Edited by Dario DiBattista
Hudson Whitman, 2016
Unless one is combat trained and experienced, what goes on during the throes of war and after one’s return from the hell of it can only be imagined. Across time, writers have attempted to capture both the hell of war and the hell of return, beginning with Homer’s Odyssey, a tale of post-war wandering that describes the homecoming for warriors as “out of one war into another.” In his introduction to Retire the Colors: Veterans and Civilians on Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Dario DBattista, Ron Capps makes exactly this point when he refers to the literary canon of war and the return from it. What sets this compilation apart from the novels and poems of war is that in 186 too-few pages, it offers the truths of 19 voices intimately involved with combat or impacted by it, regardless their distance from the front lines. The well-crafted essays in this book soar not only because every author reveals something truthful and painful about their experience wearing the cloth of the nation, but also because these pieces represent well-drafted and compelling stories, offspring of the Veterans Writing Project, a program that fosters excellent literature by veterans and their families. In short, this is a compilation that every American must read, especially those who clamor to send our troops off to ever increasing deployments without any thought of the consequences.
Edited by Dario DiBattista, a Marine veteran with serious writing credentials as a teacher, writer, and editor, the book is divided into three sections: “War, Up Close,” “War, Beyond the Warriors,” and “War and What Follows.” Sections II and III each consist of seven essays while the first section offers five. All of the essays depict the complexities of human relationships and how they are shaped, sustained, or ended due to invisible wounds, the changing self-perceptions, survivors’ guilt and ravages of war that wreak havoc at home with personal relationships.
In the first essay, Brooke King, an Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2006 and a writer with work published in literary magazines, tackles the most frequently asked question civilians ask returning veterans: how many have you killed? She explains that this question comes packed with loads of unspoken judgements, especially since she’s a female veteran. (Female veterans comprised the fastest growing segment of the veteran population). She tackles this question by discussing the numbers she ends up keeping: the numbers of times she’s awake by nightmares, the numbers of body bags in the back of her military truck before and after each mission, the number of months she waited to see her family, the number of times she tries and fails to call home, among other counts. The number that most matters and the number people never ask about is how many she’s saved.
The other essays in the first section include “Echoes, Boston,” by Lauren Kay Halloran, “You Don’t Have to Go There,” by David P. Ervin, “The Combat Medic & I,” by C.H Guise, and Joseph R. Bawden,”It’s Nothing (Singed).” Each of these essays explore how the experience of serving in combat affects them personally, but also intimate partners. Halloran discusses being in Boston at the time of the bombings after having served and how it felt as if the war had followed her home. Ervin explores the cognitive dissonance that takes place after returning home to find that his perspective of home changed drastically that he couldn’t bear to be around people who fretted over petty things, whereas C. H. Guise gives readers the spouse’s point of view with her combat medic husband returns burdened by those he couldn’t save and how he doesn’t know who she is when he mimics his job in the middle of the night while in a dream-state. Bawden, who served for a decade in the armed forces, wonders in the final essay if he will experience a return of emotions and fears it won’t come in time for when his daughter will be born.
In the second section, the seventh essay titled “Niall,” by Mark Solheim, made me weep. Solheim, who did not serve, recalls his son Ian’s best childhood friend Niall, who enlisted in the Marines after having heard his grandfather’s stories. Niall, mostly raised by his grandparents after his parent’s divorce, demonstrated true musical and artistic talent, but he couldn’t get himself together enough to pursue either music or art as he slowly became adrift in high school, dabbling with drugs and alcohol. Inspired by his grandfather’s Marine stories, Niall signs up and Solheim tells us, appears happy that he finally seems to have a sense belonging and discipline. It hits everyone, including this reader, like a fatal blow to the face when Niall dies. After reading about Niall and caring deeply for him, his death came as a terrible shock to me, a horrible waste of talent and a life. Weeping, I had to push the book away for a bit, and this happened in several of the essays in which the living breathing people on the page carried took on and carry deep wounds.
The third section, the authors chronicle the return home bringing pieces of war with them, tucked into their DNA in such a way it changes their relationship with themselves and consequently with their loved ones. In the section’s opening essay, “Shot of Moonshine,” Chris Stowe tells us about his deep affection and care for his fallen fellow service member EJ whose death stunned his peers and the gifts that is returned to him after his death via an interaction EJ’s wife. Other essays in this section focus on healing and moving forward despite carrying around the pain and sacrifice of service, the losses of friends and family members unable to cope with their transformed loved one. Brian Caster’s essay, a slow-moving, measured meditation piece, “The Peace of May Labors,” ends the compilation on a note of hope, using the progression of Caster’s axe heads to demonstrate the trajectory toward healing.
In all, the essays are beautifully crafted pieces that offer readers intelligent, reflective story diamonds that illuminate how the ravages of war interrupt and punctuate the boredom of it and provides us civilians a glimpse of why and how our loved ones seem transformed into people we no longer know upon their return. These stories give readers an opportunity to view our returning combat veterans with more compassion, especially when their bodies remain at home with us but their minds continue to fight on elsewhere. These stories lend us all a greater understanding of the transition from military to civilian life and demonstrates with clarity what Homer means in the Odyssey when he refers to the war of homecoming being greater and more arduous than any battle at the front. Dario DiBattista does all of us a favor by sharing these wonderful essays with the rest of us, and perhaps readers will truly come to understand the sacrifice required to serve our nation in the armed forces during this so far, 15-year old battle against terror.