24 December 2017

OPORD for Operation Reindeer Games 2017

PHOTO: Army Spc. Jess Nemec and 1st Lt. Sarah Johnson/Released

Blog-editor's note: This post was originally published on the Red Bull Rising blog Dec. 23, 2013, and again here at the now-archived mil-blog digest "The Sandbox." Starting in 2014, we FRAGO'd the dates and the illumination data, and topped it off anew with a holiday shot (above) from the Minnesota National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 147th Assault Helicopter (2-147 A.H.B.), 34th Combat Aviation Brigade (34th CAB). Those Red Bull aviation soldiers were deployed to Camp Beuhring, Kuwait, and elsewhere. While all Red Bull units are now currently at home, let's remember deployed service members and their families in thoughts and prayers this holiday season! 


I. SITUATION: TASK FORCE SHERPA continues holiday sustainment operations vicinity FOB LIVINGROOM.
1. Enemy Forces: 
Refer to Appendix X, "Naughty List." 
2. Friendly Forces / Attachments: 
a. One (1) soldier, callsign "SCOOP," from TF GI-JOE Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, location OP ELFONSHELF.  
b. One (1) Pathfinder-qualified soldier from 1225th Special Operations Aviation Regiment ("The Night-stockers"), callsign "RUDOLPH," location AO ROOFTOP.
c. Five (1) soldiers from 334th Brigade Support Battalion, 2-34th BCT attached as Forward Logistics Elf Element (FLEE), callsign "WORKSHOP," location AO UNDERTREE.
d. Ten (10) 03s-a-leaping from HHC, 2-34th BCT attached as command-and-control cell.
PHOTO: 34th CAB, Minn. Army National Guard, 2013
3. Weather and Terrain: 
High of 25 degrees Fahrenheit; low of 12 degrees. No effects on current snow cover. Condition WHITE for sleigh-borne operations.
4. Illumination:
At only 34 percent peak illumination, the moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow is not likely to give the lustre of mid-day to objects below. Moonset is 241101DEC17. Civil twilight is 250740DEC17. Sunrise is 250740DEC17. 
As noted in After Action Reviews of past holiday ops, however, SUGARPLUM elements have been known to stir well before light conditions warrant, or even Christmas Reveille.
"TF SHERPA secures LANDING ZONE CHIMNEY NLT 242330DEC16 and conducts resupply via reindeer-drawn miniature sleigh during hours of darkness prior to 250740DEC17. On order, commences opening of presents and distribution of holiday themes and messages."
1. Commander's Intent:
TF SHERPA will conduct safe and secure receipt of Christmas gifts, minimizing boots-on-ground time and distractions for RED-RYDER-6. Endstate is a Happy Christmas to all personnel, and to all a good night.
2. Concept of Operation:
We will start by ceasing all garrison activities, troop movements, and roving patrols beginning 242100DEC17. No personnel should be stirring. Not even a mouse. Stockings will be hung by the objective with care. All SUGARPLUM elements will be nestled all snug in their bunks. 
RED-RYDER-6 will arrive LZ CHIMNEY during hours of darkness, and will successfully evade detection by SUGARPLUM elements and local civilian air-traffic control. 
Following the operation, TF SHERPA personnel will prepare to conduct Key Leader Engagements with both sides of the family. 
Throughout this operation, TF SHERPA personnel will also reinforce themes and messages of "Peace on Earth, goodwill to all" via appropriate official STRATCOM channels, including social media and telephone.
3. Maneuver:
Under no circumstances should unauthorized personnel stir to investigate clatter from exterior areas, including rooftops.
4. Fires:
On order, 1-194th Field Artillery will provide 1.55 cm artillery-delivered tinsel as chaff to defeat detection of TF RED-RYDER by regional air-traffic control radar.
5. Coordinating instructions:
Authorized sleeping uniform is kerchief, cap, or green fleecy hat; MultiCam pajamas; and red-and-white "candy stripe" reflective safety belt. Noise and light discipline will be maintained per SOP. Senior personnel are encouraged to employ red-light headlamps or night-vision devices.
6. Specific instructions:
Headquarters will redeploy public affairs team member SCOOP from OP ELFONSHELF to vicinity LZ CHIMNEY for documentation of gift-giving operations NLT 250700DEC17. Mission focus will be on "telling the Christmas story by telling our Army story."
1. 334th BSB will provide (1) Meal, Ready-to-Eat to RED-RYDER-6. Ranger cookies and shelf-stable milk are appropriate. On order, also provide one (1) 64 lb. bag of Reindeer Chow.
2. Religious services are 241900DEC17, and 251000DEC17.
1. Location of Key Leaders: 
HOUSEHOLD-6 and HOUSEHOLD-7 will be in the command bunker after 242100DEC17. 
2. Succession of command: 
3. Callsigns: 
Holiday callsigns are NOT authorized. Under no circumstances should SUGARPLUM elements refer to HOUSEHOLD-6 as "NUTCRACKER-6." The previously published SOI was in error. HOUSEHOLD-7 is very, very sorry. 
4. Challenge / Password for 24DEC14 is: "SMOKE" / "WREATH." 
5. Challenge / Password for 25DEC14 is: "BOWLFUL" / "JELLY." 
6. Running password is "FIGGY PUDDING."
1. Use ground guides when backing reindeer. 
2. Use drip pans and chocks when parking sleighs. 
3. Don't drink nog and drive. 
4. "Safety first, Christmas always."

06 December 2017

New Essay Reveals the Origins of the 'Red Bull' Patch!

From the writer of the Red Bull Rising blog! New work includes "10 haiku about Operation Desert Storm," appears in the latest volume of "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" anthology series, released earlier this week! Written in the snarky spirit of "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire," the work includes such gems as:
Saddam promises
the “Mother of All Battles”
if we take Kuwait.

Voice of Darth Vader
adds commercial gravitas:
“This ... is C.N.N.”

Laser-guided gaze
reveals war is really just
Super Nintendo.
Also appearing in the 230-page anthology is "Marvin Cone Goes to War," a 3,000-word essay about how artist Marvin Cone, then a U.S. National Guard private first class from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, came to design the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division insignia. The story involves trips that Cone took with his unit's officers, into the New Mexico desert, seeking out treasures from archeological dig sites first established by Smithsonian Institution scientists. Think of it as ... "Raiders of the Lost Bowl"!

Published by the Southeast Missouri State University Press, the book can be purchased via Amazon here.

Other recently published books about the 34th Inf. "Red Bull" Division can be found at this link.

20 November 2017

Great Red Bull Book & Holiday Gift Ideas!

Here are some new finds and old favorites for this year's grab-bag of holiday gift ideas for 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division service members, veterans, family, and other boosters:

"Reporting for Duty: U.S. Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011," edited by Randy Brown, chronicles the year-long deployment of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) as one of the only U.S. National Guard brigades to engage in Full-Spectrum Operations in Operation Enduring Freedom. Relive all the missions—humanitarian and combat, morale-building and training—from the largest deployment of Iowa troops since World War II!

("Citizen-Soldier," a 2016 documentary film about Oklahoma National Guard's 45th Inf. "Thunderbird" BCT, which replaced the Red Bull in Eastern Afghanistan's Laghman Province, makes a great companion gift!)

Not a big reader? There's a "Red Bull Rising" Zazzle store with holiday cards, ornaments, and other designs! One favorite? This "Red Bull" snowflake ornament!

