Proud to Be edited by Susan Swartwout


I wish I was a little bird

So I could fly away;

I’d go to all the far off places

Where my daddy has to stay.

—Ashley Williams

The “far off places” in this anthology are battlefields from Sharpsburg, Maryland, to Kanduhar, Afghanistan, and many American wars in between. Stories and photographs from veterans are collected in the fourth volume of Proud To Be: Writing by American Warriors (Missouri Humanities Council/Southeast Missouri State University Press, 270  pp., $15, paper) edited by Susan Swartwout, who worked on the previous three volumes.

Swarthout selected the short fiction, poetry, interviews, essays, and photography with the help of a six-person panel of judges. “The War Within” is the only screenplay in the volume. It succinctly and cleverly presents a cast of character in two versions, one a proud Marine and one dealing with PTSD.

PTSD is also covered in an essay by David Chrisinger, who teaches veteran re-integration at the University of Wisconsin. This well-researched essay centers on Marine Brett Foley’s service in Afghanistan, where he witnessed an IED explosion that killed two and wounded several others.

Dealing with the horror two years later, Foley said: “At the end of the day, it all comes down to the fact that at times I wished desperately that I could simply erase parts of my memory so that I could just be normal again.” In addition to counseling and his wife’s support, “what helped Brett’s resilience was talking about his trauma and remembering the good men he served with.”

The essay, “Korea 1951–Marines Don’t Cry,” predates the study of PTSD and describes how trauma can be dealt with on the battlefield. To wit: “I slowly walked out into the woods. Alone, I couldn’t stop the tears. I reached into my holster and took out my .45. Self-pity turned into anger. I lifted the gun, holding it in both hands and aimed at the sky. I shot it over and over. A couple Marines came running out yelling, ‘What’s going on?’ I pulled my cap down over my eyes so they couldn’t see the tears, turned to them and said, ‘Just practicing.'”

The irony of war could almost be the theme of this compilation. One account describes an action in Sicily during World War II in which German soldiers captured a group of American medics despite the fact that red crosses were on their helmets. They were imprisoned because the Germans had heard a rumor that American generals hid howitzers in ambulances.

“Best Revenge” is a stunning piece of short fiction in which a Marine corporal and a staff sergeant meet during the corporal’s last days in Vietnam. The surprise ending made this standout my favorite.

Another must-read is the essay “My Vietnam Nightmare” written by a former Navy Corpsman. He writes: “Terrified, I think this could very likely be the last day of my life. This suicidal waltz is known as ‘doing your duty.'”

The final section of Proud To Be is devoted to poetry. I recommend taking quiet time to read these poems, especially the well-crafted “Dead Man’s Cap” and “The Flight of the Liberty Belle.”

I would be remiss not to mention the photography category. “Remembering Home” and “Iraqi Boy Sitting” are two I particularly enjoyed.

Finally, here is the poem “Proctors” by Kanesha Washington:

You signed your names on the front lines of war

Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout

You packed your duffle bags with manhood
Many only teenagers yet you knew what you were fighting for.
while putting away your adolescence
You left behind family, children and even friends
to become a protector of our nation
Adorned in a uniform of freedom and pride
you marched with bravery on the battlefield of uncertainty
By land, ship, or sea
you proudly and selflessly carried out your duty
You are the stars represented on our flag
America salutes you

for your future, present and especially your past

—Curt Nelson

Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors edited by Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout announces in the introduction to Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 256 pp., $15) that the intent of this anthology is that it “will become an annual series.”  Swartwout, a professor of English at Southeast Missouri State, also is the director of the University Press. The book is a co-production of the Press, the Missouri Humanities Council’s Veterans Projects, and the Warrior Arts Alliance.

This anthology contains excellent writing dealing with America’s wars, from World War II up to and including our current wars. It is hard to tell at a glance which war gets the major attention.

I was pleased to note the title of the first piece in the book, “First Day at An Khe.”  Monty Joynes’s short story sets a high standard for the rest of the book as it is one of the most powerful, moving, and well written-stories of the Vietnam War I’ve ever read.

Monty Jooynes

Monty Joynes

Phil, a corpsman, arrives in country and without being in-processed is dumped into triage duty for days to deal with an onslaught of the wounded and dying. The First Sergeant of the Hospital company abandons Phil to those duties, which he bravely does until he’s covered with blood, excrement, and vomit and passing out from fatigue and hunger. All the horrifying essence of the carnage of the Vietnam War is distilled and encapsulated in this superb story.  Joynes is the fiction winner for this collection, chosen by William Trent Pancoast, author of Wildcat.

I can’t give this level of attention to every piece in this collection, but I assure prospective readers that this anthology is the best you’ll ever find. The World War II entry by Paul Mims, “Rockhappy, 1944-45,” is as worthy as the An Khe piece, but as different as it can be. There’s some of the flavor of Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, but with elements of Catch-22 madness. Mark Bowden was the judge who picked this nonfiction piece as a winner.

I usually am not much impressed by the quality of war poetry in a mixed genre anthology, but I had high hopes for the poetry in this collection because the judge was Brian Turner, author of Here Bullet.  My high hopes for Gerado Mena’s “Baring the Trees” were not dashed. There were echoes of Villon’s more doom-laden poetry in Trees, but it was still totally its own poem. Great stuff.

This anthology is a deluxe production in every way—the cover art, editing, proof reading. The reader can dip into it and find excellence on every page.

My favorite piece in the book is Russell Reece’s Vietnam War story, “In Less Than a Minute.”  It is an up-river Mekong journey into the horrifying Heart of Darkness that was the Vietnam War, just seven pages but more memorable and powerful than dozens of full-length Vietnam War novels I have read.

Buy this anthology and keep it by your bedside to dip into and read before you turn out the lights at night. That practice will guarantee nightmares about America’s choice to engage the world in one war after the other. This anthology is one of the few positive byproducts of our national predilection for war.

—David Willson