Explaining Myself

Sylvia Bowersox

With all the controversy surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you might say that this is Vietnam all over again. But it isn’t. The Vietnam War, like all of America’s earlier wars, was fought with an army of conscripts from almost every community in the nation. It was hard to find someone who didn’t know someone who fought, and maybe died, in Southeast Asia.

Our current war, beginning with the devastating attacks of 9-11, is being waged by an all-volunteer military, one that is increasingly separate from the population at large. Like in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, today’s soldiers live, train, fight, and die in self-contained communities that are largely out of the public eye. For most Americans, contact with today’s soldier is limited to a brief “Thank you for your service” at an airport, or while watching a Budweiser beer commercial.

Even President Bush encouraged us to “enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” And we did, with the consequence being that military veterans are warily regarded as either traumatized victims or raging lunatics. CNN’s Brooke Baldwin blamed war veterans who had become police officers for starting the 2015 riots in Baltimore. And a recurrent theme in Hollywood is the broken veteran, intent on bringing the war home to our streets.

I went to Iraq several times. My husband repeatedly deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. We are like other veterans – patriots, who love our country and want to defend what it exemplifies. We are really no different than anyone else. Some people excel, others have a harder time getting by, and a few find life impossible. But it is hard to talk about this, particularly with those who haven’t been there. So, I write.

War traumatized me. I was mistreated and damaged even further when I sought care at the VA, and there are now days that the very act of leaving my house is an ordeal. I am not a victim. I was hurt. I have a condition caused by my experiences in the war. There is a difference. So, I write.

The reaction to my work has been a bit of “wow” tempered by “I never knew,” then a solid, “thank you for your service,” followed by a “did you kill anybody?” If I am having a particularly unlucky day, the next phrase is the inevitable, “Can I play with your service dog?” And then, “Why not?” I never know how to respond. So, I write.

I don’t write to heal, even though I’ve been told, and read, and heard from many people that writing is the path to recovery. I write because I’m a writer, and I have a story to tell. I don’t write to remember. Lord knows, I already remember more than I want. I write to explain myself to others—my son, my community, my compatriots who have been to war, and to those who have never been to war and will never go. So, I write.

My poems tell my feelings about going to war, being in war, and the frustrations of coming home.


War tent Baghdad, muggy & cramped,
packed with the lost, soon to be lost,
& deer-in-the-headlights newly deployed,
demanded we sweat off arms, legs,
hopes of becoming a doctor, lawyer,
mother, father, writer, president,
& give away our brothers & sisters,
our promises,
the future,
our booze infected
lives, our duty instructed lives.

We stood naked & bewildered
as our lives drizzled,
& flew into the sand.

Like Eunuchs we allowed memories,
to be chopped off and taken away:

your third-grade teacher, the first person
you danced with & kissed, never ending algebra
class, graduation, her sister, his mother’s smile,
his girlfriend’s hopeless pot roast, their fireworks,
my favorite chocolate ice cream, that job he hated,
losing your two front teeth, appendicitis, nightmares,
& the bus delivering all to basic training.

They added color to the television, radio,
flavor to the plastic food, & meaning to this war,
they melded with tent flaps, fluorescent lights.

We believed the sand & good intentions clinging
to our bodies that night could be washed off, forgotten,
& memories found like sunglasses or a lost cell phone.

We forgot about the sand.

It is earth—silicon, quartz, iron, fortified with blood,
with the breath of seven billion lungs blowing, changing,
forming—wind, rain, earthquakes,
Breaking body and earth
masticating the slivers & nuggets,
spitting them out,
reaching our cells, our DNA.

We newly anointed desert creatures—camel spiders,
sand fleas, hyenas, wolves, camels, jackals,
& sweat,
raised our right hand,
signed on the dotted line.

Stay or leave, live or die, in pain or happiness.
The desert sand owns us. All we once were, is packed
away in conex boxes with the televisions, radios,
plastic food & good intentions.

Waiting for us somewhere in the Green Zone
in the heart of Baghdad.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Warriors at this position
don’t have access
to a washing service
or soap and water.
Their clothes are rancid.
Skin crusted
sandy, mucky.

In Mosul, we utilize
a local Iraqi service.

orders: win
hearts and minds.

These Iraqis
clean our clothes
with kerosene.
Making us smell
like old-time lamps.
but never clean.

It’s cheap.
Our squad leader,
reminded us
when we picked
up our wash.

another heart and
another mind
who didn’t give a shit,
and wanted to strike
a match
and flick it
at our feet.

“Winning Hearts and Minds,” was first published in a different form in the chapbook Triggers. “Processing” was first published in a different form in The Washington Post. “The Homeless Woman” was first published in a different form by The Chico News and Review.

About Sylvia Bowersox

Sylvia Bowersox served her first tour in Iraq in 2003-2004 as a U.S. army broadcast journalist attached to the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul. Her assignments took her around the country, but much of her time was spent in Baghdad, at Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters, which serves as the background for much of her work. She returned to Iraq for two more tours as a “3161” press officer assigned to the U.S Embassy Baghdad public affairs office, and later to the Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR). She lives with PTSD, and writes about her experiences in both wars. She has been honored by multiple Pushcart nominations for her work. Her first book, Triggers, a chapbook of war journalism flavored poetry and prose, was published by JerkPoet Press. Her work has appeared in the journal 0-Dark-Thirty, The Synthesis, Tethered by Letters, Solstice Literary Magazine, Epic Times, Bramble Literary Magazine, and The Washington Post. Sylvia received her Masters degree in English from California State University, Chico. She lives in Wisconsin with her veteran husband, Jon, and her Black Labrador service dog, Timothy.


National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month 2017

The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.