer military mandates that all understand what is undertaken to protect the nation’s way of life.
More information about Home and Abroad can be obtained from Michael Lund, Professor Emeritus of English at Longwood University and writing workshop director for Military Experience and the Arts at lundmc[at]longwood.edu
(Feature Photo: Thomas Bragg and Eddie Lama in Vietnam)
We live in an age where some confuse heroes with entertainers, role models for charlatans, but remembering Americans who died in distant lands places perspective in sharper relief.
As a boy, I spent afternoons dashing around the neighborhood playing “Army” with friends. Tree forts became castles, and passing cars were tanks to avoid at all costs. Somewhere in our minds we were aware of Vietnam, but the neighborhood sheltered us until two names came to personify the war: Corporal Frank Miller and Lieutenant James Francis O’Laughlin.
Frank was the uncle of my best friend while James O ‘Laughlin was the father of another classmate. Both Soldiers died in Vietnam. Each representing link to Athens. Every Memorial Day, I thought of them. Decades later, I visited the Wall in Washington and etched their names.
Iraq and Afghanistan are my generations’ wars. One autumn day I was told my friend Dave was killed in Iraq. I was to escort him home. I reflected on our time together at Fort Bragg. Fighting was the melody he danced to, and Dave knew the steps well, but he had a clean heart, too. Ever the consummate warrior-scholar, Dave was a well-read Green Beret who helped children wherever he served, but life shifts in an instant. I remember how he set his jaw in grim determination when challenged and suppose that’s the look he had on the final day of his life when the sun boiled. There was no manual instructing me what to say when his wife threw herself onto his casket. The experience skinned my insides.
Some nights I stare at the stars and think of Bill, Laura, Ted, Justin (who grew up down the river in Coal Grove) and Drew. They were the brave ones willing to lay it on the line when things got rough and now remain eternally young, preserved in the minds of those who knew them best.
When visiting their graves, I don’t blunt emotions or debate the logic behind the wars in which they fought…that is for other venues. What I see are patches of grass containing dreams of what might have been—Daddy/Daughter dances, games of catch, first days of school, walks down the aisle, and reunions. Their unfinished lives moor me to the past while whispering the warning not to allow life to grow stale. The cemetery is a confessional where secrets to my friends leak out of my mouth and the past grafts with the present. But what of graves with no names and few visitors?
Just off to the right of the Fort Myer entrance to Arlington Cemetery stands a stone with a simple epigraph:
Unknown US Soldier
Behind this grave is number 8429. Behind that stone is 8443. Flanked on both sides are others. Who knew these brave souls “Known but to God”? 8067 is buried in one of the Civil War sections. Did this Soldier know my Great-Great-Uncle Eli who joined the Union at eighteen, saw action at Shiloh and died soon after? I can only wonder.
On Memorial Day I try to make my friends’ sacrifices worthwhile by evaluating relationships, determined to fill the in-betweens of my life by doing better.
Each one of us has the capacity to make a difference: surprising our children at school lunch; calling old friends with whom we’ve lost contact; inviting neighbors or clergy for dinner; visiting retirement homes to listen to stories of times that disappear with each breath; or spending the day with a spouse. Maybe it’s a simple “Hello” to one who least expects it. Showing kindness and empathy to fellow Americans—even those with whom we disagree—is the least we can do for Frank Miller, James O’Laughlin, Soldier #8067 and others who left behind unfinished lives.
And so what’s the cost? A moment of our time, that’s all. And what some wouldn’t give for a moment.
Lieutenant Colonel (P) Zoltan Krompecher is an active-duty officer from Ohio. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now lives near Washington D.C. with his family. These views are his own.
(Featured Image: Giuseppe Pellicano / Left. Left. Left, Right, Left (2) / The Journal of Military Experience, Vol. 3)