Thursday, November 01, 2007

Home Fires....The Last American Soldier to Die in Iraq....Who Will It Be?

October 31, 2007, 3:39 pm
Requiem for the Last American Soldier to Die in Iraq

By Brian Turner

At some point in the future, soldiers will pack up their rucks, equipment will be loaded into huge shipping containers, C-130s will rise wheels-up off the tarmac, and Navy transport ships will cross the high seas to return home once again. At some point — the timing of which I don’t have the slightest guess at — the war in Iraq will end. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — I’ve been thinking about the last American soldier to die in Iraq.

Tonight, at 3 a.m., a hunter’s moon shines down into the misty ravines of Vermont’s Green Mountains. I’m standing out on the back deck of a friend’s house, listening to the quiet of the woods. At the Fairbanks Museum in nearby St. Johnsbury, the lights have been turned off for hours and all is dark inside the glass display cases, filled with Civil War memorabilia. The checkerboard of Jefferson Davis. Smoothbore rifles. Canteens. Reading glasses. Letters written home.

Four or five miles outside of town, past a long stretch of water where the moon is crossing over, a blue and white house sits in a small clearing not far from where I stand now. Chimney smoke rises from a fire burned down to embers. A couple spoon each other in sleep, exhausted from lovemaking. One of them is beginning to snore. I want them to wake up and make love again, even if they need the sleep and tomorrow’s workday holds more work than they might imagine.

Who can say where that last soldier is now, at this very moment? Kettlemen City. Turlock. Wichita. Fredricksburg. Omaha. Duluth. She may be in the truck idling beside us in traffic as we wait for the light to turn green. He may be ordering a slice of key lime pie at Denny’s, sitting at a booth with his friends after bowling all night. What name waits to be etched on a stone not yet erected in America? Somewhere out in the vast stretches of our country, somewhere out in Whitman’s America, out among the wide expanse of grasses, somewhere here among us the last soldier may lie dreaming in bed before the dawn as the sun sets over Iraq.


At the Spar in Tacoma, Wash., the bartender — Jolene — is about to flip the lights for last call. Let her wait a moment longer. If she can wait a few minutes more, the young woman at the end of the bar will finally do what she’s been wanting to do for hours. And it will surprise the young man she’s been talking with — she’ll kiss him. It will never be seen on a movie screen or written down in a book for people to enjoy centuries later. No one at the bar will even notice it taking place. But they should, because it’s one of the all-time best kisses ever. As cheesy and hyper-romantic as it sounds, this is a kiss for the ages, and it’s as good as they get.


Let the quiet moments of a life be recognized and not glossed over with thoughts of the past or thoughts of the future. For a rare, brief moment — let this moment be savored and fully lived. Maybe that soldier will drive a thresher in the Kansas sun today. Maybe she’ll cheer at a Red Sox game as her husband laments the fate of his Yankees. Maybe he’s in Hollister, Calif., thinking of the 100 things he’d written as a child — the list he titled “Things To Do Before I Die”:

1. write a book
2. travel down the amazon
3. travel down the nile
4. visit each continent
5. live in a foreign country
6. learn to speak foreign languages
7. be a major-league baseball player
8. publish in Playboy magazine
9. ride a motorcycle across America
10. cross an ocean by boat
11. scuba dive
12. climb a mountain
13. go to every major league baseball park, especially Yankee Stadium
14. be a tourist on a moon mission with NASA or another space agency
15. ride on an elephant and a camel
16. visit Angor Wat, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, the Hermitage, the Louvre, Stonehenge
17. invent something useful and helpful for people
18. …and on and on…

How many items will he have crossed off that list before he must put it away again?


Could that last soldier be in front of a video camera in Hollister right now, recording a final message in case she doesn’t make it back, making a videotape for a child who will never know its own mother?

If you’re watching this then it means I’m not around anymore. I imagine you’re probably in your late teens now. Maybe Mt. Kilimanjaro no longer has snow on its peak. Maybe the ice shelves on the northern coasts of Alaska have melted back and polar bears are dwindling in number. I always wanted to get up there and see Alaska. Maybe you’ll make it up there one day yourself. I wonder if it’s somehow possible for you to buy a plane ticket to Baghdad, to visit Iraq as a tourist. Will you visit the places where I’ve been? Will you talk to the people there? Will you tell them my name?


What will the name be? Anthony. Lynette. Fernando. Paula. Joshua. Letitia. Roger… Who will carve it in stone and who will leave flowers there as the years pass by? Who will remember this soldier and what will those memories be? Does he have brothers and sisters? Will his father sink into the grass in the backyard when he is told the news? Will his mother stare into the street with eyes gone hollow and vacant, the cars passing each day with their polished enamel reflecting the sunlight? What will the officer say when he knocks on that door?