"Roaring Bull: The 34th Infantry Division in the Global War on Terror" by Brian Leehan is a 220-page yearbook-style collection of oral history, chronology, and photographs, tracing the division's multiple deployments between the years 2002 and 2016. (Leehan is also author of the civil war history "Pale Horse at Plum Run: The First Minnesota at Gettysburg." That unit's lineage is maintained the modern-day Red Bull's 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment.)

Underwritten by the 34th Infantry Division Association, Johnston, Iowa, the "Roaring Bull" book project will be an essential foothold for future family and unit historians. The 8.5-by-11-inch hardcover features interviews with approximately 60 current and former Red Bull soldiers, and more than 250 color photographs and maps. Cover price is $39.99. It can be mail-ordered with personal check or PayPal (for $37, including $5 shipping and handling), or purchased for $32 at the following locations, while supplies last:
"Deming, New Mexico's Camp Cody: A World War One Training Camp" by Jim Eckles is a fun tour of the training hardships faced by the citizen-soldiers of Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota who first organized as the U.S. 34th Infantry Division. While the unit has always been represented by the distinctive shoulder patch designed by painter and solider Marvin Cone of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it was first named the "Sunshine" and then "Sandstorm" Division, the latter based on conditions in the dusty, hardscrabble camp. (The unit's "Red Bull" moniker was a World War II invention.)

The book's production and the author's tone are both friendly and accessible—reading it is a bit like conversing with a knowledgeable museum guide. The facts and anecdotes come freely, and, while readers may struggle to place each nugget into context, they'll certainly walk away entertained and informed. One favorite factoid? On April 7, 1918, the Chicago Cubs faced off in an exhibition game with players from the 34th Inf. Div. The Cubs won, 8-0.

"Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire" by Randy Brown is an award-winning collection of snarky poetry that often packs a powerful emotional punch. Brown takes from his experiences as a former "Red Bull" citizen-soldier, and as a civilian journalist who briefly embedded with the Iowa National Guard's 2-34th BCT in Afghanistan. (A 3,000-word essay by the same author, titled "Marvin Cone Goes to War," is featured in the latest volume of "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" anthology series.The essay describes how artist Marvin Cone, then a private first class, came to design the Red Bull insignia.)

In one "FOB Haiku" poem, titled "From a Red Bull in Winter," Brown describes the Red Bull patch and the people it represents:
[…] The army wears its stories on our sleeves.
Every scrap is a battle, every stitch is a past.
We are canvas, leather, dust, and blood.

At airport gates and main street parades,
the right shoulder patch carries with it
Africa and Afghanistan, Italy and Iraq.

But you are more than these threads, these fragments, those bones:
You continue the march. You are the present, armed.
You are the “Attack!”

01 November 2017

New War Poetry: Eric Chandler's 'Hugging This Rock'

In a new collection of poetry about life and war as a pilot, parent, and outdoor sports enthusiast, Northeastern Minnesota author Eric “Shmo” Chandler delivers plenty in laughs and love—of family, of country, and of navigating one’s place in the world. Whether soaring at 40,000 feet, or carefully considering the flowers he encounters by the trail, his words are rich with insight and humor.

Published this week by Middle West Press LLC, "Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love & War" (116 pages, trade paperback) is now available in a $9.99 print edition, as well as a $5.99 e-book via Amazon.

A cross-country skier, marathon runner, and former F-16 fighter pilot, Chandler is also author of the 2013 collection of essays "Outside Duluth," and the 2014 military-themed novella "Down In It." His fiction, non-fiction, and award-winning poetry have appeared widely both on-line and in print. He blogs at: https://ericchandler.wordpress.com/

Chandler is a two-time winner of the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Writing Award administered by the on-line literary journal Line of Advance. He is a member of the Lake Superior Writers organization, the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and the Military Writers Guild.

A 1989 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Chandler retired after a 24-year military flying career with the U.S. Air Force and the Minnesota Air National Guard. He is a veteran with three deployments to Saudi Arabia for Operation Southern Watch; three deployments to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom; and one to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. He flew over 3,000 hours and 145 combat sorties in the F-16.

Now a commercial airline pilot, Chandler lives in Duluth, Minnesota with his wife, two children, and a rescued dog named Leo.

Middle West Press LLC is a Johnston, Iowa-based editor and publisher of non-fiction, fiction, journalism, and poetry. As an independent micro-press, we publish from one to four titles annually. Our projects are often inspired by the people, places, and history of the American Midwest.

11 October 2017

Same Mission, Different Verse: The Aiming Circle

When I first started writing the Red Bull Rising blog in December 2009, it was partly because I needed to learn about blogging technology and practice for a then-upcoming full-time Army job, and partly to document for my very young children what had been so gosh-darn important that I had to leave home for a year.

Later, when I got dropped off the deployment list for Afghanistan, I found myself writing in order to translate and document the experience for my buddies' families.

I eventually traveled to Afghanistan on my own dime (and my wife's airline miles), and embedded with my former unit as civilian media in May-June 2011.

In each and all of these endeavors, I've followed the same mission statements:
  • To explain in plain language the roles, responsibilities, and routines of the U.S. citizen-soldier, with particular focus on the U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.
  • To illuminate ways in which citizen-soldiers past and present--as well as their families--can be remembered, supported, and celebrated.
After I retired from the Army National Guard, I found myself exploring different forms of art and writing other than journalism, often during events that brought service members, families, and veterans together to share military experiences. Since then, I've been published many times as a poet and essayist.

I wrote an award-winning book, "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire," which was published in 2015.

I also helped collect and edit a 668-page book of news articles and photographs generated by the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division during its deployment. That book is "Reporting for Duty: U.S. Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011," published in 2016.

As I've continued to generate poetry, essays, and other military-themed writing, I've sought to encourage and enable others do to the same. I regularly signal-boost publishing opportunities via a special "Get Published" page on the Red Bull Rising blog. I conduct how-to workshops and seminars. I edit the poetry section of the non-profit Military Experience & the Arts' "As You Were" literary journal. I peer-mentor via conversations with my fellow members of the Military Writers Guild.

Having grown beyond military blogs, "Veterans Lit" is now a vital and vibrant field of practice. I'll include in this label any man or woman, military or civilian, who attempts to build community and mutual understanding through art and writing. This is not just writing to express one's feelings (as it is so often dismissively regarded)—this is doing the hard work of stitching society back together.

It may be time to expand the effort to include more fronts, and to ask for more active engagement by my fellow practitioners.

You can continue to read about citizen-soldiers and how to support them at the Red Bull Rising blog here, and at the related Facebook page here. That includes occasional humor, news, events, and reviews of books, movies, and other media of potential interest to military service members and their families.

You can continue to read about my adventures as citizen-soldier-poet at the FOB Haiku blog here, and at the related Facebook page here.

And now, if you are a fellow practitioner of military writing—poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essay, you name it—you can help support and explore a growing amount of how-to coverage at The Aiming Circle blog here, and at the related Patreon page here.

06 September 2017

Tennessee Group Announces Veterans-Writing Retreat

Blog editor's note: The following post is based on press release materials. No endorsement is necessarily to be implied.

