FOR THOSE I LOVE, I WILL SACRIFICE by Ben Weakley, US Army First Place Winner, 2019 National Veterans Poetry Contest
Pried loose from the rock that bound him to earth, six thousand feet above the sea, he was pulled from red-tracer dreams of love and womb.
Tonight, when there is nothing left but darkness and breath, let him sing.
Stay. He will sing for you of his memory made viscous by the years. He will sing of his valley, where ghosts disappeared into mountain haze.
Here, where we cannot look away, let him sing. Hear the song of ball bearings and fertilizer, batteries and copper wire.
Let him sing. Hear him until you know heat and pressure. Hear him until you feel blast wave and ruptured lung.
Listen. He will sing of the golden hour, songs of pale skin and translucent bag. Tourniquet and rotor wash.
Let him sing. Hear the desperate music of splint and bone, hovering over the valley floor.
Let him sing to you of what he left in the mountains so that, once, you can bear the weight of his body armor. You, too, can hold the souls he carried.
Let him sing of sunken eyes and rusted rifles.
Let him sing of dark rooms and phantom limbs. Faces he sees in broken mirrors. Ghosts he does not recognize. Ghosts that look like his friends.
Let him sing what it is to touch their faces in his dreams, so that you, too, can wake twisted in sweat-soaked sheets.
Let him sing so that we may feel his voice, because we must feel his voice. Not as wind. Not as the moment of breath against our skin, but in the ritual ache of our memory, where he belongs forever.
Things I think about at 11:11 on November the 11th by Tom Laaser, US Army Second Place Winner, 2019 National Veterans Poetry Contest
Every year I find myself standing in a High School auditorium While newly re-elected mayors speak. They wheel out the near dead Crusty lipped VFW Cap slanted and stained old vets applause and sit. Stand for the anthem, the song, stand if you’re A veteran Stand for your branch stand for the old and the young Stand for the High School JROTC in their ill-fitting uniforms playing Soldier and messing up the marching steps.
You don’t care – but you do. You’re over it - but you’re not. The war’s behind you – but every year you take a seat in the bleachers Where you saw the home basketball team lose, again, Last Thursday and you’re Reminded that you can’t lose this war It’s always here. At the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour, remembering how the guns had fallen silent, they stand and you stand and there’s a moment of silence that your brain fills – memories, thoughts, anything but silence. You think: Armistice Day, 11 - 11 - 1918 the day to end all war. The day of final peace. The world had seen horror and would never return. Only to return all too often. You don’t want to be a “vet” you want to be you. You wear normal clothes and You try not to square your shoulders.
But the second that god damn flag is unfurled and that crappy high school band strikes up you give way to unyielding patriotism of the highest degree. I bled for this You want to scream. I am a veteran. This is MY country. I earned this freedom. I earned This day.
Those JROTC kids need to stop. War is not a game. War is not flags and ceremonies and uniforms and music. War is boredom and hatred and immorality and so much grey space that you almost never come back whole and when the pieces of you return You pray no one has to feel that. Especially not the children.
End war. Fight for… for what?
It hurts to stand this long, there’s still bits of shrapnel in the knee cap and why do they make these things so long? Those kids, these politicians, They can stand and speak and sing and glorify And talk their talk While those of us who did shake gently with pain By the third stanza.
I don’t want to hear “Thank you for your service” They don’t want To talk and know the Truth the pain The death The in between and the never, They want to say it and shake a hand and move on Away from us who cant
It wasn’t all bad. The war. If it was, I wouldn’t miss it. And god how I miss it brotherhood. love. sweat tears The heart thumping and knowing Im alive.
Maybe those JROTC kids down there need that. Maybe we all do To be alive, to fight for… for what?
To be more than just me and my and I To be us To be capital U. S.
I wouldn’t come to these every year if I didn’t miss it. I’m glad it’s over – but I’m not.
This day is all these things and more The day we stop, think, feel, remember Self-congratulate Commiserate Live in the in between The then and the now and who knows what next Just, not the children, save them all this.
But its no use.
