At Walter Reed

By Joseph Bathanti, Jan. 23, 2013

 Joesph Bathanti was the guest in a Poetry Reading & Workshop at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Washington, DC, on Jan. 16.

It was a bitter cold day. Joan and I took a cab from the Eastern Market neighborhood of DC to Bethesda, Maryland, a town of fair size, a mere seven miles away, a kind of suburb of DC. After the $35 cab ride, we were deposited at the Writer’s Center on Walsh Street, a pillbox that looks very much like the modest public libraries sprinkled in small towns across North Carolina. The Writer’s Center started in 1976 as a grassroots initiative to champion reading and writing in the DC area, and has thrived ever since. It’s DC’s equivalent of The North Carolina Writers’ Network. Generally acknowledged as the nation’s oldest literary magazine, Poet Lore, founded in 1889, is published out of The Writer’s Center. There we rendezvoused with Stewart Moss, the Director; and Assistant Director, Sunil Freeman (not incidentally the nephew of Grace Freeman, former Poet Laureate of South Carolina, and well-known throughout North Carolina as well). Sunil and Stewart are both poets.

We jumped in Stewart’s car and sped off for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, just a few minutes away. The Writer’s Center administers and offers program support for the National Endowment for the Arts Operation Homecoming, a groundbreaking partnership between the NEA and the United States Department of Defense, designed in 2004 by the NEA to provide venues for U.S. soldiers as well as their families write about experiences during war-time. Out of these writing workshops emerged an amazing anthology, edited by Andrew Carroll, and published by Random House in 2006, called Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. The book, comprised of eyewitness accounts, private journals, short stories, and other writings, wields a mind-blowing literally breathtaking power.

Walter Reed, the world’s largest military medical center, located on 243 acres, is intimidatingly massive – not to mention the fact that its 2.4 million square feet  clinical space is filled with soldiers, many many of them casualties in the two wars the U.S. has been embroiled in for nearly every year of the 21st Century. Its expansive beautiful campus, upon which deer caper, is surrounded by high spans of ornate wrought iron spaced between beautiful granite pillars. When we reached the guard house, an armed, stolid young soldier in camouflage fatigues and cap, stepped to the car. Stewart informed him that we’re the expected writers from Operation Homecoming, that our names should be on the list. Unsmiling, but perfectly polite, the soldier asked to see our driver’s licenses, inspected them, then waved us through the gates.

We drove by the main entrance of Walter Reed, above which looms Welcome Aboard, and entered the hospital through the mammoth parking deck. Walter Reed has the same labyrinthine anonymity of any hospital: the whiteness and glare, the somnambulant hum of fluorescence, a grid of right and left turns, people teeming along – hospital personnel, patients, visitors. What instantly set Walter Reed apart, however, is not just it size – we walked at least a half mile – but how many people, men and women – of all ages, yes, but mostly very young people, children, by my lights – were in uniform, from all branches of the military.

As we moved into the Physical Therapy Clinic, in the America Building, posters lined the walls pairing my visit – Poetry Reading & Workshop, my name, a photograph – as well A Class on Threat Assessment in which participants will “learn to recognize abnormal, predatory behavior to make better decisions & live safer lives.” Across the posters’ crest were printed Stages of Healing – then a graphic of a microphone – 2 Events Back 2 Back. It was at this moment in the trek through Walter Reed that I began seeing the wounded, very young men exclusively – had they not been soldiers, people my age would term them boys – specifically amputees: some on crutches, some in wheel chairs, many walking confidently, sturdily, on high-tech futuristic prosthetics. Each time a door opens from one of the therapy rooms, Hip-Hop spills out.

Room 1018 was a fairly nondescript conference room. A scale model plastic skeleton, rather discomfiting, actually, dangled from a lanyard. A big flat screen TV hung on one wall and on another a stunning photograph of a southwest scape in the spirit of Ansel Adams. It was a small room, so as people made their ways in, and squeezed extra chairs up to the table, it became crowded.

I’ll avoid naming names, though I carefully made a list and I can still see them, as well as what they wore, seated around the table. They are all unforgettable and so are the poems they wrote, but I should summarize: soldiers, physicians, psychiatrists, therapists, family members, Joan, Stewart, Sunil. One cherubic elderly fellow, an military intelligence analyst (CIA, FBI), confessed he wandered in by mistake, thinking he was walking into A Class on Threat Assessment, but he decided to stay. Accompanying one of the therapists was Lieutenant Commander Bobby, a small white dog, with a camouflage vest.

I read some poems and then I led them in George Ella Lyon’s now canonical “Where I’m From” exercise. They wrote for about 15-20 minutes. When I asked them to read, they were reticent like most workshop classes. Here were people who had been in combat anxious to publically read a poem, something I found profoundly moving. But then slowly they relented, and things hushed like a place of worship as we listened. People laughed and cried and were silent. There was that rarified range of humanity, mystery and recognition that, for a lot of us, exists only in a creative writing class. These were very brave people – in ways few of us ever know.

There was one young man seated to my left, a staff sergeant – too young to be a staff sergeant – that I cannot end without mentioning. He wrote a knockout poem, located in his home state, Louisiana, a few lines of which I’ll cite: “ … Bogolusa, North of the lake, / the paper factory with a smell like rotten fruit / whose smoke stack, huge, resolute, drew me / like a pilgrim to a shrine / every time I ran away.” Handsome, pensive, dear, he was dressed in camos, was now working, after returning from his latest deployment to Iraq, as a nurse at Walter Reed. His wife and two children were there living with him in Bethesda. He showed Joan and I pictures of his babies.

Time ran out – all too soon. We made our farewells and all the usual heartfelt pledges at the conclusion of a workshop where you are certain something lasting and terrifically significant has happened. Then Sunil, Stewart, Joan and I made the long walk back to the car.

We sat in a queue of traffic inching out the entrance to the hospital. People on foot streamed along the sidewalk. A lone doe stood among them.

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