The next time I’m waiting for a transfer flight in Dallas, or in Denver, or in Chicago, I’m going to make a point to watch for soldiers in uniform. If one of them is eating alone and watching football on a wall-mounted television, I’ll anonymously pick up the check for them, like someone did for me once when I was in my desert fatigues and preparing to deploy overseas.


Maybe, just maybe, as I stand here in the quiet moonlight of Vermont, the American who will one day be the very last American soldier to die in Iraq — maybe that soldier is doing a night jump in Ft. Bragg, N.C. Each parachute opens its canopy over the darkness below — the wind an exhilaration, a cold rush of adrenaline, the jump an exercise in being fully alive and in the moment, a way of learning how it feels to fall within the rain, the way rain itself falls, to be a part of it all, the earth’s gravity pulling with its inexorable embrace.

October 24, 2007, 7:22 pm
Verses in Wartime (Part 2: From the Home Front)

By Brian Turner

In my last post, “Verses in Wartime (Part. 1: In-Country),” I shared some of the poems I wrote while deployed to Iraq as an infantry team leader. These were poems written in journals, usually late at night or in the predawn darkness, with a red-lensed flashlight illuminating the page (so as not to wake nearby soldiers racked out after completing our missions).

The poems I’d like to share today were written this month, specifically for this Home Fires installment, and they will surely go through several more drafts before I might consider them for a future collection, or book. I’d like to invite readers of this blog into that process.

When my book, “Here, Bullet,” was published, I told myself I would not write another book about war. I wanted instead to focus on expanding my own possibilities on the page. Then, my old unit returned to Iraq for what turned out to be a 15-month deployment. They sent e-mails detailing some of the situations they faced. Things began switching from the past tense to the present tense. This war felt as if it were surfacing in my everyday life. I was slow to recognize it at first. And at the same time, many of the poems I was writing didn’t seem to connect to my own interior life and the life I’ve been living, here in America.

I realized that the war doesn’t often seem to exist here in America. Or, does it? Maybe it was just that I wasn’t able to recognize it when it surfaces. I have since been writing poems which try to span the oceans with an imaginative bridgework over the horizon — to bring Americans into the dusty streets of Iraq; to bring Iraqis into American cities and into our homes. I’ll admit — it’s definitely a surreal move, one that I’m still working on, and one I invite comments on.

The Cemetery Poem

Michelle finds me long past midnight, shoveling
the grassy turf in our backyard, digging
three feet by six, determined to dig further.
And if she could love me enough
to trust me, to not cover her mouth
in shocked recognition, her hair lit up
in moonlight; if she could simply shovel
into the earth and dig another hole
beside me, straining to bear the weight
each blade lifts in its gunmetal sheen,
then maybe, if she could trust like that
she’d begin to see them — the war dead,
how they stand under lime trees and ash,
here among us, papyrus and stone in their hands.

There will be no dreaming for me.
Not tonight. I dig without stoppingand tell her—
We need to help them, if only with a coffin.

Michelle stares out at these blurry figures
in silhouette, the very young and the very old
among them, and with a gentle hand
she stays the shovel I hold, to say —
We should invite them into our home.
We should learn their names, their history.
We should know these people
we bury in the earth.

It’s important to have a deep appreciation and understanding of those dying in the war — to stand among civilians caught up in it and the combatants who’ve waged it, to see beyond the numbers and connect with them in a way that pushes beyond journalism and the factual. But the sheer numbers of dead are staggering. Imagine them all lined up outside your own home, waiting to introduce themselves to you. Many might try to suppress this idea (as the “I” character does in this poem by setting out to bury these ghosts as they stand there in the moonlight). If we learn who the dead are and what they were like, if we allow the dead their own unique humanity, we risk the possibility of being overwhelmed by loss. I believe that, as a country which has initiated war, we have no right to do otherwise.

Guarding the Bomber

With his legs gone, bandaged at mid-femur,
he palms the invisible above him like a conductor
in difficult passages of light, fluorescent and streaming,
two gauze-wrapped stumps directing movement
from his shoulders while I wipe salt from his lips
with a wet rag, checking the feeding tube, the I.V.
in his neck, listening to his morphined Arabic
as I imagine him lying there in the debris
and settling dust, his brain snapping back
into momentary consciousness, realizing
that his own feet — still in their sandals —
wait for him across the room, and that his hands —
driven beyond the body — negotiate
black wires and hot wires still, arming
explosives in a 155 mm shell casing,
much of his body unable to sweat, working here
beyond me and my thoughts of his Paradise,
wondering if the virgins will care for him
as I do, changing his bedpan, bathing him
with sponges and reassurances in English —
a language he hates, its vowels
a smooth sheen of oil on steel — no,
he’s far beyond my rifle and desert fatigues,
his ghost limbs dextrous and agile — he’s connecting
the many wires he sees within me, searching
for any flash of brilliance sealed within.

