'Operation Homecoming': The Writings of WarWhen editor Andrew Carroll first read Ryan Alexander's "The Cat," the startling imagery of the former Marine's poem took his breath away. After all, troops aren't known for readily sharing their innermost feelings — certainly not with a wide audience.
When editor Andrew Carroll first read Ryan Alexander's "The Cat," the startling imagery of the former Marine's poem took his breath away. After all, troops aren't known for readily sharing their innermost feelings — certainly not with a wide audience.
Carroll compiled a collection called Operation Homecoming, writings from those who've been to Iraq or Afghanistan, and the families back home. The book is part of a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
"I never expected what Ryan wrote ...." Carroll tells Renee Montagne as part of a series of conversations on war and literature.
"You have this very stoic culture in the armed forces, where they're not encouraged to and there isn't a lot of expressing oneself," Carroll says. "You do what you're told, essentially, and there aren't a lot of opportunities to say, 'Here's how I feel about that.'"
For Alexander, "The Cat," about a pregnant feline that adopted him, came out of his experience while stationed in Mosul, Iraq, his barracks under frequent mortar fire.
"The thought of my own mortality was pretty heavy on my mind," he says.
Carroll says that for those who have been to war, writing can be a cathartic experience.
"I think for so many veterans — and I've gotten to talk to troops going back to World War II and to Korea and Vietnam — it takes them years, decades even, to go back and look at their old letters and to confront what they've been through because the memories are so painful for some of them.
"But I think that they realize the cathartic value of getting these emotions out, putting them on paper, sharing them with others. And that's what encouraged so many troops to share these materials."
In April 2004, twenty-eight-year-old Ryan Alexander deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army's Stryker Brigade Combat Team. (Alexander had served in the U.S. Marine Corps but was honorably discharged in 2001. When Operation Iraqi Freedom began, he volunteered to work with the SBCT as a civilian. The specifics of his job cannot be disclosed.) Alexander wrote the following poem about a cat he encountered soon after he arrived in Mosul.
She came to me skittish, wild. The way you're meant to be, surrounded by cruelty. I did not blame her. I would do the same.
A pregnant cat, a happy distraction; some sort of normal thing. Calico and innocent.
The kittens in her belly said feed me.
And I did.
She crept with careful eye, Body held low to the dirt, Snagged a bite, And carried it just far enough away.
She liked the MREs, the beef stew, the chicken breast, the barbeque pork, but she did not like canned sardines. I do not blame her. I would do the same.
She came around again and again finally deciding that I was no threat, that this big man wasn't so bad.
I was afraid to touch her as the docs warned us. Iraqi animals were carriers of flesh-eating disease. I donned a plastic glove and was the first to pet this wild creature who may be
the one true heart and mind that America had won over.
After a while I forgot the glove and enjoyed the tactile softness of short fur, flesh-eating bacteria be damned.
Her belly swelled for weeks and she disappeared for some days until her kittens were safely birthed
in the shallow of a rusted desk in the ruins that lined the road behind us.
She came around again slim with afterbirth still matted to her hind legs.
She would return, but not quite as often. She came to eat and for attention, but there was nursing to be done.
One day she crept up with a kitten in her mouth. She dropped it at my foot and stared up at me; she expected something, but there was nothing I could do. The young black and white kitten was dead, its eyes not yet opened.
It looked like some shriveled old wise thing, completely still, mouth puckered, small body curled and limp.
She let me take the baby without a fight. She knew, but seemed unaffected.
She had fetched me a gift, a lesson, among the worried nights, shot nerves from poorly aimed mortar rounds:
Everything dies. The evil, the innocent, her baby and me.
I thought I should say a prayer and bury this poor little thing, but I did for it what will be done for me. I laid it in the burn can amongst the ash and said I'm sorry.
ROAD WORK Personal Narrative — Staff Sergeant Jack Lewis
In February 2005, forty-one-year-old U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sergeant Jack Lewis witnessed the aftermath of a late-night crash involving a nineteen-ton Stryker armored vehicle (call sign "Rattlesnake Six-Seven") and a small car. While Lewis had seen shocking acts of violence and bloodshed during his deployment with Tactical Psychological Operations Detachment 1290, 1-25 SBCT (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), nothing had struck him as hard emotionally as the suffering caused by this collision.
I never heard the boom-CRUNCH, only imagined it later. There was strong braking, followed by a great deal of shouting. Our Stryker moaned through its monstrous air brakes and then bumped, heaved, and finally ground itself to a halt.
"Six-Seven's in the ditch!"
