Proud to Be edited by Susan Swartwout

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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

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Returning Soldiers Speak edited by Leilani Squire

The prose and poetry in Returning Soldiers Speak: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry by Soldiers and Veterans (Bettie Youngs Books, 160 pp., $16.95, paper), a small anthology edited by Leilani Squire, includes testimony from veterans of World War II through the war in Iraq. Squire facilitates weekly creative writing workshops at the West Los Angeles VA Hospital and Wellness Works in Glendale.

I first looked at the book’s table of contents for clues for how it was organized, perhaps in sections pertaining  to a particular war. But the table of contents left me in the dark. Next I read Squire’s introduction, but found no clues there either. So it was only after reading the entire book that I discovered how it was organized. Returning Soldiers Speak starts with pieces related to World War II, then pieces about the Vietnam War.  And so it goes.

The World War II entries were strong and affecting, but I was primarily focused on the Vietnam War sections.  So I read John Rixey Moore’s story, excerpted from his memoir, Hostage of Paradox. This small piece of that huge book focuses on his search through a wilderness of devastation and carnage for a lost Starlight Scope.  Nobody has written better of how we laid waste to Vietnam than Moore has.

Leilani Squire

Next I read the poetry of R. S. Carlson, one of the best Vietnam War poets. He has three powerful poems in this anthology. I recommend Carlson’s book, Waiting to Say Amen. It is a fine one.

Jeffrey Alan Rochlin has four poems in this anthology. “God Bless America” is one of the most powerful poems I have read. Quoting from it does not do it justice, so I suggest buying this book so you can read it.

The book also contains one of the most honest and well-written short pieces on the Vietnam War that I’ve ever read, “Titles,” by Earl Smallwood, Jr. He was brave to write this, as it deals with a very sensitive Vietnam War issue—the fact that most of those who served in Vietnam were not grunts, nor were they Green Berets, Rangers, Marine recon, or SEALs. There were men and women, too—WACs, who spent their tour as clerk typists. How many were there? Solid statistics are elusive, but there were thousands.

As this entry shows, upwards of eighty percent of those of us who served in the Vietnam War were not in direct combat. We supported the combat troops. Smallwood does a brilliant job representing those unsung folks and describing the steps he took to ensure he would be a clerk typist in Vietnam, not a grunt.

“Dogface Soldier” by William Galloway is one of the best modern military stories I have read anywhere. This story is a model of good, clear, powerful writing—storytelling at its best. I would love to read a book written by Galloway. His story of a soldier with a bad attitude—an attitude so bad that his superiors would not ship him out to Iraq—really hit home.

I have tried to give a flavor of this anthology and how worthy it is. The high price that warriors pay for America’s commitment to war is evident on every page of this fine book. I thank those men and women for making the effort to tell their stories in this excellent, hard-hitting book.

The book’s website is http://returningsoldiersspeak.org

—David Willson