Sunday, March 25, 2012

Afghan Massacre: Q & attempted A

I received some thoughtful questions on my last blog post about the March 11 Afghanistan massacre, and I’m going to try my best to answer them. I apologize in advance for my inability to do so adequately. They’re hard questions. I also apologize (and warn you) that this is very long. They’re hard questions that cannot possibly be addressed briefly. (Or maybe I’m just trying to dazzle and confound you with my rhetoric.)

Please also remember that my perspective is limited – I’m just ONE public affairs officer who served ONE nine-month tour in ONE tiny corner of Afghanistan. I encourage everyone to research these issues, talk to others who’ve “been there/done that,” enhance your sphere of knowledge.

In the meantime, here's my 3 cents . . .

I would like to hear a bit more about how the military handles information about things like this. The military has released very little information on the incident. It seems that the lack of official, confirmed information on the incident could lead one to regard all accounts as rumor. I read that soldiers with knowledge such as the suspect's identity or other details of the incident are strictly forbidden from communicating, even with loved ones who may be worried about them. Therefore, civilians might be a more accessible source of information. What effect does this have? Is this an appropriate way of handling it? In your former job, what would you have been called upon to do to control the flow of information?

The cop out answer is the military handles information like this very carefully, and the response is situation dependant. When it comes to public affairs, there’s a bit of push-and-pull. Rumors are bad. We want to fill the information void first in order to mitigate them. But, we also don’t want to fill the void with speculation and half-truths, and prior to an investigation (and often even after an investigation) speculation and half-truths are all there is. Something I dealt with in the military, and something I face again as a nonfiction writer . . . is there ever such a thing as Truth with a capital T?

My experience with incidents of this serious nature is fortunately pretty limited, but in general, when the $*&% hits the fan, public affairs will:

Draft a press release. The initial press release is never sufficient in explaining what happened, because there is never enough “confirmed” information available. A press release, in a complicated, foggy situation like this, is essentially an admission that something happened and a promise that the military is taking it seriously and will launch an investigation to learn more – which can take months or even years, and people (understandably) don’t like to wait that long. For the initial press release, there are rules that dictate what information is releasable in order to ensure, to the extent possible, security of those involved, accuracy of information, adherence to policy, and propriety of information released (which forms the catchy acronym SAPP).

For example, in an incident where casualties are involved, no names are released until 24 hours after the next of kin have been officially notified. This is for the same reason that communications are suspended: Loved ones deserve to have their hearts broken by official military representatives standing on their porch in dress uniforms, not by a frantic phone call or a speculative news report. I was on the home station end of a casualty notification and got a behind-the-scenes peek at how this process works – it’s something the military is committed to handling professionally and as delicately as possible. The communication suspension absolutely sucks and absolutely has the potential to breed worry (and, yes, rumor) but I do believe it’s absolutely necessary. I can’t help but think that in the case of the accused Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the information trickled so slowly in an effort to protect his family. I don’t envy those who had to break the hearts of his wife and two small children. I don't envy the wife and children for what they must now endure.

After the notifications are made, public affairs offers to assist the family. The media barrage comes quickly. Reporters can camp out on the sidewalk outside the family home, ambush them on their way to the mailbox. Sometimes people are okay with that. Sometimes they even seek out media interaction as a way of expressing themselves or honoring/defending their loved ones. Everyone deals with grief differently. For those who are, understandably, overwhelmed, public affairs can be the buffer. We can be the equivalent of lawyers escorting the family into a closed courtroom: My client has no further comment.

Public affairs personnel serve as official spokespeople. It’s their contact info on the press release, their quotes in the media, their phones ringing off the hook. All other military personnel are directed not to respond if they’re questioned about the incident, to refer all inquiries to
public affairs. Again, this is a double-edged sword. It’s necessary to have a spokesperson who has access to the most up-to-date information, who knows what to and what not to release, and who is trained to handle the prying questions that inevitably come. The concern with having a military person speak to any issue is the perception that their viewpoints represent that of the military as a whole. So, yes, spokespeople are necessary. But at the same time, taking away a person’s ability to speak his mind has potentially damaging secondary effects. As much as it seems like it sometimes, the military is not full of brainwashed, unfeeling androids. Not everyone always agrees with the “party line.” I personally had some ethical conflicts with what I believed versus what my job dictated I said and did (it’s damn hard being an information filter), and I know that contributed to me self-isolating and closing myself off emotionally. Stifling expression can lead to pent up emotions, which can lead to emotional trauma and emotional outbursts.