In the Quran, there is one section which discusses how there are a number of angels which must guard the pit of Hell so that those trapped within it cannot escape. What a horrible task something like that might be. As I read the passage, in an odd way it reminded me of when I was in Mosul. An Iraqi man (who had accidentally blown himself up while trying to create a roadside bomb) was placed in a room on the base, with a guard to watch over him (even though his arms and legs had been blown off), while he “recuperated.” I tried to write this poem first from that guard’s point of view, but the poem didn’t work because the medic and the guard had two very different stories to tell.

Many who read this might be offended or disturbed by this line of thinking — caring for those who would kill us — and I fully understand why this may well seem impossible and reprehensible. And I respect that fact. Still, the angels at the edge of the abyss — wouldn’t they want, at some point, to lift those trapped in Hell; to try, if in only the smallest of ways, to offer an alternative to pain and suffering; to try to influence the perceptions of those who would do us harm by showing kindness? If we can never forgive, if we forever guard the pit and lift no one out from the flames, what might that say about us? I’m not saying I’ve been able to do this — the poem is simply considering the idea.


Here is the whole blood we crave, that bloodstream of war blood, the darkened sidewalks of blood, explosions of roadside blood, shrapnel and bullet-borne blood, scorched asphalt blood, newspaper lifeblood, type O or A or B or AB negative, fire-engine blood, arterial gore blood, mantling blood, Akbar’s spilled blood, Allison’s blood, Abdula’s blood, Sadiq’s blood, Jamal’s blood, Joe’s sunset blood, Ali Baba’s red story of blood, corpuscle by corpuscle turned red as fire, red as copper, red as burning oil, red as history’s burning pages, red as the stammel-dyed civilians lying in the adrenaline streets, their skin turned russet — like the roughened skins of winter apples, wine-colored, vinaceous, lurid, in bloom and draining, the dead and the dying with their gift of blood, a river of blood, an overflowing cup of platelets and rust, an overflowing cup of suffering, an overflowing cup of transfusions, and all of it, every gallon of it, every pint, every spoonful, each precious drop we plunge into any vein that can take it, hypodermic and sweet, that sweet fix needle, our bomb-blast narcotic, this trauma-junkie’s delight.

after Campbell McGrath

In “Blood,” I wanted to meditate on the word “blood,” (I’m sure that part is obvious) but more than that — I wanted to meditate on how I often think about Iraq and Afghanistan and war overall. I remember being glued to television news reports during the opening weeks of the first Persian Gulf War. And there is an aspect of this — something dark and deep within the psyche — which I know I’m not very comfortable with: It’s the curiosity which leads drivers on the freeway to slow down near a car wreck in order to view the aftermath, the gore. It’s a disturbing part of human nature — a curiosity regarding death. As Chris Hedges writes in his book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”: “[W]ar is a drug, one I ingested for many years…The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”

Because I’m a news junky, I find myself constantly reading news reports and catching media programs on radio and TV. This poem attempts to acknowledge the part of that curiosity that is morbid and destructive, and finds heightened appreciation for life through a tenuous and fragile conduit — the experience of someone else’s loss.

I’d like to ask that people respond to this posting of poetry (if interested in the following idea) by offering up a request for a poem dealing with the Homes Fires theme. I like the idea of being given a challenging “assignment” by someone here in our country, or abroad, and taking up the pen to try to create something lasting and worthy of being read. It would be a collaboration that is definitely unique in my experience. How would you suggest approaching a poem with the intent to study the war that exists among us here in America?

Even more, I’d love to see the poems you write in response to that very same meditation.


As Dennis Miller once said while returning to the stage for an encore—this is the caboose’s lament…I thought I should update those of you who might have read my June Home Fire’s entry (“Vegas, Baby”) and wondered what has become of the young woman and the infant boy described in that story.

The young mother tried to go back to living with her own mother, only to find that her own mother (the one with a prison history and more) was doing drugs in the home. (She didn’t tell us this outright, but rather inferred it; I don’t think she wanted to indict her own mother.) So, she decided to check herself in to a six-month-long intensive program to deal with her own substance abuse issues. Her little boy is staying with her throughout the program.

I live in a different city at a distance of an hour away. So, when she is released from the program, Michelle and I have invited her to stay with us until she can get back on her own two feet, get a job, an apartment, and so on. We’re hoping to provide an environment that will help her to make healthier decisions for her and her baby. We’re hoping she’ll take us up on the offer.


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