30 October 2014

Preparing for Third Fight, Guard Chaplain Cuts Tresses

Blog-editor's note: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Last year, we were able to point to efforts like the Minnesota National Guard's "Pink Tank Project." This year, we wanted to signal-boost this recent National Guard news release, about an Iraq War veteran who is fighting a third round with breast cancer with faith, humor, and resolve.

We've said it before and we'll say it again: Pink is the color of warriors. "Attack!"


"North Carolina chaplain fighting breast cancer on her own terms"
By Staff Sgt. Mary Junell
North Carolina National Guard

Released Oct. 22, 2014

PHOTO: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Mary Junell
RALEIGH, N.C.—Two weeks ago in Franklinton, North Carolina, National Guard Chaplain Maj. Melissa Culbreth sat laughing and joking in a chair on the front porch of the farm where she works, while her signature red hair was done in five braids.

The porch was full of friends, family and fellow soldiers watching and waiting for the braids to be cut off and collected.

Sgt. 1st Class John Setera, who had deployed to Iraq with Culbreth in 2009, draped a black, plastic hairdresser's cape around her and grabbed the clippers.

As the clippers buzzed, chunks of Culbreth's hair fell down the front of the cape and onto the floor at her feet.

"I wanted to take my hair on my own terms," Culbreth said. "Instead of letting the chemo take it."

This was the second party she has held to shave her head shortly after starting chemotherapy for breast cancer; the first was in March of 2010, when she was less then two months home from a deployment to Iraq with the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team.

"I’m not sure which is going to be harder,” Culbreth said, "not knowing what is going to happen over the next 18 weeks, or knowing what is going to happen over the next 18 weeks."

Culbreth, who now serves as the brigade chaplain for North Carolina National Guard's 449th Theater Aviation Brigade, began her most recent round of chemotherapy the week before her party. This is her third diagnosis and third round of chemotherapy.

"I know what chemo is like because I’ve done it. To know I’m going to be doing that again, and going through all the side effects. Again. Right now that’s probably the hardest part. At the head-shaving party Culbreth had in 2010, about 17 people shaved their heads to show their support. At this party, four people shaved their heads and many had a strip of their hair dyed pink. Culbreth said she has lost track of the total number of people who were not able to make it to the party who have done the same.

"It's been cool," she said. "It's been people from a girl I went to middle school with and high school with, to soldiers I deployed with to Iraq, to present-day folks that I served with in Charis Foundation and worked with as therapists."

About 30 people gathered at the farm to celebrate Culbreth and support her in her fight, including Sgt. Carrie MacCollum, with the 1132nd Military Police Company, another of the soldiers who deployed with Culbreth in 2009.

"She’s being the boss of the situation," MacCollum said. "She’s not letting cancer beat her, she’s beating cancer. She took it upon herself to shave her head and she’s taking her hair, not cancer. So she’s beating this and we’re all here to support her with that. We’re beating it with her."

Culbreth spent the evening surrounded by her family of friends and soldiers who she draws on for support.

"The military is my family," Culbreth said. "That’s who I have depended on since I got in in 2006. They are my brothers and sisters. I wouldn’t know what to do. Some of the first people I told were buddies that I deployed with. My unit, my brothers and sisters in the guard, my participation in the 30th Infantry Division Association, those are the people I depend on. The whole Guard is family thing seems like a pithy saying, but I’m living proof that it’s more than that, that it's true and it's honest or there wouldn’t be so many people here tonight."

Culbreth has spent eight years in the North Carolina National Guard as a chaplain, being part of the support system for other soldiers. She said that sometimes being a chaplain it feels as if she is invisible, but at the party she realized how many people care.

"Sometimes you feel invisible," she said. “You’re the fire extinguisher; break in case of emergency. When (life gets hard), everybody wants you there, but sometimes you wonder if people notice in the meantime, and the answer to that is yes, because tonight shows people care. And that’s really important to me."

28 October 2014

Giving the Gritty Gift of Military-themed Poetry

A collection of poetry is like a comic book, or a pamphlet of daily meditations: Easy to pack. Easy to read and re-read. Easy to pick up and put down. (Poetry is both transportive, and transportable. Discuss.)

The right poem can also stick with you for years. It doesn't have to be "great," as defined by some professor's syllabus or publisher's list of best-sellers. But it does have to be shared.

Because, when it comes down to it, finding that one poem means that the writer successfully communicated something—a joke, a thought, an image, an experience—from his or her life, to yours. Why not try to multiply that connection to even more people?

Fellow traveler and military poet Fred Rosenblum sent me a copy of his poetry collection "Hollow Tin Jingles," published earlier this year by Main Street Rag Publishing Co.