So how do you find a balance? How do you reconcile a military that must require its members to forfeit some level of personal freedom in order to complete the mission, with the emotional strain that can result? I wish I knew the answer. I wish anyone did.

While most of your post added to my understanding of the situation, I still don't understand what you mean when you say you understand why he did what he did. If demons are to blame, what are their names? How, specifically, do they affect soldiers? Are you suggesting the soldier might plead not-guilty for reasons of temporary insanity do to his role in the war? Is this the case for all soldiers? Where, in your opinion does the line lie between soldier and murderer (not legally speaking, but in terms of the mentality needed to commit the act of killing someone) and what causes a person to cross it? Do shortcomings in training or support for soldiers contribute? What could we do, and what should our military do, to deal with and prevent such incidents?

First of all, I want to clarify that I in no way condone Sgt. Bales’ alleged actions. I don’t know why he did what he did, and, demons are no demons, there is no justification for murder. But I understand how war can screw with your head, screw with your emotions; I understand how it can make you “snap.” Did Sgt. Bales snap? I don’t know. Did he have demons, after three tours in Iraq? Absolutely.

There are many demons, and I can’t speak to all of them. Here some I’ve experienced:

Paranoia – you have to be paranoid in a war zone. You have to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Complacency, hesitation can mean death. Even those who don’t have a direct combat role (with a few Geneva Convention noncombatant exceptions) are trained to kill, because war can turn life and death in a flash. I mostly worked a desk job, but I carried two weapons and I knew how to use them. Just knowing makes your hands twitch. It makes your mind spin, lurching for the chance to translate training into action, turning shadowed corners and sudden noises into attackers, molding suspicion from every conversation. War is sensory overload. Paranoia burrows under your skin. It’s impossible to leave it completely behind, even when the warzone is gone.

Compounded stress – the Siamese twin of paranoia. The threat of death every day is pretty stressful. A job that directly feeds into national security is pretty stressful. Having hundreds of people all up in your business all day every day is pretty stressful. And a lot of traditional coping mechanisms (binging on comfort food, hanging out with friends, going to the gym, taking a day off, drinking) are not necessarily available in a combat zone. So the stress builds.

Frustration – with everything. With the lack of progress. With the little progresses that no one talks about. With corruption, foot-dragging and selfish motivations on the Afghan side. With bureaucratic red tape on the U.S. side. With leadership decisions and indecisions. With waking up every morning and still being in Afghanistan. With everything you’re missing at home. With confusion over what exactly you’re supposed to be doing and how you’re supposed to be doing it. With no one to talk to – and even if there is someone, with no way to possibly explain how you feel. With the same dry, overcooked chicken breast again in the chow hall. With sheer masses of people and no privacy. With outside conversations about war limited to the budget deficit and troop strength numbers. With being a face behind the numbers no one sees. With saying and writing things everyone sees.

Anger – at everyone. At all the people behind the frustrations. At yourself for being angry and frustrated and paranoid. At the local Afghan coalition employees who stockpiled cell phones, wires and batteries – three ingredients in homemade bombs – in an old latrine. At the other “innocent civilians” who plant roadside bombs, who dress in Afghan Security Force uniforms and infiltrate the forces to kill their NATO trainers, who strap suicide vests to their chests. At the godforsaken country of Afghanistan for holding you hostage. At the U.S. for playing World Police and sending you there in the first place. At yourself for being so idealistic and setting yourself up for disappointment. At everything for disappointing you.

Guilt – it’s not a rational feeling, but it’s there, inherent in the what ifs. What if I could have prevented [bad thing] from happening? What if I could have enabled [good thing] to happen/last longer/be better? What if I had done more, tried harder, anticipated better, moved faster, learned quicker? When it comes down to it, most things in a warzone are out of individual control, but that’s hard to accept. The military preaches control. In many ways, the military is a bubble of control. So when, individually, you feel controlless, it’s disorienting. Admitting a lack of control feels like failure, and failure in the military can mean a lot of bad things. And bad things mean guilt.