"Did they roll it?"
"No, they're up. I think they're disabled."
"Where's the colonel? Is the colonel's vehicle okay?"
The colonel's vehicle was okay.
The major said that we would need a combat lifesaver. It wasn't combat.
There were no lives left to save. But I dug out the CLS bag, because you never know, do you? And walked across a pitch dark highway. Somebody was wailing in Arabic, hypnotically, repetitiously.
A single car headlight was burning, a single shaft of light beaming across the road like an accusing finger. When tactical spotlights suddenly illuminated the little car, we found the source of the wailing.
He was an older man with a silver beard, a monumental, red-veined nose, and a big, thick wool overcoat. He was hopping like a dervish, bowing rapidly from the waist and throwing his arms to the sky, then to his knees, over and over again in a kind of elaborate dance of grief.
Down the road a hundred meters or so, Six-Seven's vehicle commander and air guards had dismounted and were standing around in the ditch. Nobody had started smoking yet.
I walked to the car with an Air Force sergeant and moved the older man aside as gently as possible. He was built like a blacksmith, powerful through the neck and shoulders.
It's hard to describe what we found in the car. It had been a young man, only moments earlier that night. A cop or a fireman or a soldier would have simply said, "It's a mess in there." I used to be a fireman. I'm a soldier now. It was as bad a mess as I've seen.
I'm not a medic. We didn't have one with us. It's still my responsibility to preserve life. So I squeezed into the crumpled passenger area, sat on the shattered glass, and tried to take the pulse from his passenger-side arm (nothing) and his neck (nothing). I thought about CPR, but only for a moment. His left arm was mostly torn off, and the left side of his head was flattened.
Up on the highway, GIs walked around, gave and took orders. By the car, the victim's father still capered madly, throwing his arms around, crying out to God or anyone. I asked him, in my own language, to come with me, to calm down, to let me help him. I put my arm around him and guided the old Arab to the road. I sat him on the cold ramp of our Stryker and tried to assess his injuries. It seemed impossible that he could be only as superficially scratched up as he appeared. His hand was injured, bruised or possibly broken, and he had a cut on his left ear. I wrapped a head bandage onto him and tied it gently in back. It looked like a traditional headdress with a missing top. Every few seconds he would get animated, and I would put my hand firmly on his shoulder. He would not hold still long enough for me to splint his arm.
"Why can't he shut up?"
"You ever lose a kid?" This is a pointless question to ask a soldier who's practically a kid himself.
We moved him into the Stryker, assuring him that no, we weren't arresting him. But he didn't care. Whenever he started to calm down, he would look toward the car and break into wails. I sat next to him, put my arm around his shoulder, tried to keep him from jumping around enough to hurt himself or a soldier. I held him tightly with my right arm. By the next morning, my shoulder would be on fire.
Forty minutes later a medic arrived.
"What's his status, sergeant?"
"He has a cut on his left earlobe. I think his hand is broken." (I think his heart is broken.)
"Roger. Okay, I got this."
"Thanks." (Bless you for what you do every day, doc.)
I got out of the way, letting the old guy go for the first time in almost an hour. He started wailing again almost immediately. While the medic worked on him, the colonel's interpreter came over and fired a few questions at the man. It sounded like an interrogation.
They had been on their way back to Sinjar, just a few miles away. The younger man had been taking his father back from shopping. They were minutes from home.
We didn't find any weapons in the car—either piece of it. There was no propaganda, nor were there false IDs. If we had stopped these people at a checkpoint, we would have thanked them and let them go on.
The young man had been a student. Engineering. With honors. Pride of the family. What we like to think of as Iraq's future.
Finally, I had to ask, "What does he keep saying?"
The terp looked at me, disgusted, resigned, or maybe just plain tired. "He says to kill him now."
The colonel came over and asked the medic if he could sedate the man with morphine.
"No, sir. Morphine won't help."
"Well, can't you give him something to calm him down? I mean, this is unacceptable."
I walked away and lit a Gauloise. A sergeant came up next to me, smoking. I didn't say anything. After a few moments in the black quiet, I overheard him say, "It wasn't anyone's fault. It was just an accident."
"I know." Inhale. Cherry glow. Long exhale. "Why we gotta drive in blackout—here—I don't get."
"If Six-Seven had turned their lights on a couple of seconds earlier..."
"Yeah. I know." And he went to help carry the young man's remains into the sudden light show of ambulances and police jeeps, surrounded by young Arabic men with steely eyes.
