Still Here

I’m awoken by the call about midnight
An IED on the roadside
Hit one of our patrols – hit it hard
Casualties incoming, so be prepared.

I pull on my boots and tie them tightly
Thanking God this isn’t nightly
And head for the BAS to wait
For whatever is coming, however late.

The gunner is the first to arrive here
Screaming, gauze wrapped all around his head where
Ugly pieces of shrapnel arise
From sockets that used to hold his eyes.

They bustle him into the docs waiting
Who go right to work, his pain abating
But the screaming continues, gets me.
My helplessness angers and upsets me.

It’s obvious, I need something to do
The docs have me block the folks at the door
There’s more to come as the screaming subsides,
Because one more, outside the wire, still lies

What strikes most forcefully when he’s brought in
Is how white his teeth are in grisly grin
But everything up above those bright teeth
Is red, gelatinous goo – his brain unsheathed

That was over a decade ago
But through the years the screams yet echo,
Reverberating, bouncing through old tears
And me still helpless, still upset, still here.

Nor can I escape that toothsome grin
It comes in the dark, bright and unbidden.
Thinking of these men and their families, I say a prayer,
But I’m still helpless, still upset, still here.

God.  I just don’t know what to pray for –
I don’t want to forget, don’t want to remember.
Will you think of these men, their families, our prayers?
Are you listening, upset? Are you here?

I desperately want to make sense,
To contain the pain within my intelligence.
But really, I want you to come into our night.
Just hold me, hold my men – just make it right.

The incident happened in August 2004.  It is, perhaps, one of the most vivid images of that time to remain with me.  I don't get worn out with flashbacks or any of the stuff people associate with PTSD, but there are some pictures we never get out of our minds.


Now That It's Me

I got the email on 11 July
“This morning, your Dad died.”
It was kind of expected
After 17 years with MS

I stared at the screen of the laptop
Pondering what I ought
To do with this sort of news
Now that it’s me, not the troops

Emergency leave is the standard
When one’s deployed and your
Family back home gets hit
With a loved one dying like this

I told the XO I wasn’t sure
If I would head homeward
Then the Skipper came down
Not much inclined to hear me out

He cut off my “yeah but’s” and “what if’s”
And said, “I’ll settle this.
You’re going home, that’s an order.
You’ll not make your mom a martyr.”

So off I went, first down to Kuwait
Then to Paris – De Gaulle –
Caught a flight into Detroit
And a rental for the last bit

I got the email on 15 July
“This morning, your Marine died.”
It was kind of expected
After 17 weeks in Iraq

I stared at the screen of the laptop
Pondering what I ought
To do with this sort of news
Now that it’s me, one of my troops.

I went home on emergency leave when my Dad died, and the first email I received when I got home was a note from my enlisted aide that one of my Marines had been killed.  The weight of death hit me hard, and the desire to be in both places at once broke my heart - one of the most difficult days in my life.


Our First KIA

His squad brings him in
To the Aid Station tent,
Lay him on the deck.
In the back of his neck
A small, little hole rent
The dust and skin.

A leader of Marines
A brand new sergeant –
Over him, the doc
Examines and takes stock
Through the blood and the scent
Of death we’re in.

“Chaplain, say your prayers.”
Hov’ring, knees bent –
A psalm, a prayerbook,
A life that someone took.
Searching for grace, I vent,
Hoping God hears.

I can’t help asking,
“Is there really a point,
Or is this hopeful dreck?
These words won’t move a speck
Of dust or blood spent
By my Marines.

“Is there much reason
That I was sent
Out here among the dead?
Is it just my own head,
My own discontent
In its season?”

I’d tell them in class
“God doesn’t make sense”
But even if he did,
My sergeant’s still dead.
The rest is pretense –
A braying ass.

I recite the psalm
Then say a prayer.
Doc signs the paper,
Zips up the wrapper,
Briefly we kneel there
Then send him home.

I wrote this reflecting on the first of our battalion to be killed in action.  One wants so much to fix it, to bring hope, and at the same time, the reality before us challenges our beliefs.  At such times, the prayer of the hopeful father - "I believe. Lord help my unbelief!" (Mk 9:24)- is my prayer, too.


This Could Be It!

Holy shit!
This could be it!
Yeah, I mean,
I'm a Marine,
But if that bullet
Has my name on it
It's still a grave
Even for the brave.

I've got a baby
And think maybe
I could see her - 
Not leave this dirt.
'Cuz if that bullet
Has my name on it
It's still a grave
Even for the brave.

Why not be,
Well, cowardly?
What's there to gain
From all this pain?
Back in Loveland
Folks won't know and
It's the same damn grave
Even for the brave.