The big, obvious demon is one I thankfully I don’t know personally: what the military describes as witnessing or experiencing an event that involves threatened or actual serious injury or death. Yes, death is a part of war. Everyone knows that. But knowing can’t prepare you for experiencing. We all know our pets will die some day, but we still get sad when they do. Now, multiply that feeling by about a zillion. Regardless of its inevitability, nothing can steel you to witness the violent slaughter of a human being. There is nothing “natural” about death in war. And in its aftermath, there’s no time to grieve. When a plane from Hurlburt Field crashed in Afghanistan a couple years ago, killing two crew members, the squadron ceased flying for 24 hours to allow friends and colleagues to grieve. For a whole day. Then they were up flying again, maneuvering multi-million dollar equipment, carrying weapons, executing national security strategy. Because war is bigger than the individual.

But is the individual bigger – stronger – than war?

Reportedly, the day prior to his shooting spree, Sgt. Bales witnessed a buddy get his legs blown off. To this piece of information, The Independent columnist Robert Fisk responded: “So what?” If I met Mr. Fisk, I would be really tempted to punch him in the face. Hopefully instead I would have the peace of mind to tell him this: In the military, your battle buddies are more than comrades, they’re more than friends. They’re people you trust with your life and who trust you with theirs. When Sgt. Bales saw his buddy’s legs blown off – probably by a roadside bomb planted by an “innocent civilian” – he witnessed the near death and serious maiming of one of the most important people in his life, and someone who, if the order of march had been slightly different, could have been Bales himself. There is nothing “so what” about that.

Will Sgt. Bales make a temporary insanity plea? Should he? I don’t know. All I know is that war is a crazy thing and it makes everyone who experiences it at least a little crazy.

The military knows this, too. They knew it before 16 civilians were murdered on March 11. In his column, Fisk references a speech by the International Security Assistance Force commander, Gen. John Allen, after two U.S. soldiers were killed in retaliation for the Koran burnings at a U.S. military base last month. On Feb. 23, the general, who’s in charge of all U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, told a group of soldiers:
“There will be moments like this when your emotions are governed by anger and a desire to strike back. Now is not the time for revenge. Now is not the time for vengeance. Now is the time to look deep inside your souls, remember your mission, remember your discipline, remember who you are."

That’s a nice speech. It’s a true speech. It’s also a terrible speech because it’s a necessary speech. Fisk expressed concern that General Allen had to plead with a “supposedly well-disciplined, elite, professional army” not to commit murder. My concern is that the general’s words acknowledge a military that has become so tired, so frustrated, so battered, bruised and scarred that it has created an environment that could breed murder. And my concern is that military leadership thinks pleading is enough to prevent it. Obviously – 16 deaths later – it’s not.

I do believe there are shortcomings in training and support. But at the same time, how can you possibly prepare people mentally and emotionally for war? You can make them proficient on weapons, send them on 20-mile ruck marches to “toughen them up,” make them perform menial tasks to “instill discipline,” sleep deprive them and put them through strenuous exercises in manufactured “high stress” environments, break them down, build them up. All this will make them stronger. But there’s no possible way to ensure they’re strong enough. War is the final exam, and not all the answers are in the book.

Orders don’t sound the same when they’re life or death. The weight of a rifle changes when pointed at a human. A uniform feels different when stained with blood. An enemy’s blood. A buddy’s. Your own. No training can prepare someone for these moments. No training can prepare someone for the emotional aftermath.

So then the question becomes, how do we clean up the aftermath? How do we prevent other Sgt. Bales’ from “snapping”? The first step, I believe, is talking about it. Easier said than done. The military has a long-seeded stigma around mental health care. After all, people with “mental health” issues shouldn’t be serving on the front lines, right? People in the military should be self-sufficient, competent, composed, right? People in the military should suck it up and deal with it because “service before self,” right?