The supersized staff sergeant who mans the .50 cal on our truck walked down the road to kick a little ass and get Six-Seven's recovery progress back on track. Within a few minutes, they had it hooked up. It would be two weeks before that Stryker would roll outside the wire again, this in an environment where trucks totaled by IEDs are welded back together and sent again into harm's way in mere hours.
I went and sat on the back gate of the Stryker. I felt the cold creep into me. The old man sat next to me, perhaps too tired to continue his tirade against cruel Fate, careless Americans, war and its accidents.
I haven't lost a full-grown son, just a little daughter. A baby. And she wasn't torn from me in a terror of rending steel, stamped out by a sudden monster roaring out of the night. She went so quietly that her passing never woke her mother. I like to think she kissed her on the way out, on her way home.
But still, sitting on the steel tail of the monster that killed his son, I think I knew exactly how one Iraqi man felt.
"Just kill me now."
We sat and looked straight into the lights.
A JOURNEY TAKEN WITH MY SON E-mails — Myrna E. Bein
At about 7:00 a.m. on the morning of May 2, 2004, Myrna Bein learned from her ex-husband that their twenty-six-year-old son, Charles, a U.S. Army infantryman, had barely survived an ambush in Iraq a few hours earlier. Charles had been riding in a five-truck convoy in Kirkuk when insurgents detonated a roadside bomb and then unleashed a barrage of gunfire on the American soldiers scrambling out of their crippled, flaming vehicles. One soldier was shot in the head, and ten others were injured. Metal fragments from the initial blast shredded the lower half of Charles's right leg, and he was ultimately flown to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for long-term care. Charles's mother and his stepfather, Tom, visited him regularly in the hospital, and from the morning she heard the news about her son, Myrna Bein began e-mailing friends and family with updates on Charles's progress—as well as her own state of mind. The first time that Bein saw her son was on Sunday, May 9, 2004—Mother's Day.
Yesterday afternoon I was finally able to see, touch, hug, kiss and comfort my precious son. He arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., on Saturday evening, May 8, at around 11 p.m. I got a call from the Red Cross informing me he was there within thirty minutes of his arrival. Charles called me around 6 a.m. on Sunday, May 9, to tell me he was scheduled for yet another surgical procedure that day and for Tom and I to delay our initial visit until afternoon....
When I first saw my son, I did not recognize him. His face was very thin and drawn and he had about a week's growth of beard. There was a lot of pain in his eyes. He grabbed my hand and would not let it go.... I'm a Registered Nurse and I've seen a lot of people with amputations, so I know what to expect. But seeing my son's less than half a leg for the first time, wrapped up in that big, bulky surgical bandage, was an experience of indescribable grief. Seeing him maneuver so awkwardly in bed, and seeing the pain that he was experiencing, just to do the simplest activity, was something I had tried to prepare myself for, but now I don't think I could have ever been prepared....
Charles held my hand and talked extensively to Tom and me. Much of what he said, including thoughts and impressions, he did not want repeated to anyone. He has begun to express that he would like to stay in the Army, if possible, after he is fitted with his prosthesis and finishes his rehabilitation. According to Charles, his orthopedic surgeons have told him they believe he could do that, with a different MOS other than Infantry.
It's strange and ironic how my perceptions of what is "good" have changed since May 2. I don't have the awful feeling of personal dread watching the news on television or reading the newspaper now, because my son is not over there anymore in that hell hole. He's no longer trying to survive the politics or the fanaticism or the insanity that is Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, when I go to Walter Reed, I think how fortunate he is to have "only" lost his leg. As I've gone to visit him at Walter Reed, I've walked many times by the neurotrauma unit and said a prayer of thanks that he's not in there with a brain or spinal cord injury. Over the past three weeks on the orthopedic surgery ward, I've seen so many beautiful young men with such horribly mutilating injuries from this war: the Marine across the hall, with both arms gone up to his elbows plus a leg gone below the knee from a rocket propelled grenade; the young man in the patient computer room, typing out his E-mail with the one hand he has left. The almost ghostly apparition of a 20-something soldier I met on the sidewalk in front of the hospital one dusky evening, with a prosthesis on his left arm almost up to his shoulder, and his other arm absent at the same level, so affected me I had to stop and compose myself before I went in to Charles.
I'm not a sage, or a politician, or anyone with answers to all the hard questions. I'm just a mother. I know what I'm feeling down in my soul is what countless other mothers have felt over the centuries. I know the mothers in Iraq and Afghanistan feel the same thing. It's a timeless and universal grief. I see it in the eyes of the other women I meet at Walter Reed; that semi-shocked, "I'm trying to be brave and hold it all together" look. We recognize each other.