Sundress​ ​Academy​ ​for​ ​the​ ​Arts (SAFTA)​, Knoxville, Tenn., ​announce​s ​its​ ​first​ ​writing​ ​retreat​ ​for​ ​veterans​ ​will be held​ ​Oct. 7-8,​ ​2017.​ ​This​ ​2-day​ ​retreat​ ​at​ ​SAFTA's​ 45-acre ​Firefly​ ​Farms​ ​is​ ​for​ ​military​ ​veterans​ ​and​ ​current​ ​service​ ​members​ ​and​ ​will​ ​be a​ ​space​ ​for​ ​creativity,​ ​writing​ ​exercises,​ ​discussions​ ​on​ ​ways​ ​to​ ​write​ ​about​ t​rauma,​ ​advice​ ​on​ ​publishing,​ ​and​ ​more.​ ​This weekend​ ​will​ ​be​ ​an​ ​opportunity​ ​to​ ​express​ ​shared​ ​experiences​ ​and​ ​learn​ ​to​ ​write​ ​your​ ​story​ ​for​ ​a​ ​non-military​ ​audience.

A​ ​weekend​ ​pass​ ​includes​ ​one-on-one​ ​and​ ​group​ ​instruction,​ ​writing​ ​supplies,​ ​food,​ ​drinks,​ ​and​ ​all​ ​on-site​ ​amenities​ ​for $75.​ ​​ ​Tents,​ ​sleeping​ ​bags,​ ​and​ ​other​ ​camping​ ​equipment​ ​are​ ​available​ ​to​ ​rent.

The​ ​event​ ​will​ ​be​ ​open​ ​to​ p​eople​ ​of​ ​all​ ​backgrounds​ ​and​ ​experience​ ​levels​ ​and​ ​provide​ ​an​ ​opportunity​ ​to​ ​work​ ​with talented,​ ​published​ ​fiction​ ​writers​ ​and​ ​poets,​ ​including​ ​Jeb​ ​A.​ ​Herrin​ ​and​ ​Jan​ ​LaPerle.

Jeb​ ​A.​ ​Herrin​ ​was​ ​a​ ​medic​ ​with​ ​the​ ​3r​d​​ ​Infantry​ ​Division​ ​during​ ​Operations​ ​Iraqi​ ​Freedom​ ​and​ ​New​ ​Dawn.​ ​He​ ​earned​ ​his BA​ ​in​ ​English​ ​and​ ​MFA​ ​in​ ​Poetry​ ​from​ ​the​ ​University​ ​of​ ​Tennessee,​ ​where​ ​he​ ​was​ ​the​ ​2016​ ​winner​ ​of​ ​the​ ​John​ ​C.​ ​Hodges Award​ ​for​ ​Creative​ ​Writing​ ​for​ ​Poetry.​ ​His​ ​work​ ​can​ ​be​ ​found​ ​in​ ​​Political​ ​Punch​​ ​and​ ​​O-Dark-Thirty​.​ ​Jeb​ ​has​ ​future​ ​plans of​ ​blending​ ​the​ ​world​ ​of​ ​composition​ ​with​ ​creative​ ​writing​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​finding​ ​ways​ ​to​ ​make​ ​the​ ​voice​ ​of​ ​the​ ​veteran​ ​heard. He​ ​lives​ ​in​ ​Knoxville​ ​with​ ​his​ ​wife,​ ​son,​ ​and​ ​two​ ​dogs.

Jan​ ​LaPerle​ ​lives​ ​in​ ​east​ ​Tennessee​ ​with​ ​her​ ​husband,​ ​Clay​ ​Matthews,​ ​and​ ​daughter,​ ​Winnie.​ ​She​ ​has​ ​published​ ​a​ ​book​ ​of poetry,​ ​​"It​ ​Would​ ​Be​ ​Quiet"​​ ​(Prime​ ​Mincer​ ​Press,​ ​2013);​ ​an​ ​e-chap​ ​of​ ​flash​ ​fiction,​ ​​"Hush"​​ ​(Sundress​ ​Publications,​ ​2012); ​a story​ ​in​ ​verse,​ ​​"A​ ​Pretty​ ​Place​ ​To​ ​Mourn" ​​(BlazeVOX,​ ​2014);​ ​and​ ​several​ ​other​ ​stories​ ​and​ ​poems,​ ​and​ ​in​ ​2014​ ​she​ ​won​ ​an individual​ ​artist​ ​grant​ ​from​ ​the​ ​Tennessee​ ​Arts​ ​Commission.​ ​LaPerle​​ ​was​ ​on​ ​active​ ​duty​ ​at​ ​Fort​ ​Campbell​ ​for​ ​three​ ​years and​ ​has​ ​spent​ ​12​ ​years​ ​as​ ​an​ ​Army​ ​reservist,​ ​most​ ​recently​ ​as​ ​a​ ​career​ ​counselor.

We​ ​have​ ​two​ ​full​ ​scholarships​ ​available​ ​for​ ​the​ ​retreat​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​limited​ ​partial​ ​scholarships​ ​for​ ​those​ ​with​ ​financial​ ​need. To​ ​apply​ ​for​ ​a​ ​scholarship,​ ​send​ ​a​ ​brief​ ​statement​ ​on​ ​why​ ​you​ ​would​ ​like​ ​to​ ​attend​ ​this​ ​workshop​ ​and​ ​an​ ​optional​ ​packet​ ​of no​ ​more​ t​han​ ​eight ​pages​ ​of​ ​creative​ ​writing​ ​to​ ​Erin​ ​Elizabeth​ ​Smith​ ​at​: ​​erin AT sundresspublications DOT com​​ ​no​ ​later​ ​than Sept.​ ​15,​ ​2017.​ ​Scholarship​ ​recipients​ ​will​ ​be​ ​announced​ ​shortly​ ​thereafter.

Space​ ​at​ ​this​ ​workshop​ ​is​ ​limited​ ​to​ ​15​ ​people,​ ​so​ ​reserve​ ​your​ ​place​ ​today​ ​at: https://squareup.com/store/sundress-publications/item/veterans-writing-retreat

The​ ​Sundress​ ​Academy​ ​for​ ​the​ ​Arts​ ​(SAFTA)​ ​is​ ​an​ ​artists'​ ​residency​ ​that​ ​hosts​ ​workshops,​ ​retreats,​ ​and​ ​residencies​ ​for writers,​ ​actors,​ ​filmmakers,​ ​and​ ​visual​ ​artists.​ ​All​ ​are​ ​guided​ ​by​ ​experienced,​ ​professional​ ​instructors​ ​from​ ​a​ ​variety​ ​of creative​ ​disciplines​ ​who​ ​are​ ​dedicated​ ​to​ ​cultivating​ ​the​ ​arts​ ​in​ ​East​ ​Tennessee.

30 August 2017

War Poetry Book Review: Kim Garcia's 'Drone'

Poetry Book Review: "Drone" by Kim Garcia

In 46 poems, across five sections and 86 pages, poet Kim Garcia offers a panoply of perspectives on how we conduct modern war at a distance. There are poems written in the voices, minds, and tongues of pilots, wives, and targets—something for everyone. And, in the midst of desert images and intellectual constructions, there are also birds and bees and honeycomb. There are slow, meticulous observations of character and terrain, followed by quick strikes of eye-opening invention.

The book was published late 2016 by The Backwaters Press. The collection, on first readings, may feel a little atmospheric, distant, or aloof. Perhaps this is due to the subject matter, or to the book's origins in a 2014 interdisciplinary conference on drones and remote warfare held at Boston College.