It’s gotten better. My mom served as an Army nurse in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and when her unit returned home, no one asked how they were faring mentally. No one encouraged them to “get help” if they needed it. Now, all returning troops fill out a post-deployment health questionnaire intended to flag mental health concerns and other potential issues. But it’s common knowledge people often lie on these questionnaires. I did. I didn’t want to report to alcohol abuse counseling because it was embarrassing and I didn’t see my nightly tipsiness as a problem. And thankfully, I could pull myself out of that gutter and it wasn’t a serious problem. Not everyone is so lucky.

Oftentimes, symptoms don’t emerge until weeks or months after deployment. For me, it
was 97 days. If/when symptoms do emerge, it’s up to the individual to self report. Many people aren’t willing to do this. Because of the stigma. Because of that horrible feeling of walking through the doors labeled “Mental Health” when your nametag broadcasts to everyone who you are, and your rank broadcasts how strong you’re supposed to be. Because of fear of negative career repercussions. Because of fear of not being able to deploy, of being left behind while your unit deploys, of not being there to protect your buddies and feeling that terrible, gnawing guilt. Because you think you’re tough enough to deal with it because the military has always told you that you need to be.

In a way, you do need to be tough enough – that’s what makes this so tough. War is not for the weak. In a perfect world, soldiers would be strong enough to push through it when they’re at war, and strong enough to stop pushing when they get back; to seek help, to work through and intellectualize, to make peace with their experiences. But turning emotions on and off is not that easy. Especially when the military’s switch is perpetually stuck in “off.”

Beyond the stigma, there are numbers. Every military member represents a number in a pool of people who can be scooped up and sent wherever, whenever the military needs those numbers. The pool is only so big. When it dries up, sometimes they have to start scraping along the shoreline – where those designated not-quite-so-fit-for-duty are resting. I’ve known more than one soldier who have been sent to war on cocktails of medications that supposedly “manage” their psychological symptoms. I saw one snap; his cocktail turned sour, he pulled a knife on his command sergeant major. They sent him home. Quietly. No one was hurt. Crisis averted. Another cocktail. Back to the shore line.

So is the answer a bigger pool? Stronger swimmers? Less demand? How about we all build a campfire on the shore, hold hands and sing kumbaya. Yep, it’s that easy.

I would also really like to hear about how you hope to see this specific massacre situation, and the larger, ongoing issue of the war, resolved. How do you hope the people involved in this war (on both sides) will be regarded by the public? And how should we regard the alleged perpetrator?

Oh dear . . . everyone always says you shouldn’t talk politics with friends and family or random blog readers. Well, since you asked . . .

I want everyone to come home. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner the better. Yes, there will be a power void if we leave early and security will probably collapse and mass chaos will likely ensue. But I’m pretty sure that will happen in 2014, too. Or 2015. Or 3582. It feels like diminishing returns for a military, for a country, that’s already given so much. It also feels like giving up. And I hate that conflict. Is there a point when you have to – for lack of better terminology – cut your losses? Have we already passed that point? I think so.

In 2010, the military pulled out of the Korengal Valley in northeastern Afghanistan (the
setting of the documentary RESTREPO) because the area was determined to be too dangerous (or in military terms, “not an effective use of resources”). In roughly three years, 42 U.S. soldiers were killed in Korengal and hundreds were injured. So pulling out was a good thing, because it meant no more blood would be spilled there. But what about those who were there while blood was being spilled? Were their efforts in vain? Did their buddies die in vain? Would it have been better to stay, to maybe make slight progress, to definitely spill more blood?

I’m afraid that the lives lost and the portions of lives spent working in Afghanistan will be remembered not for what they accomplished, or at least tried to accomplish, but for what they did not do. We did not bring peace to Afghanistan. We did not, at least by my subjective measuring stick, bring effective democracy. We did not get rid of all the bad guys while sparing all the innocent civilians. These are ridiculous, impossible goals, but they are what people tend to think of as “success.”

I hope instead we will be remembered for doing everything we could. For making small, but profound differences that may (God willing) be more evident as they ripple and grow through future generations. For giving children hope. For helping bring opportunities like schools and health clinics – and sometimes even equipping them with teachers and doctors! For opening lines of communication, and opening minds. Sometimes a crack is all that’s needed to make room for the seeds of change.

I hope we will be remembered for volunteering. Every single person currently serving in the U.S. military swore an oath during a time of war, knowing that deployments would almost certainly be a reality. That has never happened before. This nation must never forget to be thankful that when the call came, so many were willing to answer.