They will go. and someday They will stand in these bleachers and think At the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour when the guns had fallen silent.
Their minds will stir in that silence and I will be with them, all of them.
The Sniper's Other Story by Michael Piotrowski, US Air Force Third Place Winner, 2019 National Veterans Poetry Contest
'It was some sort of
(he cleaned and oiled all the parts)
'I was on a hill
overlooking the audience
(he worked the bolt of reassembled rifle)
'It was some kind of
(it was all in pieces neatly)
'He was making a bombastic
at the top of his lungs
when I killed him.'
'I like a kill like that.
It terrorizes the troops.'
(in pieces, neat)
'It took me three days to
...the firing pin snicked
'This is my third
(the hands paused in mid-movement)
'Sometimes I wonder what
when the war is
(the rifle was in pieces again.
WALTER REED HOSPITAL by Amber Adams, US Army Reserves Fourth Place Winner, 2019 National Veterans Poetry Contest
Sometime after the transports, the ambulance primal cry, the rush fever of Bethesda, after surgery, war teeth extracted from your side, the swarm of hands and fervor, after the stitches, burn grafts, transfusions—after the phone call cloud of opiates, I don’t want you to see me like this you said.
Sometime beginning with the presidential handshake, and the smallness of your body after weeks without movement
sometime then, I realized you weren’t coming back.
I. E. D. by William Glose, US Army First Place Winner, 2018 National Veterans Poetry Contest
Like Steve Austin, you said, new legswill make you bionic, better than before, worth six billion after inflation.
You taped a photo of Oscar Pistorius
to your bedside wall at Walter Reed.
These were the days before
“Blade Runner” shot his girlfriend.
Before you penguin-waddled
on “shorties,” then ten-inch stilts,
then C-legs hoisting you
to almost-normal heights.
Long nights when you wish
it hadn’t been just your legs,
you dream of ways to twist
contempt into strings of obscenities
to hurl in daylight without aim,
the only target between handrails
a therapist, her hopeful,
“It’s okay,” she says, patience
reliable as phases of the moon,
every shadow-swallowed crater
destined to one day reappear
Buried within titanium joints,
microprocessors control motions
that bend and stretch the knees
and feet, adjusting for impact
of walking, jumping, climbing,
locomotion of daily life.
When red-rubbed hands tire
of pushing wheels, you stand
erect, silver gleaming beneath
your shorts, jostling crowds
breaking like white-capped
water round a stone. Normal
walkers have one foot in the air
forty percent of the time.
Even unborn babies churn
their legs in the womb.
Your gait shuffles and lumbers,
collecting glances scimitared
with pity. But all you can
think of is the Halloween
when you were ten and dressed
as Frankenstein, that revenant
sewn together with borrowed parts,
thankful just to be alive.
Squadron Requiem by Michael "Mule" Mullane, US Navy Second Place Winner, 2018 National Veterans Poetry Contest
Do not blame us.
Like our fathers before us,
we did not choose the war.
Nor did we choose how it would end.
We did not choose to live.
Nor did our brothers choose to die.
We chose only to keep faith
with each other.
If you ever knew us,
if ever you cared,
if ever you knew
on the wall
We ask only that you remember
some gave what they had,
and that others still pay
to this day
for keeping you
far from the abyss
from that day
Spouse of a Hero by William Kennard, II, US Army Third Place Winner, 2018 National Veterans Poetry Contest
Resting easily amongst their accolades,
They embrace you.
All I will have to hold is a tear stained flag.
Comfortable in the bravado of brothers,
Your legend will continue to blossom
In the minds of eighteen year olds,
The naive and blind in which
No wounds can grow.
Your gallantry is heralded,
Yet I am haunted,
By the pomp and circumstance,
Ribbons of red, white, and blue,
A daily anniversary of your death.
Why did you volunteer for violence?
“Duty”, “Honor”, “Country” “Brotherhood”,
The vocabulary of men with divided hearts,
The kind that allure with
Devotion, emotion, boldness,
Then crush in coldness,
As you walk away from the outstretched arms
Of wives, sons and daughters.