Garcia's titles are often presented in clipped, militaristic syntax. Consider, for example, labels such as "Kevlar, Carbon, Quartz" and "Blue Early Morning Snow, Home Front." The cover image seems a similar blend of warm welcome and cold efficiency. The soft, matte photograph reproduces an Afghan rug depicting bird's eye views of various U.S.-style drones, similar in shape to MQ-1 "Predator" or MQ-9 "Reaper." Each has a tail propeller, and bears missiles under each wing.

Mixed messages. Perhaps this is an example of "Beware Trojan birds bearing gifts"?

Careful readers will be rewarded with a more-human, less-abstracted experience of war than what may be spray-painted on the fuselage, however. Garcia infuses her language with disparate vocabularies, creating inspired moments of cross-pollenated synthesis, such as the Psalm-like "Night Flight, Night Vision." In it, what might be otherwise presented as cold technical descriptions ("white hot parts of the map") are lased with double-meaning, and even punny word-play. (Consider, for example, the dark soldier humor of "toward a corps" mispronounced as "toward a corpse.")
[…] Flying to the white hot parts of the map in mountain dark. Lidless eye

mimicking a god's trick of seeing sinners
          everywhere from nowhere, raining fire.

We are sovereign sight's living hands, dreaming drone-like
          in infrared, grids and pixel-prisons.

Tunneling toward a corps, a vector mapped
          of human warmth, pattern only. […]
Garcia's closer observations of human interconnectedness are wonderfully warm and grounded, even when her subjects are alienation and death. While her contemplations on technology are intellectually engaging, it is her depiction of human experience that lands with the most emotional punch. From a backyard porch, for example, she launches "Talking About the War" […]
while a vet under the Blue Ridge with a red
neck, red arms,takes a battered lawnmower
from his truck and mows the back lawn.

We're foreigners—we know nothing about the land,
where hornets live, the bog near the ferns,
the root run bald on one side from years of mowing. […]
And, in "Old Friends," Garcia relates the loss of Omar, a young Turkish man the poet once knew.
"[…] He would be a father now, not the young boy bowing

and touching his heart, his mouth, his forehead, when he saw me.
He loved the mystics. He had all an idealist's weaknesses, purer

than mind. I would get in a boat and sail across the Bosporus if
my friends could come back to me, still friends, still undecided

about our future.
Garcia's "Drone" is an essential addition to the growing number of 21st century war poetry collections, and delivers a truth-seeking payload to a target located smack between technological tools and human tolls.

"Drone" is available in trade paperback via Amazon and other booksellers.

25 August 2017

Aug. 25: 34th Inf. 'Red Bull' Div. Celebrates 100 Years!

On Aug. 25, 1917, the 34th Infantry "Sandstorm" Division was organized at Camp Cody, New Mexico. While the distinctive unit patch was also created by Iowa National Guard soldier and regionalist artist Marvin Cone in that same year, the division did not take on the nickname "Red Bull" until World War II.

The division's birthday is specified as the official "unit day" of the 34th Infantry Division by the U.S. Army's Center of Military History. As such, this day is to be commemorated with stories, displays, and ceremonies of the unit's past accomplishments.

According to Army Regulation 870-5 (Chapter 6, Section 2, Paragraph C):
Each organization should observe its Unit Day as a training holiday and commemorate its history in ceremonies that stress unit lineage, honors, heritage, and traditions, as well as personal accomplishments of former and current unit members. The Unit Day program may also feature such activities as parades, concerts, sports, and other competitive events.
"Attack! Attack! Attack!" Please celebrate responsibly.

16 August 2017

The Quest for Combat Kelly & The Red Bull Story

And, just like that, my quest for my comics holy grail was over: "Combat Kelly," issue No. 21, published in 1954. Thirty-two pages. Original cover price: 10 cents. Potentially jam-packed full of racist attitudes and Red Bull history.

Granted, my quest had been a passive one. Something to look for at comics conventions and dealers. Something to browse through Internet auction sites, whenever I had trouble sleeping. A year or two ago, I'd almost successfully purchased a copy—fair condition, yellowed-but-readable pages—but that had somehow slipped through my keyboarding fingers. The seller's asking price had been about $20.

Imagine my surprise, when I randomly found the whole issue had been posted for free on-line. I had been clicking in the dark, and, suddenly, there it was.

Having grown up in the early 1970s, I'd never read any Combat Kelly comic books. Closest I got to war books was a few hand-me-down copies of Sgt. Rock ("Our Army at War") or G.I. Combat. Maybe an issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes.

Combat Kelly? Until researching the topic for the Red Bull Rising blog, I'd never even heard of him.

Combat Kelly was a character first published by Atlas Comics—one of the ancestors of Marvel Comics—from November 1951 to August 1957. The setting was the Korean War, which was fought between June 1950 and July 1953.

My search for issue No. 21 had little to do with Kelly himself, but in a secondary "back-up" feature, one that contained, to my knowledge, the only comic-book mention of the U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.

Although the unit patch is correct, the story doesn't call the "Red Bull" by name. Instead, it uses as its title an earlier moniker: "The Sandstorm Division." When it was first formed in August 1917, the unit took its first nickname from the weather and terrain surrounding Camp Cody, N.M. Most references say the name changed in World War II, to better reflect the unit patch designed by artist and citizen-soldier Marvin Cone.

The comic-book story accounts for only six pages of the 32-page issue. Ten pages (including inside- and back-cover) are advertisements. There's also a 2-page prose (text-only) story. In the 6-page main story, Combat Kelly and his pal Major Thorn get double-crossed by a South Korean they've rescued from execution, who turns out to be the notorious North Korean agent "Red Mary." Kelly and Thorn escape by flying a liberated MiG jet fighter. Asians are depicted in racist caricatures—agent "Red Mary," for example, is a cross between the Dragon Lady stereotype and Disney's Creulla de Vil. The lesson I take from all this? This comic is a document of its time. I should not be expecting high levels of artistic achievement, nor historical accuracy.

There are three other stories, other than the main Combat Kelly story. One is a retelling of a German horse cavalry during the First World War. "True War Stories that Made History … Told by Combat Kelly" opens with the narrator's statement: "The story of the Battles of Belleau Wood is in all the history books, but it's be a different story if it hadn't been for a couple of Marines who loved horse, and hated heinies!"

Filling out the issue: a 5-page story, art by Robert Q. Sale, regarding Cpl. Cookie Novak's rescue of a Korean child and later capturing the guerrilla "Bloody Mary." The plot—not to mention the naming the principal baddies as "red" or "bloody" something—feels a bit repetitive, even within a single issue.

And, what of the plot of "The Sandstorm Division" story? Drawn by Dave Berg—an artist who would later work for Mad magazine—the story takes place in World War II, during the division's crossings of the Volturno River in October 1943. In history, the operations were in the offensive against the southernmost German defenses in Italy, the Volturno Line. In the comic, the "Red Bull" patch appears five times in six pages—twice in caption boxes, and three times on the right-shoulder sleeves of Combat Kelly and Captain Thorn. (Thorn wasn't promoted to major until Korea.)

Here's how one comics database summarizes the story:
Combat Kelly is on a mission with the Sandstorm Division 34th Infantry Division battling Nazi forces under the command of Captain Thorn in Italy. Fighting Nazi soldiers, Combat spots an enemy boat along the Volturno River and tosses a grenade into it, it explodes just as it is passing under a bridge just as a German supply truck filled with ammo passes over it. The resulting explosion destroys both vehicles and destroys the bridge, hampering the Germans' abilities to get supplies into Rome. However it also eliminates their ability to get over to enemy lines.

