MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
It's rarely easy coming home from the battlefield, and it's rarely easy for soldiers to express what they experienced. Some of them have, though, in a new book put out by the National Endowment for the Arts. On DAY TO DAY, we're excerpting parts of it for our new series, Operation Homecoming.
Our first story is from Army Major Robert Schaefer. He served in the First Gulf War. And a warning to listeners, the poem Major Schaefer reads in this story includes some violent imagery.
Major ROBERT SCHAEFER (U.S. Army): I'm a major, an Army Special Force officer otherwise known as the Green Berets. I've been all around the world. I've been in conflicts all over the place, and this poem is about something that I saw in the First Gulf War. It was not a fun thing to remember. It was something that kind of got buried, and I'd forgotten about it. And so when the second war started, and then all of a sudden, once again, I found myself in the middle of the desert with a war going on - and this came rushing back to me.
And unless I make it seem like, you know, there's something heroic or noble about this, I mean, this poem is also about a deep sense of shame that I felt because of that time that I hesitated. And, you know, it wasn't a long hesitation, but soldiers carry guilt with them in conflicts. So it was something that I needed to make sure that I was not going to do again.
(Reading) Yellow - or were they blue? White, red ribbon everywhere -stay out. But they were so small, plastic, barely three inches across. They didn't look deadly. Two soldiers wandered in, curious. One said, I wonder what would happen if, and gingerly tapped one with the toe of his boots, which then evaporated in a pink, frothy cloud. A bubble gum pop, then cotton candy chunks arcing lazily through the air, landing with little wet thumps, muffled by the sand. Then, he died - just like that, just that quickly. One moment he was alive and curious, and the next, he was just a scattering.
But the second was still alive. And so, to help him - without thinking -others ran into that minefield: pop, pop. We, too, now running, and I, fastest, first, frozen by the sight of so much crimson-soaked clothing. I didn't know where to start. Covered with the blood of others, later, I was mistaken as a casualty myself. But I would not let them take my uniform. They would still live as long as evidence of them remained on my sleeves, torn as they grasped for a few extra moments.
The most tragic thing about this incident is that it happened, actually, after the war was over. At the time, we were with some coalition forces - my Special Forces team - and we were bringing them back from, essentially, the war. And they were in a very long column of armored personnel carriers, tanks. And we were going through well-marked lanes through a minefield. And somebody kind of tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. And there were two coalition soldiers kind of walking amongst these mines.
And when something like that happens, it's kind of like your life goes into slow motion, because the first thought that comes to you is that this shouldn't be happening. And why are they there? It's a clearly marked place. They know not to go in there, but they didn't look deadly. They looked like little, plastic, round, almost like snuff cans.
And I don't know if we were yelling at them to get out of there, or whatever, but even though we were about 100 meters away, you could hear his words as he looked at the other guy. And it was, essentially, wonder what would happen if. And then you saw him kind of very slowly reach out and put his foot down on that mine. And then pandemonium broke loose because then, as soon as the explosion happened, many of those other coalition soldiers just ran into that minefield to give aid. And then, of course, there were more casualties.
And we did the same thing at that point. We sprinted up those lanes as fast as we could. And then we went into the minefield as well - being careful, obviously, not to step on them. And that's when I came up on that soldier and he - his uniform was completely red. And I've seen injuries before, and I am a well-trained Special Forces soldier, and we know how to do these things. And yet, that guy, I just didn't know where to start. I didn't know what to do, and I froze.
And I think the medic, then, ran up behind me and slapped me on the soldier and yelled at me to do something, to get busy. And so I began helping him. But I felt an overwhelming sense of shame that after all of this very good and very expensive training, that - not that I could have done anything for him, yet at the same time, I felt like I failed him.
And I wrote it down because I think what we try and do is we make beautiful things. That is kind of what it is that we're supposed to do, maybe, in life. Why poetry? I don't know.
(Soundbite of music)
BRAND: Major Robert Schaefer's poem is called "Clusters." Major Schaefer is still in the Army, and he is still writing
For more in our series and the book, "Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front," visit our Web site, npr.org. The series is produced by Barrett Golding of hearingvoices.com.
Next week, a story by Commander Edward Jewell. He's a Navy doctor who served on the hospital ship, Comfort, at the start of the Iraq War.
Commander EDWARD JEWELL (U.S. Navy): The number of patients coming aboard Comfort now is simply out of control. Like the characters on "MASH," we have grown to hate the rumble of helos on the flight deck, since it usually means another load of Iraqi patients. Today, we received at least 35 more. New, in the last 24 hours, is a big influx of sick and injured children. And no one seems to have a handle on where the patients are coming from, when they are arriving, or who is sending them.
BRAND: A ship called Comfort, next week in Part Two of our series, Operation Homecoming.