“Daddy” I wonder
How can you jeopardize the lives
Of those who’ll mourn for you,
When the crowds are gone,
While the grass grows in the lawn?
We’ll watch your medals collect dust
As our hearts daily rust from your absence─
Would you have even cried in Gethsemane?
I can’t understand the warrior.
Left bereft, to pick up the pieces
Of your parade,
Others will read of your actions
Holding aloft their arrogant sabers,
Praying their hearts, minds and souls
Contain the same fire─
An unholy trinity.
Do they too want to die?
Do they too want to rend
Where no surgeon can mend?
Memories, moments, space and time,
Septic wine I’ll forever be forced to swallow.
But now the world serenades at Arlington,
Round a six-foot hole,
As tombstones salute in stoic sympathy.
Put on the patriotic show,
Of the spouse,
Of a hero.
Home Without a Home by Tim Connelly, US Army Fourth Place Winner, 2018 National Veterans Poetry Contest
I travel with a heavy backpack
strapped across my shoulders, and a plastic bag of clothes.
When you are homeless,
these are the things you carry.
And tucked away somewhere
are the memories of a war
that are still fresh.
No yellow ribbons greeted me
when I returned home.
Now I soldier on each day
trying to find some place to call my own,
riding late night buses to shelters
only to be rousted out at dawn.
A private first class, now a second class
war veteran walking the dark streets.
Home but without a home.
Thank you for your service by Jay Wenk, US Army
First Place Winner: 2017 Heroes’ Voices National Veterans Poetry Contest
Gregory, nicknamed Raj,
from Bangor, Maine,
a vet of Iraq,
hooked up a vacuum cleaner hose
to his car’s exhaust.
These are today’s dead veterans.
There were others yesterday.
Living alone in a fifth floor walkup
on East 111th Street in New York,
Antoine raised and flew pigeons
from his rooftop chicken wire and slatted frame cage.
As he plunged into the backyard,
he took out several clotheslines.
There was Irv, Helen, George, Harold
Rennie and Harry.
Harold was gay, was called Roxy
among his friends, and he used a knife.
Frenchy never made it to the Post Office.
That’s where he told his wife he was going.
He drove head-on into the side of
a concrete bridge abutment
on Route 66 in Arizona, at 120 MPH.
It was a clear, bright morning.
A Lieutenant Carbonaro took his ’45 along
on a hunting trip upstate in North Dakota.
The medic who used to shoot up prisoners with
morphine, Carlos, saved up enough for himself.
He injected it while on leave, in Germany.
Angel, a guard at
our prison camp in the desert,
was a huge, smiling man, very friendly.
After discharge, he got a job as a warder
in a State prison near Biloxi.
He hung himself in his secondhand RV,
parked in a shady cottonwood grove.
There was Rudy, James and Eduardo,
living in ghetto flops in several different cities.
They combined booze and pills.
Reuben’s father was an Air Force officer,
so Reuben was born into it.
Everyone called him “Hey, Rube”.
When off duty from guiding armed Drones,
he loved to go up with the Paratroops.
On a flight yesterday,
he pushed his way past the jump master.
There was Bennie, Vera, Eli and Chris.
Chris was trained to defuse mines. Last evening,
on patrol, he jumped on one in plain sight.
The taxi driver who took Vera to
Chicago’s railroad yards reported that
she was drunk.
During the night, Juan, in Nevada, and
Eugene, in Colorado, both walked out
into their respective deserts,
stripped, in spite of bitter cold,
lay down, cut their wrists, and died,
looking up at the full moon.
There’ll be 22 more tomorrow.
The Corsairs by David Rogers Jr, US Navy
Second Place Winner: 2017 Heroes’ Voices National Veterans Poetry Contest
We found them, finally.
Bobbing on dusty languid
Bright white hulls, one tarped in
Orange the other in blue
Like circus tents.
Our thin gray frigate
And hovering helo,
The eyes of the fleet,
found the smugglers like we
Were told to.
The boarding team
Went across. They found:
bilges swished with blood,
shit, garbage and
the fevered wounded.