However, Captain Thorn calls for steel boats while a pontoon bridge is built to travel across the river with supplies. Along the way Combat and Cookie's boat is attacked by German soldiers. Pinned down by enemy artillery fire, Combat and Cookie use a boat to cross the river and sneak up on the enemy base using dynamite to blow them up, allowing their forces to sends tanks and other vehicles across the water safely.
Unfortunately, other than thrill of seeing a "Red Bull" patch on the pages of a four-color comic, there's not much else that's special about the story. The writers might have plugged any unit connected with the Volturno River into the story. Apparently, they did just enough research to properly emplace their characters in both time and terrain.

The story invites a question, however: I wonder if they somehow got it right that the 34th Infantry Division didn't take on the "Red Bull" name until after the comic's publication date of 1954?

That sounds like another quest!

09 August 2017

Re-run: Review of 'Citizen-Soldier' Documentary Film

Film review: "Citizen-Soldier" (2016)

[Blog editor's note: This review originally appeared on the Red Bull Rising blog on Aug. 31, 2016. The movie is currently available on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.]

Before I offer a few insights and impressions regarding the new documentary "Citizen-Soldier," a few caveats up front:

1. The movie explores a recurring theme in U.S. history: How citizens routinely pick up their muskets to become soldiers. This is a theme fraught with tensions, between state and federal powers, and between those who argue that the United States must at all times maintain a large, standing, "professional" military, to those who who argue for a smaller active-duty military, augmented by citizen reservists in times of need. This is a central engine that drives much of my own research and writing. [Blog editor's note: The book "Reporting for Duty: U.S. Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011" was published in November 2016. The book collects reports and photos from the Iowa unit described below.]

2. The documentary depicts a unit that replaced the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division shortly after my media embed with the latter in May-June 2011. For a 9-month period, Oklahoma's 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (I.B.C.T.) was made responsible for all U.S./coalition missions in Eastern Afghanistan's Laghman Province. Together with Iowa's 2-34th BCT and Vermont's 86th IBCT, this represents the only times a brigade-sized U.S. National Guard unit was assigned as a "battlespace owner" during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

3. There are other connections. Afghanistan was not the first time, for example, that the Red Bull and Thunderbird fought and trod the same ground. In World War II, both units were at the battles of Anzio, Solerno, Sicily, and Mount Cassino. To my particular delight, each unit boasts unique artistic pedigrees, too. The Red Bull shoulder patch was designed in 1918 by Marvin Cone, a citizen-soldier who would later become a well-regarded regional artist. Famous World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin was a Thunderbird.

I am, in short, a big fan of the 45th IBCT. I am probably genetically predisposed to like this movie.


I like this movie. A lot.

That's not to say, however, that it's easy to watch. Or even fun. It is, however, necessary.

Released earlier this week on DVD and Blu-ray, the documentary "Citizen-Soldier" accurately captures the trials of people just like you and your neighbors—police officers, marketing directors, X-ray technicians—who are routine trained and transformed into soldiers. With this deployment, they tasked with fighting waves of unseen enemies, while traversing unforgivingly brutal terrain. Along the way, they adapt, improvise, and overcome.

"[O]ne thing the Guard is able to do very effectively," says Sgt. Jared Colson, who is a corrections officer on the civilian side. "We're able to look at things practically, and not just according to a manual."

Members of Oklahoma's 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment (1-179th Inf.), deployed to Combat Outpost ("COP") Najil in Laghman Province. Through footage shot by Oklahoma and attached combat camera soldiers, as well as other sources, "Citizen-Soldier" tells the story of a few platoons, follows them through various dismounted and mounted patrols, as well as an air-assault—Operation Brass Monkey, into the Saygal Valley. There are laughs, and there are tears.

An important note: Not everyone introduced at the beginning of the film survives the deployment. It does need to be said, however, that the violence is edited tastefully, and the reverence and respect Oklahoma has for its fallen is apparent throughout the journey home. These are sights that may be unfamiliar to active-duty communities: Patriot Guard motorcycle escorts and flag-bearers. Highways lined with Guardsmen and women, rendering final salutes. Citizen-soldiers have their own traditions, their own customs.

The "Citizen-Soldier" project was managed by the directors of "The Hornet's Nest" (2014), which told stories of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan through the eyes of an embedded civilian reporter. The Oklahoma documentary, however, is framed by two elements: First are scenes of present-day Thunderbird soldiers taking part in a live-fire training exercise, which provides a thematic connection to the National Guard's "Minute Man" history and culture.

Toward the end of the exercise, and at the end of the film, Command Sgt. Major of the Army National Guard Brunk W. Conley addresses a group of Oklahoma soldiers. "Think about 1775 […]," he says. "'The British are coming, the British are coming.' And blacksmiths, and inn-keepers drop their hammers, drop their plates and towels and bedding. They drop what their doing. And they run to the greens at Lexington and Concord […]"

"We've been doing this stuff since 1636 […]" Conley tells the troops. "We need you […] to keep the title of 'citizen-soldier.' There is something noble, something honorable, something romantic about that term."

The second framing device is an off-duty gab session among former platoon mates. A casual conversation alongside a river creates a space for reflection. There, the soldiers joke, for example, that their mobilization station of Camp Shelby, Miss.—a relatively flat place located near the Gulf of Mexico—was exactly like Afghanistan, except for maybe the all the mountains.

As Colson says earlier in the film, "Everywhere is up. Everywhere you walk is up." And the bad guys hold the high ground.

If you are an adult friend or family member of a U.S. National Guard or reservist who deployed to Afghanistan, you will want to see this film. If you are a veteran of Eastern Afghanistan, you might also enjoy the added bonus of seeing some of your old stomping grounds. (The usual trigger-warnings apply, however: While the film is rated "R" only for language, there is plenty of bang-bang and roadside boom here. The kind that might keep your mom up at nights. Depending on your own deployment history, maybe you, too.)

If you are a U.S. citizen and taxpayer, seeing this film should be a requirement. This is what you sent your neighbors to do, on your behalf: Leave their jobs, their friends, their families, the comforts and safety of home. Engage an enemy. Climb mountains. Search out bombs. Build a nation.

More important than what they did, however, "Citizen-Soldier" shows you who they are.

02 August 2017

Comics Journalism Book Review: "Rolling Blackouts"

Book Review: "Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq" by Sarah Glidden

Sarah Glidden's "Rolling Blackouts" is an essential exploration of what it means to ask questions and tell stories. You should experience it.

I say "experience," rather than "read." Or "view." Because "Rolling Blackouts" is what other people might dismiss as a comic book.

What should one call, however, a 304-page illustrated navigation of national identities and communications theory, one that crosses borders and shares private experiences, and that seeks concrete answers while also celebrating ambiguity and complexity? Is the preferred term "graphic non-fiction novel"? A work of "Comics journalism"? To the uninitiated, these terms seem dismissive, inadequate to the artistic and rhetorical accomplishments at hand.

Although it defies easy labeling, Sarah Glidden's second book is imminently accessible. Each page is designed on a 9-panel grid, and filled with elegantly drawn pictures, warmly colored with watercolors. Action and exposition is primarily driven by dialogue—interactions among characters—rather than by authorial narration. To put it another way: There more word-balloons more than text boxes.

The illustrations offer setting and mood, giving readers a more-immersive experience than what might be possible via text, or even photo.

