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Reflecting 'Stateside' With A Loved One At War

Poet Jehanne Dubrow shares several poems from her third poetry collection, Stateside, about her experience as a Navy wife, trying to understand her own life while waiting for her spouse to return from war.

04:28

Other segments from the episode on May 31, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 31, 2010: Interview with Kelly Kennedy; Interview with Tim O'Brien; Interview with Jehanne Dubrow.

Transcript

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Remembering The 'Hardest Hit Unit In Iraq'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On this Memorial Day, we have the story of a platoon in Iraq that was in the
hardest-hit battalion since Vietnam and why these soldiers decided they could
no longer fulfill their mission in the surge. Their reaction was described by
some as a mutiny. They were tired and angry at the insurgents, insurgents who
paid children to throw grenades at the soldiers.

On one horrific day, they had suffered a series of devastating losses. The men
in the platoon were so tired and angry, they were afraid if they returned to
patrolling the streets, they'd lose control and murder civilians.

My guest, Kelly Kennedy, was embedded with these men, the 2nd Platoon, Charlie
Company 1-26th in June, 2007. She was with them on their worst day and on the
day a first sergeant committed suicide in front of his men. The platoon was in
Hamadia, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Baghdad. Kennedy's new book
is called "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-
Hit Unit in Iraq."

Kennedy covers health and medical issues for the Army Times, which is published
by Gannett, not the military. She served in the Army from 1987 to '93,
including tours in the Gulf War and Mogadishu. Our interview was recorded in
March.

Kelly Kennedy, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of the more dramatic events you write
about was when a 19-year-old, Ross McGinnis, threw himself on a grenade to save
four friends. Would you describe what happened?

Ms. KELLY KENNEDY (Author, "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy
of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq"): Sure. Ross McGinnis was 19 years old. He had
big, brown eyes and this huge grin, and he was silly, just kept the guys in
giggles all the time.

And about a week before December 4th, they'd been out on patrol. And someone
threw a grenade into a truck, and everyone jumped out, and it turned out to be
a dud. So everyone was safe. And then Ross kind of made jokes about it, like no
way, man, I'd be jumping out. I'd be the first one out of the truck.

So they spent the next week kind of practicing, you know, throwing tennis balls
into the trucks and then diving out. And then on December 4th, they're out on
patrol, and the grenade came right in through Ross' turret, and he was the
gunner. And he sees it. He tries to catch it. He's chasing it around the
turret, and he's yelling grenade, trying to get the guys out of the truck.

And no one really understood what was happening, and they didn't have time to
react, but Ross knew what was going on. So he chased it all the way back down
into the truck. And then one of the other guys, Ian Newland, saw the grenade
and watched as Ross McGinnis threw himself against it and took the brunt of the
force of the grenade and died instantly, but saved four of his friends.

And that was really interesting to me because you hear hero stories like that,
but you don't necessarily hear how that affects the men he's with. So they're
so grateful for what he did, but also always trying to figure out how they
could have saved him.

GROSS: And one man in particular, Ian Newland, thought that he could have done
more to save McGinnis. Ian Newland thought that he should have died, too. What
impact did that have on him?

Ms. KENNEDY: This is fairly common in combat stress that these guys feel guilt
over things that there's no way they could have changed, that Newland didn't
have time to do anything to fix that situation.

So, he feels like every single day, he has to live up to this gift that
McGinnis gave him. And I think he's coming to terms with that now. He's working
on opening a horse ranch in Colorado to try to help wounded veterans or
veterans dealing with PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that, among other things, after the grenade, he had
traumatic brain injury. And that's a pretty common injury now, in Iraq and
probably in Afghanistan, too, because – well, in Iraq because of the IEDs. I
think if you are in a vehicle that is hit or close to a vehicle that is hit by
an IED, the aftershock of that can cause a concussion or a traumatic brain
injury. Would you describe how frequently you think men in the company that you
were following ended up with traumatic brain injury, whether it was diagnosed
or not?

Ms. KENNEDY: Sure. There's varying degrees of a traumatic brain injury. In the
civilian world, we've always called them concussions. You know, it's, you know,
a football injury is a concussion.

These guys were generally dealing with mild traumatic brain injuries. But even
a mild traumatic brain injury can cause short-term memory loss, really bad
headaches, confusion and the anger issues.

Some of the guys actually end up with epilepsy, with seizures. And these guys,
every single one of them had been involved in some sort of a blast. And a blast
wave actually travels through the brain, through your whole body, and they're
still sort of studying how that affects you. If this blast wave is going
through blood then tissue then bone, how does that affect it?

But there are guys who were saying they were hit in as many as 15 times, and it
was important for them – they felt like it was important for them to always go
out with their guys. So they'd sort of try to scoot through on the testing
afterward to – the medics would do tests to see if they'd been injured, if
there had been a traumatic brain injury. And part of the test was a memory
test, you know, look at these three words, and then recite them back to me.

