02/02/2012 08:56 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2012

Using Poetry to Make Sense of War Trauma

I didn't understand what I was experiencing the first few times that I relived the day that PFC Ara Deysie died. One moment I would be sitting in a restaurant or driving to Chapel Hill, and the next I was watching through a young man's eyes as the first round struck the dirt behind the truck in front of me. The ambush would sneak up on me when I was busy with some menial task at work, or when I was relaxed and drinking with friends. Gradually I realized that nowhere was safe.

I had visions of the unfolding of the attack in Chicago's streets, a Target parking lot, and my uncle's home. I clawed my way back from the choking smell of explosives and blood on evenings at jazz clubs, and when I watched ridiculous movies like "Iron Man." I wanted to listen to Afro-Caribbean tunes and laugh at Hollywood's almost sexual obsession with the military industrial complex. And usually I did. But some nights it didn't work out that way.

The first step on the road to healing was admitting that there was something wrong. A few months later I finally walked into my Chaplain's office and told him that I needed his help with something. He gave good advice; find someone you trust and talk to them until the memories start to make sense. So I did, and I am forever indebted to the one who listened. With that, the flashbacks ended, but I don't just want the upsurge of emotion to stop. I want to take charge of my experiences and harness them so that I can understand this life and the messed up things that war has shown me.

At first this desire to channel the fury of my memories was focused on writing articles about Afghanistan and combat ethics. These were steps forward. However, when I want to express the way that the loss of my father changed how I saw the night sky in the mountains of the Afghan border, I know that an editorial about defense policy isn't going to help very much.

For millennia soldiers and civilians have turned to poetry to help explain the horrors and ecstasies of war. Unfortunately, whether we like to admit it or not, U.S. infantrymen have been given the idea that poetry isn't for tough guys. It's our loss as a culture because many of the words that could help us to make sense of the results of our society's pride have never been set to paper. But it's also our loss as soldiers because it has robbed many of us of the chance to explain ourselves, and maybe to grasp what it means to be so fiercely human that we are willing to kill each other and to die.

To those of you who have been in my shoes; even if you never show anyone what you write, trust me, it makes a difference. And if you want to share what you've written, please let me know. I'd love nothing more than to read the verses of my fellow Afghanistan veterans. To show you that I'm being serious about this, I'm including a draft that I've been working on. If we work together on this, I'm convinced that we can find someone interested in publishing poetry from the Afghan front. We might all be surprised by how many people would want to read it.

To Dad

I suddenly felt the urge to tell you Dad,
about the view I had of the peak of Sheykh Maray
as I waited until the helicopters came
to destroy the bombs we found in the bottoms.
But you're resting now in the dirt by your granddad's church,
and I can never explain
the beauty of the midnight stars from that windbitten ridge,
and how the clouds made a river in the valley below me
reflecting the cold glow of the moon up to my nest among the rocks.
I looked out at the embers of campfires across the gulf,
and I may as well be whispering to those distant sleepers
curled among their sheep and their long axes,
shivering away the chill of that summer night
on an island a mile across a sea of mist,
and pine,
at least I can imagine they might hear me,
now that you're gone.

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