The book relates the 2010 story of four friends who make up a Washington-based non-profit journalism enterprise called The Seattle Globalist, who travel to Turkey, Syria, and Iraq in search of stories regarding the Iraqi refugee experience.

Glidden goes along for the ride, intending to observe and report on the process itself. Dialogue and events depicted in the book are based on her recordings, impressions, and memories of events. She notably and explicitly avoids labeling the work as memoir.

Multimedia journalists Sarah Stuteville and Jessica Partnow are life-long friends, who also knew former Marine artilleryman Dan O'Brien from high school days. As a military veteran, O'Brien goes along to file occasional video impressions of what it's like to return to Iraq, having deployed with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines to Ramadi in 2007. Alex Stonehill is the team's photographer.

Via Stuteville and others, Glidden learns about nuts-and-bolts journalism terms like "lav-mics" and "B-roll," and experiences first-hand the embarrassing, excruciating pain of transcribing interviews from digital recordings. Meeting other journalists in the field, she explores the limitations and advantages of embedding civilian journalists with U.S. military personnel, and how various types of sources are sometimes limited in their abilities to directly tell the stories of the refugees they're trying to help. Language is sometimes a barrier to effective reporting, a problem that Glidden's own visual, sequential medium seems uniquely able to depict.

Stuteville's standards of journalism are appropriate to all forms of non-fiction storytelling, whether blogging or Tweeting or writing for an old-school print publication. As such, "Rolling Blackouts" would be a useful text in journalism and communications classes:
  • Is it informative? Is it trying to inform people about a topic or a time or a person?
  • Is it reliable? Is it true and can we find out that it's true?
  • Is is accountable? Do we know who did it, and if we find out that something was untrue, will they take responsibility for it?
  • And is it independent? So did the person report this for no reason beyond getting to the truth, or did they do it because they were paid by an interested party?
"[Journalism's] not a medium and it's not a result and it's not a voice," Stuteville tells Glidden. "It's an expectation."

For the most part, Stuteville and her team are pragmatically idealistic, recognizing the freelance realities of marketing stories to editors. Some stories are necessary, because they'll help pay the bills. Other stories just won't sell.

Some of the dramatic tensions lay between individual team members as characters. Stuteville, for example, openly wants to leverage the powers of journalism to document a narrative change in her Marine friend O'Brien, but is repeatedly frustrated by her professional and personal inability to make that connection:
Dan O'Brien: "I feel a lot of pressure to give you good sound bites right now. I feel like the fate of your entire project is resting on me and I'm just blowing it and you guys are like, 'This guy hasn't said anything cool yet.'"

Sarah Stuteville: "Not at all. A good journalist doesn't go into a story already knowing the conclusion. People never say the stuff you want them to say … and the revelation that happens is never the revelation you were expecting. The story never goes the way it's supposed to. Which makes it kind of fun!"
Contrast this statement of editorial zen, however, with a later conversation between Stuteville and Alex Stonehill, the photographer:
Stuteville: "To me, the story of Dan is in the things he asserts that aren't true. The louder he says, 'I'm not that f---ed up veteran, the war didn't define me, I don't have bad dreams or anxiety …' the more I know it's true." […]

Stonehill: "Yeah, the best way for this to go from an editor's perspective is for Dan to meet some Iraqis and then have a nervous breakdown and be like, 'Oh, I'm so f---ed up over what I did and I have PTSD and war is so terrible.' That's the Hollywood narrative they want. But that's so f---ed up!" […]

Stuteville: "Dan was a little hippie kid from Seattle who was completely seduced by the bravado and romance of the military. He went in and he felt like he became a man, and some guys died, but he's glad he did it. And I don't get the sense that he will ever be un-glad that he did it. And you're not supposed to tell that story. No editor wants that story."
In a work full of professional trade secrets, clear-eyed self-examinations, and celebrations of ambiguity, Glidden has told a series of stories that is simultaneously behind-the-scenes, and insightful meta-commentary. She has effective captured the journalistic yin-yang by showing, not telling. As a non-fiction storyteller and as a military veteran, Stuteville's struggle is my own, as is O'Brien's. Glidden has provided a bridge, which privileges each perspective without judgement.

That's not just story-telling. That's art.

"Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq" is available in hard cover via Amazon and other booksellers.

19 July 2017

'As You Were' Now Open to Writing & Art Submissions

Editors at the literary journal "As You Were," published by the 501(c)3 non-profit organization Military Experience & the Arts, have opened the window for submitting poetry, fiction, and non-fiction until Aug. 14, 2017. Submissions will be considered for the journal's upcoming seventh issue, to be published FREE on-line in November 2017.

According to a website page describing the organization's publishing history and philosophy:
Our title ["As You Were"] also connotes a harkening back, an exploration of the self and the past. We’re interested in those words and works of art that are brave enough to cut through rank and time, presenting military experience honestly, free of the white-washing that can appear in today’s war literature and art. We’ve published numerous volumes since 2011, providing each contributor–regardless of whether that contributor has published 25 words or 25 books–with some form of one-on-one consultation if they wanted it.
As previously reviewed on the Red Bull Rising blog, the journal "As You Were" uniquely packages its submissions process as something akin to a virtual writing workshop. Unlike the thumbs-up-or-down approach of other journals, writers of all experience levels may engage in multiple drafts with peer editors and readers, while preparing pieces for publication. Regardless of whether a piece is accepted after one edit or many, however, the objective, however, is always the same: Help writers find new ways to document and communicate the military experience.

Military service members, veterans, family members, and others may submit writing and art. Works must previously unpublished, either in print or on-line, although they may be simultaneously submitted to other journals.

For poetry submissions guidelines, click here.

For fiction submissions guidelines, click here.

For non-fiction submissions guidelines, click here.

For visual arts submissions guidelines, click here.

Disclosure: The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog is also the poetry editor of "As You Were" literary journal.

12 July 2017

Welcome to the Basic Training Poetry Lovers' Club!

At various times during the past 16 years of war, I've anonymously sent buddies deployed downrange all sorts of wacky mail and care packages. Some of my favorites included:
  • A voice-changing Darth Vader mask.
  • An inflatable hot tub that looked like a fuel blivet.
  • Truckstop automotive supplies, such as "new car smell" air fresheners, steering wheel covers, and dashboard hula dancers.
Now, however, now my buddies have gotten old enough that I can send mail to their kids, while the latter are off at Boot Camp. I'm not mean or crazy enough to send them cookies or other pogeybait—if you do that, you'd better bake enough for the entire platoon—but I will drop them some semi-motivational snail-mail. Hooah?

(Back in the 1980s, drill sergeants would drop you 10 push-ups for postcards, and 20 for letters. I wonder what the going rate is now?)

During my first training experiences in the Army, I carried a copy of William Shakespeare's "Henry V" in my left cargo pocket. During fire guard duty and other peaceful times—there were few—I'd work on memorizing the St. Crispin's Day speech, or deciphering the rest of the play.

Inspired by this memory, I've been sending at least one lucky basic trainee this summer cycle some 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, U.S. Army, and Iowa-themed postcards, along with some potentially relevant selections from "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire." Poems include:
  • "wait for it"
  • "your squad leader writes haiku"
  • "your drill sergeant writes haiku, too"
  • "Jody stole your haiku tools"
  • "Grace, Ready-to-Eat"
Of course, if I am truly lucky—and my beneficiary truly isn't—a drill sergeant may even ask them to perform a dramatic reading of my work, in front of their peers!