On the Afghan side my desires are not as clear. I want to believe the majority of Afghans are really interested in bettering their country. I talked with local women who said so with conviction that can’t be doubted. But I think, when it really comes down to it, Afghans are people who are just trying to survive. They’re clawing along the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They’re looking for physiological fulfillment: food, water, shelter, basic safety. I hope they find these things, because everyone deserves a chance to move to the next level of the pyramid. I really, truly wish there was a way we could more effectively help them get there. But I fear that’s another impossible goal.

As for Sgt. Bales, all I have left to say is that I hope he’s not regarded through black and white glasses. I hope he’s held accountable for what he’s done but that the military, the American and international publics, the Afghan people, the jury, his wife and children acknowledge the complexity of the gray area in which he acted.

I hope Sgt. Bales finds peace, in this life or the next.

I hope the investigation reveals what truly happened – with that elusive capital T – and that justice is served.

I hope that this incident reverberates through the military culture. Because Sgt. Bales is not the first, and if the culture does not change, I doubt he will be the last.

And if you read this whole thing, I owe you a beer.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Complicated emotions over a complicated situation

I know it seems awful to say that when I heard about the alleged massacre of 16 civilians by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan on Sunday, I felt relief.

It’s an inappropriate emotion, a sibling to guilt, but undeniable. Relief that it’s not my mess to clean up.

“A mess” . . . another inappropriate – at least crass – description. But in the world of public affairs, that’s what this is: a terrible, horrible, tragic mess. Personally, a mess of explaining the unexplainable. Of responding to inquiries and issuing statements that never tell the whole story because telling the whole story is impossible. And, on a larger scale, a tangled mess of unraveled efforts and relationships.

I remember cleaning one of those up in Afghanistan. (But to say I cleaned it up would be a generous exaggeration. Messes like this can never be completely scrubbed clean.)

It was Feb 12, 2010, and it was the worst day of my life. The night before, there had been a Special Forces raid on a house in nearby Gardez City. Somehow, five civilians, including three women, were dead. The details were hazy. This is what they call the fog of war. Fog is thick in Afghanistan. Bodies were moved, cleaned, hooded and prepared for burial before investigators arrived, leaving them scrambling to connect an ever-shifting set of dots. The local anger swelled, and we watched, horror-struck, as eight months of relationship-building were undermined in a matter of a few chaotic minutes.

At the center there were five lives, the collateral damage, buried in the fog of war. There was absolutely nothing we could say. But we couldn’t remain silent, couldn’t leave a void to be filled by rumor, speculation and insurgent propaganda. So we said what we could. And it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.

Another emotion: understanding.

I understand why the soldier did what he did.

This is not to be confused with condoning his actions. Nothing could ever justify murder. That’s what this was: murder. But it’s not all this was.

Anger is easy. Blame is easy. Denouncement and apology are easy. But they don’t tell the whole story. The truth is, nothing can.

WAR IS NEVER BLACK AND WHITE. Like I discussed in my last post, war is a human experience, and humans are never black and white. Especially humans who have been to war.

When humans go to war, they change. There is no denying this. Whatever the individual experience, no one remains the same. I would go so far as to say that some people actually become two distinct people – a war-induced schizophrenia – split into “soldier” and “demons.” (Hell, go ahead the throw a third person on there, too. Soldier + demons + regular person with a regular life and a wife and two children at home.)

I have demons. Sometimes they act on their own, independent of me. They’re buttons that, when pushed, can send me into a Hulk-like rage or a tailspin of sadness. My demons are mild compared to many. While in Afghanistan, I never directly experienced death. I never got blown up. I never had to point my rifle at a person. I never had a person point a rifle at me. If I had experienced any of these things, I can’t comprehend the strength my demons would have.

The accused U.S. Army sergeant has been to war four times. God only knows what he’s seen, what he’s done, the demons he carries. It would be foolish, it would be outright wrong, not to blame, at least in part, those demons for this act.

That is not an excuse for murder. It is not a complete explanation. But it can’t be ignored.

Another emotion: anger.

