Veterans Day Poem–Brian Turner’s “Wading Out”

Brian Turner at Custer's grave, West Point Cemetery, New York.
Brian Turner at Custer’s grave, West Point Cemetery, New York.

Note:  Below is a repost from Veteran’s Day 2013, with a few additions. Brian Turner’s great poem “Wading Out” speaks of a semi-private reunion of veterans long after the battle that united them in spirit forever.  As I think about the flury of events that characterize Veterans’ Day this year, at least in my neck of the woods the New York City area, I actually sense a different mood afoot.  The spirit of today’s veterans is communal, committed, and proactive.  What is very cool about the New York City scene, and I hope it’s happening everywhere, is that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are taking the national commemoration of military service in their own hands.  This last week I’ve been privy to a number of vet art and author events that have a distinctly “do-it-yourself” feel, as if to say, “We, the ones who served most recently, will organize events by which we present ourselves to the nation for consideration.  And as we do, we will never ever forget our kinship and debt to those who served before.”  An example is the event I will be part of on Veterans Day.  A group of us–men and women, Army and Marines–will be reading selections from our favorite World War I authors at the Old Stone House historical site in Brooklyn.  Join us if you can.

Writing Wars: A Special Veterans Day Reading

Original post below:

I’ve carried this poem around in my mind since the first time I read it. It’s from Brian Turner’s 2010 collection Phantom Noise.

Wading Out

We’re crossing an open field, sweating in December’s heat,
with First Squad covering from the brush to our left;
and I could be shot dead by a sniper, easily, this
could be the ground where I bleed out in ninety seconds,
but it won’t be. There’s a patch of still water
I’m about to walk into as I always do,
with too much adrenaline and momentum in my stride,
as my boots sink ankle deep and still I slog forward,
M4 held up over my head, though Fiorillo
sinks up to his knees off to my right—he backs up,
makes it out of the septic runoff I’m up to my thighs in,
the stench filling my nostrils now, and it’s funny enough
to laugh at once the mission’s over, Turner running in to swim,
but no one’s laughing anymore and the months are turning
into years gone by and still I’m down there slogging
deeper into the shit, shoulder deep, my old platoon
with another year of bullets and mortars and missions
dragging them further in, my lieutenant so far down
I can’t reach him anymore, my squad leader hunting
for the souls that would mark him and drag him under
completely, better than any bottle of whiskey,
and I keep telling myself that if I walk far enough
or long enough someday I’ll walk out on the other side.
But will Jax and Bosch and my lieutenant make it out, too?
If one day we find ourselves poolside in California,
the day as bright as this one, how will we hose ourselves off
to remove the stench, standing around a barbecue
talking football—how will we do that?

after Bruce Weigl

Most of the time, veterans carefully negotiate the terms by which they talk about war, with whom they talk about their experiences, and how they talk about what they have seen and done. On Veterans Day, they, and the country, let their guard down a little. If the public celebrations veer toward an excess of patriotism and gratitude on the side of the citizenry, and of privilege and indulgence on the side of the vets, that’s OK.  It’s way better than doing nothing, wouldn’t you agree, at least for a day?

Bruce Weigl, if you don’t know, is a Vietnam vet and poet whose work is well worth checking out. Turner’s Phantom Noise was published by Alice James Books.

UPDATE:  “Everyday is Veterans Day,” by Kevin E. Foley for Philipstown.Info, an on-line newspaper in New York, features this blog and more of my thoughts about veterans.

Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, the Superintendent of West Point, shaking the hand of a veteran in the stands at the Army-Western Kentucky game, Saturday 9 November 2013.
Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, the Superintendent of West Point, shaking the hand of a veteran in the stands at the Army-Western Kentucky game, Saturday 9 November 2013.

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