I joined the National Guard in 1997 after a 10 year hiatus from the military. I had joined the active duty Army right out of high school, mainly to get away from my parents. That’s what poor kids do to rid themselves of an unhappy past.
I could probably have gone to college on scholarship, but I likely would not have been chosen for the college of choice and would likely have not received a full scholarship, which would have made it difficult to complete any degree. At 18, I didn’t have sufficient direction and drive anyway.
I was a writer then, but not of poetry. The Army helped me to gain 20 pounds and the discipline necessary to succeed in other things. For the most part, it was a positive experience. I got to let loose on some hormones I had kept in bottles, satisfied my thirst for adventure by attending airborne school, and developed enough confidence to know that I could achieve things that other men my age had achieved. I was a man and the Army taught me that it was OK. I needed no one’s permission for that.
How I Fell In Love With Poetry
The Army’s college education fund at the time was called VEAP (Veteran’s Education Assistance Program). To qualify for benefits, I was required to put away $100 per month toward college and the Army would match it 2 to 1. I maxed out my benefits and when I mustered out in April 1987, two months ahead of the end of my enlistment contract due to Ronald Reagan’s “early out” policy, I went to college.
My major initially was Interdisciplinary Studies, otherwise known as Liberal Arts. I signed up for as many creative writing workshops as the rules for my declared major would allow. That meant a fiction writing workshop and a couple of poetry workshops. I excelled at both, but I fell in love with poetry right from the start. I blame it on Sharon Olds, whose book Satan Says made a profound impact upon me, and Sheryl St. Germain, my workshop instructor, who was very encouraging. I knew I had the gift by certain reactions of my fellow workshop attendees, other students at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Why Being Wrong Makes Good Poetry
I joined the National Guard because I had remembered the positive experience I had being in the Army as a young man. I left with dignity, confidence, and a set of sergeant stripes, which meant that I could maneuver within the bureaucratic system without tipping the boat.
After having spent some time living and working as a civilian, I felt the need to commit myself to a worthy cause. The study of political philosophy was leading me in the direction of conservative libertarianism and I did not want to go active duty again. I had other plans with my life and the military was not my full-time goal. I did want to serve my local community because that is where I thought a man of action should put his strongest efforts. I still believe that.
I was dating a National Guard member at the time and inquired about it from her commander, who made it seem like a decent part-time profession. I considered the cost and realized that I did not want to be sent on certain types of missions that were becoming more and more prevalent – Bosnia, Kosovo, and the like. I felt like the National Guard would be less likely to be called to those types of missions and considered that I might be able to put some of my skills to use serving my local community while accepting the challenge of acquiring new skills for the future. It seemed like a good idea.
I could not have been more wrong. When President Bush announced in March 2003 that the U.S. was waging a “pre-emptive” strike against Iraq, I was overcome immediately with grief and nervousness. Nervous that I would somehow be used for such a crime and grieved that such a move meant the death of the type of conservatism that I had come to respect. Bush’s preventive war philosophy, which he misnamed “pre-emptive” was wrong. I knew it. My studies of just war philosophy told me that it was not right. The conservative philosophy that had dominated the president’s own party for much of its history said that it was wrong. I could not understand why a “strict constructionist” was running down that path. It still befuddles me.
Sure enough, in June 2004, more than a year after my commander in chief had declared victory, my unit was activated for service. It was just as I had feared. That was the year the insurgency picked up speed and that year would be the year that would determine the nation’s length of stay in the war-torn nation where civilization began. We trained for six months for a mission that had not yet been defined. It was lunacy and I knew it. Like a lunatic, I served with two heads – one in the Kevlar and the other embedded in the spirit of St. Augustine.
After Christmas, the 2/112 AR, 56 BCT, Texas Army National Guard, took flight to Kuwait. By February we were in Al Taqaddum, Iraq, close to where some of the heaviest action was taking place at the time. I spent the entire year (2005) there, the bloodiest year (at that time) of the war yet. In almost every way, that year was a big step up from the previous six months of insanity. Nothing we had done during training at Fort Hood, Texas became important to us. We were in a different world and everyone knew it. Nevertheless, the most grueling parts of it all became an art to me. I turned it into poetry and wrote a good collection of poems that year. I’ve spent the last two years revising and reworking what I put into words then. One such poem, “Cigar,” is a reflection of that experience.
Some Notes On “Cigar”
During our year in Iraq, two other officers and myself – Captains Robert Briscoe and Scott Simms – would step outside late at night while one of us worked a shift as Battle Captain in the battalion TOC and enjoy a cigar together. We would spend that time talking about politics, our lives, beer, women, or any number of other things that would take our minds off of the events of the day. It was a time for us to leave the enlisted men without a set of eyes looking over their shoulders and as much a time for us to unwind and just be ourselves. Sometimes we’d be accompanied by other officers and sometimes it would just be us. Those were some of my favorite moments and I looked forward to them. “Cigar” came out of those moments with my fellow slaves and is now a matter of public record. You can read “Cigar” at The New Verse News. I hope you like it.
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