I would pay money to see that! I'd even do a push-up or two!

28 June 2017

Poetry Book Review: 'Operational Terms and Graphics'

Poetry Book Review: 'FM 101-5-1 MCRP 5-2A: Operational Terms and Graphics' by Paul David Adkins

This recently published book closely follows Adkins' cheekily gothic war-poetry collection "Flying Over Baghdad with Sylvia Plath," also published by Lit Riot Press. Where the former explores modern wartime experience armed with Addams Family quirkiness and clever literary references, this recent entry leans into the foxhole walls of military vernacular and symbology.

Stick with me, soldier. It's funnier ... and "funner" ... than it sounds.

Rather than as a list of titles, the Table of Contents is presented as series of map overlays, each over an abstracted Baghdad. On these pages, each of the book's 43 poems is associated with a particular rune-like symbol. Those symbols mark kidnappings, convoys, Improvised Explosive Devices (I.E.D.), and other battlefield occurrences, per the current military reference. (In military fashion, the runes are explained in the poetry book's appendix.)

For various assumed reasons, Adkins does not explicitly address his many years of uniformed service. His opening poem, however, points to experiences as an analyst of patterns and terrain—a worker or manager in intelligence, located in a Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"). In "Military Intelligence," he memorably demonstrates that one does not have to be a front-line soldier to feel and act like a sheepdog. I'll not reveal the punchline—it is thrilling and artful and tragically, heroically true—but here's the set-up:
I did not see bodies,
blood nor burning trucks.
I did not brush aside
shrieking women in the flaming market
nor ignore their sobbing children.

I stayed on the FOB.

But I knew.

I did not see
but knew the way
I knew what happened
in the room next door
in college […]
A Red Bull Rising review of Adkins' first book is here. In that review, I lamented that examples of Adkins' more absurdist humor, such as the joyous "Helicopter Ride with a Cadaver Dog" and the true-life latrine humor of "Iraqi Army Unit on Camp Striker, Baghdad Iraq"—were AWOL in that collection. I am pleased to report that these favorites, however, as well as new works, are now present and accounted for in "Operational Terms and Graphics."

Each poem is a war story, a slice of Forward Operating Base life, a storyboard about battlefield actions that range from the significant to the mundane. Adkins' touch is light and direct, even when his subjects are dark. His reports and anecdotes include: observations on how male soldiers cover for female counterparts when they need to urinate during convoy missions ("Poncho Liners"); how distributions of "humanitarian supplies" are either received or rejected by Iraqi civilians ("Water Bottle Delivery"); and how IED-aiming markers removed by U.S. troops are soon replaced ("Tree of Woe").

Given my own attempts toward depicting Forward Operating Base ("FOB") life through poetry, I particularly appreciate when Adkins casts his gaze inside the protective wire. There are any number of poems that turn me green with envy. In "Passing the Flags," for example, he accurately and humorously depicts the flowery displays found at every Army shower point:
Throughout the shower trailer,
amid the steam and hiss
and shaving men
hung towels of every color.

The Army issued brown terry.
We buried
those spares in duffel bags
deep as tulip bulbs.

But in the trailer—yellow bath,
lime green beach, purple, chartreuse hand.
Sky blue, orange, even a pink washcloth

— Excuse me — it's salmon. […]
Adkins' humor is never offered without purpose, however. His work provides a necessary and complicating perspective, a counter-narrative designed to cut through the jingoistic fireworks of more mainstream military story-telling. As his narrator says in the persona poem "Iraqi Barber on FOB Barber":
[…] I noticed soldiers rush.

No time, no time

for a shave, an eyebrow trim. […]

[…] I clip and snip.

They tap their fingernails
against the armrests—
on empty guns.
Like the soldiers held briefly in a barbarous hair-cutters chair, Adkins' work should give us all pause.

Savor it. Revel in it.

It is sneaky. It is snarky. It is ... insurgent.

"Operational Terms and Graphics" is available in trade paperback here.

22 June 2017

Poetry Book Review: 'The Ghosts of Babylon'

Book review: "The Ghosts of Babylon" by Jonathan Baxter

In his 2016 collection "The Ghosts of Babylon" (Blackside Publishing), former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger and private military contractor Jonathan Baxter has produced a sublimely profane work of war poetry, one that is full of soldierly humor and gritty experience. The 142-page book has a punchy, pulpy sensibility, aided in part by integral black-and-white illustrations by Mark Reeve. In addition to dramatic splash pages, some of Reeve's artwork is incorporated behind or placed into specific poems, illuminating particular stanzas as if they were comic-book panels.

It is heady, grabby stuff: Real "Biff-Pow" Poetry.

More generally, Baxter's verse glides in and out of rhymed couplets and quatrains, blended with less-structured streams of consciousness. It sometimes feels like one of those loopy foxhole conversations with an incessantly nattering battle buddy—that one guy in the platoon who won't shut up, who reads a lot of books. That guy you begin to wonder about, after a while. The guy who seems on the cusp of either losing his sh--, or figuring out the punchline to the universe.

Baxter's smorgasbord of literary references include the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," and Shakespeare's "Hamlet"—nothing too foreign to scare off the grunting, guard tower crowd, but, at the same time, exotic enough for ivory tower tastes. It is a heady and surreal buffet, full of jester skulls, ecstatic latrine episodes, and the occasional giant robot. As he writes in "The Thieves of Baghdad": "I'm getting my myths all mixed up now / so busy writing my own down."

Throughout this chaos, Baxter captures scenes, moments, and aspects of 21st century soldier life that I've not seen addressed in any other poetry. Don't get distracted by Baxter's fireworks—he's out to illuminate some particular truths. There are moments of wisdom and insight that ignite like tracer rounds, spaced throughout Baxter's threads of feverish, belt-driven deliveries of language and image. It is either mad genius, or inspired madness. It's a roller coaster, but worth the ride. Just hold on.

In the "Ghosts of the Khyber," for example, he relates a haunting series of stories, and connects Rudyard Kipling's "Young British Soldier" to the fighting men of Alexander the Great, Soviet-era Spetsnatz, as well as 21st century fighters. In "When That Was Your War," he similarly compares and contracts his own fate to that of soldiers in World War I:
[…] You tripped on the bodies of your brothers
As you walked through the smoke and the fire
And lay down before the God of War
Like offerings at a funeral pyre […]

[…] And I sit, relaxed and serene
On a secure forward operating base
In my climate-controlled KBR unit
It is a most comfortable place […]

[…] Tonight I'll go to the gym and work out
Go to the chow hall and grab a plate
And later in my climate-controlled bathroom
I'll leisurely masturbate [...]
In "The Assaulters," Baxter explores the experience of serving on a Quick Reaction Force (Q.R.F.), unpacking the universally magical moment before something explodes, reality intrudes, and the mission starts:
the assaulters lounge
sprawled languidly in the oppressive heat
like so many hunting dogs

on the Stryker's ramp
relaxed, our heads back against the door frame
muscles charged with latent energy

leaning back in our kits
we sit, helmets off, radio traffic
idly crackles in the background

waiting on THE WORD […]
It is in this pre-contact purgatory that Baxter identifies a camaraderie that will be lost to veterans in peacetime:
[…] some of us try to settle
into the REAL WORLD, where we try to speak
a new language unstained by tobacco

or dead baby jokes
where civilians measure your cock by your
salary, car, or social status

and not by your competence
or by how well you shoot or by the
weights you can throw around in the gym

or that certain assurance
in your voice as you cross that last threshold
in that yawning and hungry darkness

lit only by your taclights […]
In "//NOTHING FOLLOWS," he leverages the end-line found on the DD-214—the form that summarizes a soldier's active-duty time upon separation from service—as something of a recurring refrain:
[…] The six deployments fit into one box
a jumble of numbers, lines and dots
I sift through the dates
each recounting a different place in my life