I wrote this remembering conversations with many of the Marines in my battalion before we went to Iraq in 2004.  We all went, but don't think it was easy, or that we didn't really understand what we were getting into.  We knew we would not all come back.


Camp Suicide

The place is a mess –
A down-right mell of a hess
Raw cinder block walls
Surround these halls
Of skeletal buildings
With their rusted gilding

The ground is rough, broken
Pools of old oil a token
Of the work once done
By men now gone
On rotting yellow hulks –
Machines that now sit, sulk

This is Camp Suicide;
Zaidan, Iraq sits astride
Secondary roads
That carry loads
From one sad backwater
To another, hotter

It’s an ugly old place
Wearing an uglier face
That poverty and war
Together mar;
North of the Euphrates,
One half step from Hades

Amidst all this rubble,
In its own little bubble
Stands ravishing beauty –
It’s lone duty
To remind all of us
Caught up in this fuss

That God is our maker.
And the world’s caretaker
Refuses permission.
With derision,
When we would eliminate
What he would create.

In the middle of war
This vast, barren scar
Stubbornly overcome
A seed, a mere crumb –
Not all of our power
Can stop beauty aflower

(The above was written as I reflected on a beautiful, flowering bush in the middle of our camp, set up in the rubble of a site once used to maintain the equipment used for the irrigation system along the Euphrates southwest of Baghdad along one of the routes to Fallujah.)


Ignore the Presidential Race Until December At Least

I understand some people actually watched the so-called "debate" a few days ago actually figuring they'd learn something useful.  Sorry.

In the first place, it wasn't a debate.  It was a game of "Gotcha!"  In a debate there is a reasoned exchange of ideas in hopes of persuading.  This was merely a group of folks opening to Fox News talking heads in the hopes that one of the other people on stage would really screw up - presidential politics as reality show.  

There is one thing, and one thing only, that you need to remember about "reality shows," including this so-called debate: there's no such thing as a reality show.  It's an oxymoron.  The two concepts - "reality" and "show" are mutually exclusive, like "congressional decision" or "honest liar."

Besides, it's very, very early right now.  Most of us would be better served by ignoring the presidential horse race for at least 4 more months.


Don't Trust Trump

Trump.  It is ironic that of all people, Donald Trump should become a temporary darling of the right - even a populist of sorts.

To criticize John McCain for being captured after his plane was shot down is not merely insensitive.  It betrays a complete and total ignorance of war, of McCain's history, of the basic mechanics of flight, and of human nature.  It is also utterly contemptible.  I don't think McCain's courage under fire or in the Hanoi Hilton gives or ought to give him a free pass in politics, but it is idiotic to deny that courage.

Right winger should bear in mind, too, that Trump has made and maintained his fortune by doing the kind of thing we found so objectionable when the Supreme Court handed down its infamous Kelo ruling.  That ruling, you may recall, validated a city planning technique in which somebody's property was confiscated by the city in order to sell it to someone who would "develop" it and thus pay higher taxes on it.

For example, say I have a house that I have inherited from my grandfather.  It's a fine house.  I like it.  I live in it.  It's up to code, is properly maintained, and so on.  But it's only a house.  Somebody like Trump wants to build a high-rise condo complex on that property.  I don't want to sell - it's the house I got from my grandfather, after all.  The city comes in, "condemns" the property even though it's perfectly fine, seizes it.  They pay me a pittance - certainly not anything approaching the actual value of the property - and then sell it to Trump.  Fifty rich people in a high-rise condo, after all, will pay more in property taxes than I do, living in my grandfather's house.  The Supreme Court said arranging to collect more in property tax constitutes a valid "public purpose" for stealing my house and land.

Donald Trump supports that idea and has personally profited from the practice, although he built casinos.

Trump has also endorsed a single-payer health care system similar to Canada's and is a crony-capitalist par excellence. He was for illegal immigration before he decided to demagogue the issue after the murder by an illegal alien in San Francisco a month or so ago.  Nothing he says can be believed as his only real devotion is to himself.  Trump is no conservative and his populism is that of a snake-oil salesman.

The notion that Donald Trump will act to benefit anyone other than Donald Trump is laughable on its face.  He is hardly fit to be the mayor of a small town, much less president of the United States - not because he couldn't handle the administrative demands of the job, but because he has no more moral character than the incumbent and maybe less.  He simply cannot be trusted.  I'd vote for McCain before I'd vote for Trump.  Hell, I'd vote for Hillary before I'd vote for Trump and I don't see myself ever voting for Hillary.