Last updated on November 11th, 2016Returning Soldiers Speak compiled by Leilani Squire is an anthology of prose and poetry written by veterans with whom Squire has crossed paths in Los Angeles. Some have taken her creative writing workshops at the West LA Veterans Hospital; others are fellow members of a local writing group; all are engaged in the work of telling about their military encounters.
The 18 veterans open the window a little bit for non-veterans to peek at war’s effects. Like Leilani, whose father was a 30-year Navy veteran who never shared his experiences, many of us outsiders have confronted the silence that settles around a veteran who is questioned about those times.
The kind of experiences found on these pages won’t be encountered in backyard banter at a neighborhood picnic. They are personal, powerful, sometimes humorous and shockingly truthful in their gritty detail.
Squire begins with World War II stories and proceeds chronologically. Through the telling, the veterans as a group show us they’ve been through terrible experiences; as individuals, they teach us that though they may have been in the same war, each of their tales happened only to them.
Only Burk Wiedner could tell us in “an excellent sunday dinner” how his childhood nights meant being jostled out of bed by a siren to walk to a neighbor’s shelter until another siren sounded the all-clear following an air raid on the outskirts of Berlin in 1943. Through his eyes as an 8-year-old, we learn how fathers feared to ask a question about friends who had disappeared, and how big brothers went off to war assignments in small towns to become death camps guards.
Out of the one-of-a-kind experiences, the commonalities of combat experiences emerge.
Sonny Fox in “But You Made the Front Page!” learned about “that instantaneous transformation” between life and death when he threw a grenade and killed three German soldiers in three seconds—moments that last a lifetime in his memory.
The Vietnam War emerges most graphically through the stories of John Rixey Moore, James F. Miller and the poetry of Jeffrey Alan Rochlin.
Moore in “Hostage of Paradise” tells the tale of crawling on hands, belly and knees through the jungle for three days to search for a riflescope no bigger than a loaf of bread. The scope used night vision technology that was best kept out of enemy hands. Though the soldier carrying it was presumed dead, Moore and a team were sent to recover it.
Moore’s story drives home the geographic and emotional distance of non-veterans from the reality of war. How can we¬—we who live in a world where safety, safety for our school children, safety for our food, safety for our laborers, travelers and hospital patients – understand the experience of those who live in a world defined by being unsafe?
Yet, they tell their tales so we will understand. As Miller writes in “June 7, 1968,” he and by extension the other authors, “need” us to understand. So, they reveal how one pulled the trigger that took the life of a 13-year-old Vietnamese girl before she could unpin a hidden grenade, of why another took a drink following the sight of a suicide and didn’t stop for 30 years, or whatever horrible, uncivilized, base action that caused them to return angry, sad and explosive.
Rochlin’s poetry exhibits anger and trauma. His poems use fierce words and phrases like “macabre slaughterhouse of mutilated army men,” “carnage dreamscape” and “seared flesh dredged in DNA.” His constant emphasis on graphic description lends his poems shock value along with a clear picture of “mud and blood and guts and gore.”
Some stories find humor amidst the madness; others irony, still others a buried sentence that strikes like a bombshell. In “Brushstrokes From Hell,” Jim Terpstra describes his mundane existence on a ship off the coast of Gaeta, Italy. He and shipmates paint that ship three times and in an oh-by-the-way manner he reveals his best friend and roommate had raped him.
Squire selects two poems to conclude the collection that remind us of the reality of war, a war that cannot be forgotten when personally experienced and should not be forgotten once read in an anthology.
“Combat Photographer” by Ethan E. Rocke mutes the sounds of combat except for the “click open – click close” of the camera shutter that magnify unraveling scenes of violence. Finally, ”Intravenous” by Hugh Martin describes a wounded girl with imagery brilliantly communicated, such as describing a needle sinking into her vein “like pricking the Tigris on a smooth map of earth.”
Yet, as Rocke reminds us, “There are no explanations in these images.” Catastrophies tend to be that way: a million minute events lead up to them and they explode without leaving an explanation, or a way to understand. The authors of the stories in Returning Soldiers Speak wrote their stories as therapy to expose memories too painful to hold in. In the process, they break the silence and give us a glimpse of the effects of war on the nation’s veterans.
“It takes courage, honesty and authenticity to bare one’s heart and soul so others may listen,” Squire writes in her introduction. Eric Maisel, in the book’s foreword echoes the sentiment that addresses the strength it takes to get these stories out: “There is more than spilled blood on these pages,” he writes. “There’s something about the human heart.”