The refugees begged us to take them,
The smugglers begged us to leave them,
The desperate dove into the water
And the clock was started,
Counting minutes until
The sharks came.
We sealed wounds and
Left succor and direction.
The Somalis cried for their suffering.
Our crew cried as their witness.
The helicopter left, we left.
What could we do?
We were told to find, to report,
To help, but not to save.
Functionaries in far capitols had
Not yet decided to extend
clean white palms.
And we were just one small ship, after all.
Living is the Hardest Thing by Nicole Goodwin, US Army
Third Place Winner: 2017 Heroes’ Voices National Veterans Poetry Contest
“Where was your child when you deployed?”
“How long did you stay away?”
“Did you ever think you wouldn’t survive?”
“Did you ever kill anyone?”
These questions hunt me down like a boar
in broad daylight.
My apartment is silent,
but I can still feel the pounding
of the mortars.
The boom of the bombs.
These sounds rattle
my cage, pushing against
Each day threatens to
crumble the walls.
Sandstorms whip nightmares
around my throat. Breathe!
The air is brittle.
Trails of sweat dance
with traces of my tears
of salt. All left to conjure
a reality that is a dream
Memorial Day Parade, 2006 by Shane Griffin, US Army
Fourth Place Winner: 2017 Heroes’ Voices National Veterans Poetry Contest
I watch the veteran from
the other side of the street
in the shadow of buildings.
I hold my infant child
with both arms, tired and sore.
The Honor Guard passes.
My wife claps and cries,
From patriotism, I think.
He sits in his wheelchair in full sun.
His World War II Veteran hat
cocked off center, pulled down
to shade his eyes. He is unable
to stand when the colors pass,
but he raises his bony arm
in a painful salute.
He could have served anywhere.
Decades ago in that other life.
He could have beached on Normandy,
parachuted into Belgium, survived
the invasion of Wake Island,
Pearl Harbor perhaps.
But I don’t care to know.
I shift my arms, my child
sleeps. The high school marching
band passes. The crowd
claps. My arms are sore,
my shoulder still aches.
This body remembers when
I threw too many grenades
Taps on the Walls by Major General John Borling
We build tall walls of different kinds
For prisoners of war, or crime, or mind
Who serve, or crouch, or cry behind.
And if your freedoms you despoil
You prisoners cannot escape the toil
To stand and fight with mental foil.
Forced solitude when doubts grow rife
Make prisoners who build walls struggling strife
Then tap the walls to regain life.
Then-Captain John Borling was prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton for over six and a half years. He “wrote” and memorized poems to keep his mind sharp and his spirits up. He shared his creations with fellow captives by their only means of communication, rapping on the cell walls with his knuckles.
Printed by permission of Major General Borling and the Pritzer Military Museum and Library.
I Am a Free Spirit by Tristan Carson, US Army
I am a free spirit - an instrument of my life
I am the only one who can determine what my song is
If it is a song of beauty, pain or war
these are the chords I can play
I must play the song I want - with chords of strength and love,
to counter the chords of pain and anger I may bring into my life,
or allow to have influence.
The Past Cannot Change Our Song by Tristan Carson, US Army
The past cannot change my song
Neither should the dreams of the future
Sweep my tune away
For my song is strongest
When I reside in today
No more hurrying and scurrying
Rushing down that road
Looking for someone
To fill in the missing years
My song is my strength
And in it I find a light
To guide me home
To the bright morning,
Only the first few lines of each of the following poems appear on this page.
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Passing the Lights by Tristan Carson, US Army
Passing the lights
I ride in the night
The streets are quiet
And the air is fresh
Fog hangs in the glow
Sparkling and changing
As the wind blows
Calling me home to my fire. . . .
These words are carved in the marble stone
In Honored Glory
An American Soldier
Known but to God"
Not far from Arlington's Cemetery Gate
By your fellow soldiers you lie in state
From a century of wars, you came to rest in this place
Guarded by your fellow soldiers, in stately grace
By your sacrifices a later generation would yell
"Hell no we won't go" . . .