Yes, it’s an easy one and I’m guilty of it, too. I’m angry at the sergeant for the mess he created. But I’m also angry at the rumors. I fume over articles chronicling this incident from the “Afghan perspective,” over the locals’ explanations of what happened and how. I want to believe them, to pity them for what they’ve endured, and on some level I do. But on another level I know that in Afghanistan when a car backfires the Taliban will claim an attack on a U.S. convoy that killed eight soldiers. I know that on Feb 12, 2010 villagers claimed that U.S. aircraft had bombed the residential compound where the raid took place. I know they claimed specific high-level government officials had been killed – government officials who were sitting in meetings with our unit’s personnel, very much alive, as the claims were being made.

Truth is elusive, especially in Afghanistan. And that makes me angry.

I’m also angry over apologies. In a statement Tuesday, President Obama pledged to take this situation “as seriously as if this was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered.” Maybe it’s my demons talking, but I want to know, on the flipside, where was the apology when I was in Afghanistan and a man dressed as an Afghan Border Patrolman sneaked onto one of our unit’s Combat Outposts and blew himself up outside U.S. soldiers’ sleeping quarters? Where was the apology when a “trusted informant” killed seven CIA agents at a base gym in the neighboring province? Where was the apology last month when, in indiscriminate retaliation for the Koran burnings by U.S. troops, my friend, JD Loftis was shot at close range. Murdered.

I want to know, after ten years, 1,900 deaths, more than 15,000 reported injuries, and millions of demons, not to mention billions of dollars, why are we always apologizing.

Another emotion: what feels very sad but can only be described as hope.

Lots of hope. That this doesn’t create more anger. But that’s a foolish hope, so I hope that the anger is managed, that it doesn’t manifest itself in more indiscriminate retaliation, in more meaningless death and suffering, in more widowed wives. Hope that these unraveled threads aren't irreconcilably tangled. Hope that the actions of one soldier and his demons don’t overshadow the work of thousands of other men and women over the last decade. Men and women like me. And JD Loftis.

And I hope that justice – whatever that means – is served.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Veteran-Writers and the surprising benefits of stalking

Last week I stalked someone.

For those of you who don’t know me, I do this a lot. Don’t worry, it’s not as creepy as it sounds (at least that’s what I like to think...). I’m just being resourceful! That’s what Google is for, right?

Anyway, last week my stalking victim was Colin D. Halloran, a former Army Special Forces Infantryman, Afghanistan veteran, poet and veterans advocate. I learned that Colin and I would both be at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference last weekend in Chicago, where he was signed up to lead a panel about helping veterans transition “from Combat to College” through writing programs. Because I’m in the midst of such a transition myself, and because I’m a writer, and because I get giddy when I meet other veterans, I was intrigued. So I stalked Colin. And, perhaps against his better judgment, he was receptive.

Colin and I met the first day of the conference. In the great tradition of writers (and military veterans) everywhere, we talked over drinks. We exchanged the basics: time in service, job titles, home stations and deployed locations. We discussed our respective MFA programs. I complemented Colin on his "very un-Army" blazer and bowtie. Then, for some incredible reason, he trusted me enough to bare his soul, allowing me to pick through it in the pages of his unpublished book of poetry. The fact that he opened himself up to me two hours after we met (and after I’d stalked him!) is a testament to the veteran connection.

Now, I’m first to admit that I don’t know much about the craft of poetry. I just know how it makes me feel. And reading Colin’s poetry felt like he was reaching straight into my soul. It felt like he had inserted a device into my brain that chronicled my thoughts and fears, sorted through and unscrambled them, sucked them out and fashioned them into something tangible and accessible and – against all odds – beautiful.

It was awesome! And kind of frightening. How did this unassuming guy I just met understand so much about me?

I’ve felt a similar bond with other veterans; people who “get it,” who've “been there, done that,” who can relate to all the complicatedness spinning around in my head. It’s wonderful reassurance that I’m not alone.

Meeting a veteran-writer, as it turns out, is a double-whammy. Here’s someone else who knows what it’s like to feel a piece of writing bubbling up inside you, the manifestation of an experience trapped for too long in the past. Someone who knows the wave of relief and the drain of exhaustion that comes from finally letting it out. Someone who used to deny the big hunk of his identity that’s wrapped up in his veteran status but doesn’t anymore because of his writing. Someone who understands the power writing gives him over his experiences and tries every day to harness it. Someone who writes because he has to.