Like me, he's exploring his military experience and engaging others through short, one-page poems. He's big on wordplay and small on capitalization. He seems to gravitate toward sardonic humor. Unlike me, however, he's a Vietnam War-era veteran, a former U.S. Marine and mortarman. He enlisted in 1967.

Some of the poems in "Hollow Tin Jingles" were first written in the 1980s. Others are more recent. Rosenblum retired in 1998, and says in interviews that he's only recently hit kind of a publishing groove.

Rosenblum has had poems appear in the first two volumes of "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors," an annual series published by Southeast Missouri State University Press. He's also had work published elsewhere, including the Spring 2014 issue of Consequence magazine, as well as the 2013 issue of Blue Streak: A Journal of Military Poetry.

Rosenblum's poetry delivers not only the experiences of combat, loss, and suffering in Vietnam, but also unadulterated doses of music, drugs, and sex downrange. Such details may seem foreign and exotic to veterans of more-recent conflicts, but—like all war stories—they ring true ... or true enough. It was a different time, and a different place. Everybody has their own war.

You can find samples of Rosenblum's poetry at his publisher's website, as well as other venues on-line. This isn't a very traditional review, I know—if it's even a review at all. But I do want to share a poem here that has resonated with me—one to which I've returned again and again. I'm O.D. envious of what Rosenblum manages to pack in these few lines. It appears on page 40 of "Hollow Tin Jingles":
by Fred Rosenblum

I was kicked
in the head of a scramble
to take cover
in a rainwater ditch

with a pusillanimous soul
our hands
tembling in the transfer
of effigies
and menthol

huddled in the mud
replete with petitions
to a Lord who would randomly
select of us for death

huddled on the line
near a C-130
her crippled wing surrender
atilt on a tarmac
oily-black billows of smoke.
In a May 2014 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rosenblum says that he doesn't write for therapeutic reasons:
I'm not really a student of the healing-through-art school of thought. It really hasn't worked for me. There are workshops all around the country where people go to write and they find it therapeutic. It's just not that way for me. [...]

What I get out of it is I'm able to give a voice to people who can't spill their guts. It also gives me a chance to talk about something that I know and to play with words at the same time.
I'd like to think that there are many Fred Rosenblums out there, dropping their words like shells into tubes—dialing it in, walking it in—until they find their targets.

Seek out their work. Find a military-themed poem or two that resonates with you. Share it with others. Talk about the reasons why.

Give voices to people who can't spill their guts.

22 October 2014

Comic's First Issue Tells of World War I Code-Talkers

The comic book "Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers," recently released by the Indigenous Narratives Collective, Austin, Texas, helps introduce readers to a rich history of Native American soldiers on 20th century battlefields.

The comic is written and illustrated by Arigon Starr. A series and/or collected volume of comics is planned.

The practice of using speakers of Native American languages to encrypt military radio transmissions is well-known and celebrated in some circles. It even served as the inspiration of a 2002 feature film "Windtalkers." (Admittedly, that film had shortcomings, including the fact that it focused on a non-Native American protagonist.)

However, few realize that the practice originated not with the use of Navajo speakers in the Pacific Theater during World War II, but with Cherokee and Choctaw speakers in World War I France.

During that war, Cherokee men assigned to the U.S. 30th Infantry Division used their language during to pass communication between headquarters and front lines.

Some 14 Choctaw men similarly served in the U.S. 36th Infantry Division. The first issue of "Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers" comic tells the story of Cpl. Solomon Louis and other Choctaw soldiers. According to the Choctaw Code Talkers Association website:
Code Talker Solomon Bond Louis, 142nd Infantry, was from Bryan County. He is credited with being the leader of the original Choctaw Code Talkers during the war. Seeing his buddies at Armstrong Academy enlist in the armed services, Louis who was underage, pretended to be 18 so that he too could join. He received his basic training at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. 
He was sent to Ft. Worth, Texas where he joined an all-Indian Company which was part of the 36th Division. In France, Louis was stationed at Division Headquarters with James Edwards on the other end of the telephone line out in the field at the front line. Edwards informed Louis in Choctaw what the Germans were up to.
In World War II, 27 members of Iowa's Meskwaki (Sac and Fox) people used their language skills in the North African Theater. They were assigned to Iowa's 168th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.

A Facebook page for the Indigenous Narratives Collective is here. The $5 "Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers" No. 1 issue may be ordered here. Use the code GAKAC2014 to receive 10 percent off, and a second issue will be donated to a Native American student of history.

A $15 limited-edition poster, illustrated by Kristina Bad Hand, features the cover design for the first trade paperback collection of the comic series. It is available for sale online here.