I know I'm going through a "normal" emotional process, but it feels pretty awful at times. It's not always like this; I know I'm tired and I had a bad night. I do feel God's love all around me, even in the midst of the suffering. I know that things will get better and that there will be blessings that spring from this experience for Charles, for me, and for others. There are already blessings and I am so thankful for each and every one of them. Most of all, I'm thankful to still have my son.
A sock did me in a few nights ago, a plain white sock. I'm doing so much better with the grief, but sometimes I just get blindsided again in a totally unexpected way. Some memory or sharp realization will prick at the places healing in my heart, and I feel the grief wash over me in a massive wave. Sometimes I almost feel I could double over with the pain of it. That's what happened with the sock.
I had brought Charles' soiled clothes home from Walter Reed to wash. Everything had gone through the wash and dry cycles and I had dumped the freshly laundered clothes onto the bed to fold them. It was late and I was quite weary, so I wanted to finish and get to bed to try for a better night's sleep than I've been having lately. I found one sock... just one. I folded all the rest of the clothes and still, just one sock. Without even thinking, I walked back to the laundry room and searched the dryer for the mate. Nothing was there. I looked between the washer and dryer and all around the floor, in case I'd dropped the other sock somewhere during the loading and unloading processes. Still, my tired and pre-occupied brain didn't get it. As I walked back to the bedroom with the one sock in hand, it hit me like a punch to the gut. There was no other sock. There was also no other foot, or lower leg, or knee. I stood there in my bedroom and clutched that one clean sock to my breast and an involuntary moan came from my throat; but it originated in my heart.
It's now been sixteen weeks since Charles was wounded in Iraq. Life goes on and things settle down. Charles is very stable physically now. His right leg is totally healed and the stump continues to atrophy and decrease in size. The scars on both of his legs from the surgeries and the shrapnel remain red and very noticeable, but are beginning to fade a bit. He has put on a bit more weight and looks much healthier. Now he's in the midst of the long hard slog of learning to live with the chronic remaining pain, adapting to a prosthetic leg, and learning to achieve an active life again. On August 1st, he was in New York City with about twenty other soldiers from Walter Reed who were invited there by the Achilles Track Club to participate in a 5K race. Charles participated in the race on a hand cycle, as he's not yet able to attempt running. He finished the course and enjoyed the trip very much.
Charles' attitude remains generally very positive and he considers himself to be one of the "lucky ones." I know that's true as I travel back and forth to Walter Reed and see more and more wounded there. There are so many of them with terrible burns, often multiple amputations, deep and ragged scars, and mutilations. I still find myself especially shocked when I see the young female soldiers who are so severely wounded. This war has no front line and everywhere is a combat zone. There is no "safer place." ...
At times I have to stop and compose myself before I go into Mologne House to meet Charles. Last week I had one of those times when I met a young father out with his two little sons. He had all of a leg missing and was pushing himself along in a wheelchair. His younger son, about three, was sitting on the young father's lap, while his brother, about five, skipped along beside the moving wheelchair. There are many other heart-rending sights and many shocking mutilations, but I will spare you the details. It's a humbling experience to move about the Walter Reed complex. The gritty determination of these wounded and the support they offer to each other puts a lot of the other details of daily life in clearer perspective. Regardless of your politics or how you may feel about this war, these wounded, and the dead, are an inescapable reality. I pray to God that we as a nation don't forget the sacrifices that are being made on our behalf. From now on, Veteran's Day will be a great deal more meaningful to me than just a day to take off from work and to fly the flag, if I remember.
I keep thinking a time will come when it doesn't hurt so much to watch Charles struggling to recover. Watching what is left of his right leg withering up and growing ever smaller is something I know is normal, but in my dreams at night I see him at about seventeen, running so smoothly and beautifully, and when I awake to reality I know how cruel this new "normal" is. Sometimes, still, when I see him I find my heart clutching and I have to take a deep breath and swallow hard to keep the tears at bay. My tears won't help him; hopefully my support and encouragement will.
God's peace to you all,
In January 2005, a review board of Army physicians recommended that Charles be medically discharged because of his disability. Charles, however, successfully appealed the decision, and received a waiver so that he could stay in the Army. (He was promoted to sergeant in April 2006.) Knowing that he couldn't continue serving as an infantryman, he changed his specialty to military intelligence and was selected to begin studying to become an Arabic translator. His goal is to serve again in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever else he is needed.