Even though we’re newly acquainted, I’ll be brash and assert that Colin D. Halloran is pretty amazing. Despite suffering from PTSD and a knee injury that forced him to be medically evacuated from Afghanistan, he wants to go back to war. He wants to pick up where he left off, to complete his “unfinished business” supporting his unit and serving his country. Amazing, right? But when I told Colin that, he shrugged it off. It’s just part of the job. Such a Special Forces response.

Colin’s poetry is profound. (SPOILER ALERT: If you stick with this blog post to the end, you’ll have the distinct pleasure of reading a piece!) Beyond being a darn good writer, though, he hopes his writing will help others. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it already has.

A former public school teacher, Colin gives readings and speaks to teachers and student populations about the unique challenges veterans face when transitioning to a school environment. He advocates writing classes in particular as a way to create a safe space where veterans can find common ground and begin to intellectualize their experiences.

In his AWP panel, Colin stressed that civilians can’t understand what soldiers have been through until soldiers understand what they’ve been through. That’s where writing comes in. Colin has been there. I've been there. We’re still there, hovering somewhere along the spectrum of healing and understanding. I imagine we’ll be hovering for a long time. Maybe forever. Hopefully moving, slowly but surely, in the right direction.

Hovering sometimes can be disconcerting. But it’s always nice to know I’m in good company.

Shout out to Colin’s fellow AWP panelists, more amazing people doing important work:
Christine Leche, a writing professor at Austin Community College, who teaches veteran writing courses. She has spent several months teaching soldiers in deployed locations and is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of veteran writing.
Charlotte Gullick, head of the creative writing department at Austin Community College, who has taught veterans.
Kelly Dalton, a Navy veteran and discourse community specialist.

Shout out to my traveling buddies Shannon and Krysta.

Shout out to AWP for supporting the wonderful world of literary dorkdom and to Chicago for being a cool town.

Now, as promised, a poem, courtesy of Colin D. Halloran:
(Watch an Colin Read an excerpt from this poem here)


Or maybe it does.

I find it hard to know just what I think these days. I cannot trust the thoughts I think I think – I think.

In war I thought it all was so uncertain, but uncertainty was guaranteed. But here, college, and of all places freshmen Psych class, where certainty should be ensured by class lists and start times, I’m uncertain once more. And this window doesn’t seem so high.

I wouldn’t think of jumping (though clearly I just did). And if I can’t trust the thoughts I think I think should I put faith in the unthinkable?

Other students are looking out the window too. This window with a perfect view of approach routes, of the roof of the buildings across the street, of the main intersection. The seventeen cars that have passed. The three that have done so twice. Are the others noticing these things too? Are they aware how high it is? Or isn’t?

My peers (though it somehow seems unfit to use that word – I never complain about the weight of my backpack), they daydream. They gaze, detached, out the window because out there is not in here and in here there is a woman talking, droning, about drinking. Alcohol.

I drink alcohol. Beer mostly, but never the cheap stuff. I was cursed with a palate. Sometimes wine. This palate is developing. But that’s out there. And out there is not in here. I cannot drink in here because in here is school and out there is not, though I learn (and maybe more). And in here, here being school, there is a woman talking about alcohol.

Some guys (boys?) have stopped looking out there and begun to pay attention to this woman. She has asked who in here drinks alcohol out there. These fellows think they’re cool. I can tell because they nudge and do the “bro-nod”. Chuckles. I indicate, more reverently, that I can be counted in this category.

She moves in.

Questioning, frowning. Why? How? Fake ID? I must be wrong. This is a class for freshmen. This is why she is here. To talk to first years about their first years and the dangers we’ve been warned of since 7th grade.

But the dangers I’ve faced did not come from college bars, from darkened street corners. The four years that separate me from those wedged into desks around me carried me to places they only see in books, on TV. No streets for corners, no college for bars. Just violence from an unknown enemy. That was always certain.

So now I sit, and think the thoughts I think or dare not to, and while those around me dream, I can’t help but notice that this window doesn’t seem so high.

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