That one was my first
That one there was the worst
We lost Ricky there
That one was my first to Afghanistan
the land where time began
That one was my favorite and
But some things do follow, of course. We continue to carry the things we carried. In a wonderfully concrete addition to his barbaric yawping, Baxter's publisher devotes a number of back-pages to sharing some on-line, non-profit, and other resources, prompted by questions such as:
  • Are you contemplating suicide or experiencing a psychological health crisis?
  • Do you demons stir and murmur deep?
  • Are you struggling to find a purpose and a mission?
  • Do the deep wounds of war possess your mind?
  • Is the bottom of the bottle numbing your inner war?
Ideally, poetry inspires empathy, questions, and conversations. Baxter has seen fit not only to prompt such moments, but to offer his fellow veterans some potential solutions as well.

Baxter's "The Ghosts of Babylon" is available in trade paperback here.

14 June 2017

Book Review: "Granola, MN" by Susanne Aspley

Book Review: "Granola, MN: Love and War in a Nutty Little Town" by Susanne Aspley

Set in a fictional rural town in modern-day Minnesota, Suzanne Aspley's "Granola, MN" is a light-hearted romp through some potentially dark territory, including such topics as drug addiction, losing a child, and what it means to come home from war. It's bursting with Middle Western charm, snark, and wisdom.

Aspley's characters are full of character, new regional archetypes who each have their flaws, but who also generally support and believe in each other. The tone is snappy and fresh, so laugh-out-loud and dialogue-driven that it seems ready-made for a small art house film. Think "Northern Exposure" meets "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" Or "Gilmore Girls" as narrated by the clear-eyed, smart-mouthed title character in "Juno."

The exurban setting of Granola, Minn. (pop. 2,000) is rich with details that ring true, such as old-school hardware stores that serve free popcorn to customers, and sounds-about-right business names such as Git-n-Split, Liquor Pig, Taco Gong, and Chub Grocery.

Aspley's narrator-protagonist is the quietly ambitious Allison Couch (like the thing you sit on), who dreams of one day buying the town's hardware store, in order to save it from the clutches of the local real-estate hustler. Her friend and mentor, Mr. Whitehead, owns the "last Alamo of Granola's original downtown stores." The county building inspector, who also happens to own the adjacent strip mall, covets Whitehead's land for its potential as a parking lot. Plot-wise, that tension is far from the only thing going on, but it serves as an effective zipline through the book's smaller adventures.

Content with the day-to-day rhythms of Granola, Allison's worldview gets a little bigger when she meets Toby, a military veteran who was awarded the Silver Star for actions in Afghanistan. Toby has recently moved in with his mom, the principal of the area high school. The townspeople want to celebrate Toby with a float in the Fourth of July parade. Toby's relationship to the war, however, is complicated.

"People think I'm some kind of hero," he tells Allison. "But I don't feel like one. There's a clown jury, a box of bozos in my head that keeps telling me I'm guilty because I'm alive. And the jury don't stop replaying the evidence. […] I wish I could have save them all, or none of them. Or kill all the Taliban, or none of them. I don't like the feeling of playing God, like it was up to who I should save, or kill, or not."

Says the well-grounded Allison, a little earlier: "I think it's normal to be different after a war. You'd be crazy if it didn't affect you, but you gotta manage it a little better. And you can't do that alone, or by not letting people help you."

In short, "Granola, MN" is a delight. Nothing too deep, unless you think about it a little more. Or read it more than once. And, given how packed it is with wisecracks and jokes and plainspoken pearls of wisdom, you'll want to do both.

Author Susanne Aspley is a retired 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve. During her 20-year military career as a photojournalist, she deployed to places such as Bosnia, Cuba, Kuwait, and Panama. She is also a former drill sergeant, and served in Thailand as a member of the Peace Corps in 1989-1991. She has written two novels, and multiple children's foreign-language books.

"Granola, MN" is available in trade paperback and Kindle format.

07 June 2017

Book Review: 'The Warbird' by Tara Copp

Book Review: "The Warbird: Three Heroes, Two Wars, One Story" by Tara Copp

In a fast-reading 240-page book, journalist Tara Copp weaves together her own war narratives with those of her World War II fly-boy grandfather, who flew B-24 "Liberator" bombers out of England and Italy, and her Band of Brothers paratrooper great-uncle, who was among the first to parachute into France on D-day.

Along the way, readers are introduced to the U.S. Air Force security team with whom she shared as a newspaper reporter her first battlefield experiences in Iraq, and to the behind-the-scenes reality of the Rose Will Monroe, a civilian industrial worker who was one of the inspirations for the iconographic Rosie the Riveter.

Conceptually, the whole thing seems so heavily laden with editorial ordnance, you might wonder at it's ability to take flight. In Copp's sure hands, however, the book quickly achieves both speed and altitude, and cruises on to deliver bombshell after bombshell. It's an entertaining, insightful read. There are punchy anecdotes about student-pilots falling out of planes, for example, and bombing missions gone wrong. ("We Bombed Switzerland"?!) There's even a little infidelity tossed around. Nothing salacious. Just the facts. And more true to the military experience than other war stories currently on bookstore shelves.

Copp is a memoirist's memoirist. While still sentimental enough to address her grandfather's ghost directly in her ongoing internal monologue, she also casts an unblinking, realistic eye toward both familial faults and her own actions. The tone is conversational—at times, confessional. There's sex and bombs and divorce and death, but it's straightforwardly reported, rather than sensationalized.

During the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Copp was a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for Scripps Howard News Service newspapers in Texas. In 2011, she returned to Iraq as a Government Accountability Office employee. (She's now returned to journalism, a Pentagon correspondent for Stars and Stripes.) From these bookend experiences, she derives both a personal and philosophical response to war:
The allure of war took an early, fast grip upon me in 2003. It was though wiser eyes that I watched that same spell be cast […] eight years later at U.S. Embassy-Baghdad. The embassy was fortress America, a pressurized pit of high policy stakes with thoughts of men and women, so far from home. The excitement of war enveloped them too. The trysts that launched that fall, as they had every year before, became the tight-lipped fodder of friendships to last forever, because the people who went through this assumed no one back home would understand.

I finally understood it, and I didn't want to begrudge them the experience. But I still didn't want to go to dinner on those nights of steak and lobster, under festive bunting and enormous American flags. I wanted to honor war and the men and women who fought it for what it was, not how we wanted it to look. I knew that 2011 was no different than 2003 was not different than 1944. There was still cheating and drama, deaths and injury, greed and heroism. […]
On the ground, the B-24 Liberator is an ungainly, swollen-looking craft. In the air, however, and in the right hands, it delivers its payload, right on target. Tara Copp's "Warbird" is a great potential summer read, a fine Father's Day gift, or a unique find for the World War II aviation enthusiast who thinks they've already read it all.

Available in trade paperback, hardcover, Kindle, iBooks, and other formats.