Published November 3, 2013 in Our State Magazine
North Carolina has one of the largest populations of veterans in America. Here, combat veterans are chronicling their experiences to create what may be a new genre of 21st-century literature. Our poet laureate shares how he teaches veterans to tell their stories, and what he is learning about combat in the process.
By Joseph Bathanti
A few years ago, the son — I’ll call him Gary — of a good friend of mine knocked on my office door in the English department at Appalachian State University. Gary had just returned from Iraq, where he had been a medic, and had enrolled in the university. He was struggling mightily with all he had experienced while deployed — in truth, crumbling under it — yet he was bent on writing a memoir about war.
Wrought up, brooding, shy, thoroughly a gentleman, Gary was in his 20s, though I’ve come to realize the trauma of combat ages even very young people — in their eyes, especially. Perhaps because their eyes, like cameras, record and document unimaginable atrocities, then cache them in their memory banks like horror films that surface, unbidden, to play across the backdrop of their dreams. Gary’s eyes were dark as caves. He had come to my office to see if I’d direct an independent study with him, the ultimate goal of which was his memoir. I instantly agreed, though I knew that what I was about to lurch into would be wrenching.
That night, contemplating how I’d proceed with Gary, it struck me that if I were to shepherd him through his war memoir, then why not generalize that opportunity to other veterans across campus? At the time, the United States was still heavily engaged in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, and I had begun to notice, through their writing, students in my classes who had been deployed to those fronts. A few women, but mostly men. Those combat veterans — “ardent for some desperate glory,” as Wilfred Owen puts it in his withering World War I poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” — were boys and girls. And those children — yes, teachers even at the college level still think affectionately of their students as children — appeared on the surface no different than the others boxed into their little school desks.
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