But the guys memorized all the words ahead of time so that they could keep
going out on patrol. So diagnosing it was difficult, anyway.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kelly Kennedy. She's a reporter
for the Army Times, and she has a new book called "They Fought for Each Other:
The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq." She embedded with
this unit in June of 2007.

You were with the company you were embedded with on their worst day. This was
in June 21st of 2007. What made that day the worst day?

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah, we'd spent a couple of days with them. I'd gone out with
that unit in particular because I'd heard they had a really amazing group of
medics, and I wanted to do a story about that. And I was also reporting on
combat stress, and I knew they'd been hit pretty hard.

So we went on patrols with them. Every patrol we went on, there was another
roadside bomb or an IED. And I mean, usually they'd find them and blow them up,
but I think they were all scared already because they knew that there were more
bombs out there.

So on the morning of June 21st, we went out on patrol with them, and then they
went out again, and a photographer, Rick Kozak, and I decided to stay back and
do some interviews while they went out on that second patrol. And we were
actually sitting out on some picnic tables talking to the guys about combat
stress when we heard an explosion. And what had happened was a Bradley, a 30-
ton Bradley, a 30-ton vehicle, had rolled over a massive, deep-buried bomb. And
it was so big that it flipped the Bradley over and left a hole the size of a
Humvee in the road.

And an interpreter, an Iraqi interpreter, and four of the guys died instantly,
and then a fifth guy was caught underneath the Bradley and couldn't get away as
it was burning.

And back at the aid station, all the guys knew was that this Bradley had been
hit. They didn't know who was in it. They didn't know how bad it was. They knew
it was on fire and that the guys were trapped inside, but they weren't hearing
any more information than that.

And we sat there for about an hour, just waiting. It was the worst hour ever,
waiting to hear what had happened. And then one of the guys heard over the
radio that they'd all died. And then as they were – as another unit, the 630th
MPs were responding to June 21st, to that Bradley explosion, one of their
female MPs was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and it decapitated her in
front of four of her teammates in a Humvee.

And then their chaplain was coming out to assist. And as he was driving out,
they ran over yet another IED in a Humvee, and the driver's legs were pretty
messed up after that, and Chaplain Choi ended up with some pretty bad bruising.

And so they finally get back in, and everyone's dealing with that. And the
battalion commander comes out, Colonel Eric Schacht. And as they're preparing
the body bags and taking care of the guys, they notified the colonel that he
needed to go back to the main base, where they told him that his son had died
that day. He had a 13-year-old son who had a heart condition, and he died.

So I mean, the day just kept getting worse and worse and worse, to the point
where you wonder how anyone could deal with it. It was horrifying.

GROSS: Well, the men in the platoon were wondering how they could deal with it.
They were – why don't you describe the range of emotional reactions you
observed among the survivors in this platoon.

Ms. KENNEDY: Sure. You know, it was all over the place, the way they reacted.
And there's a soldier named Gary(ph) DeNardi who was trying to get out of the
gate. You know, he's standing at the gate, trying to run out into the street to
help people, and the guards were actually holding him back, and he threw a
water bottle and was sort of stomping around.

There was another guy, Erik Osterman, who very calmly started spreading water
down on the sand to try to keep the dust down and making sure other people had
water to hydrate. It was really hot that day.

The medics were very calmly going about setting up the aid station, and they
didn't know how many people they'd be bringing in. A lot of guys just sitting
down with their heads in their hands, and distraught and waiting.

And there was one soldier who was actually really upset that there were – that
the media were there on that day.

GROSS: The media, meaning you and your photographer.

Ms. KENNEDY: Exactly. They had dealt with so many reporters in the past and
generally did pretty well with it. But that day was so personal to them. And
they were so upset about coverage, in general, that, you know, their friends
would die, and it would come up as a number on the news, and no one would know
who those guys really were. And they just wanted people to know who their
friends were, who they'd lost.

And I think they were afraid that we were going to go back and do this
sensationalistic story and use it in a political way. Their other complaint was
that their stories were often used to show that the surge wasn't working, and
they didn't want it to be political.

So one of the soldiers, we were asked to go inside after a while. They're,
like, the soldiers need to calm down. So can you go inside for a minute? And
Rick and I had both been sort of standing way back. I mean, we understood what
had happened. And we understood that do to the reporting and the photography
that day, we didn't need to be on top of them, didn't need to make that day any
worse.

And I found out later on – we went to Germany when they came home – and one of
the guys, we'd been drinking beer and hanging out all night, and he started
crying and told me that he'd locked and loaded on me that day, that he was so
angry that he'd considered shooting me, and the guys pulled him back.

And he's someone I hear from all the time now. He's a good kid, but the moment
was so traumatizing for him, he just, he needed to take his anger out
somewhere. And I was sort of the target of that, so...

GROSS: My guest is Kelly Kennedy. Her new book is called "They Fought For Each
Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-Hit Unit in Iraq." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Kelly Kennedy. Her new book, "They Fought for Each Other,"
is about a platoon that was in the hardest-hit battalion since Vietnam. She was
embedded with this platoon in June, 2007, and she was with them on their worst
day, a day she just described.

Now, one of the men shot himself not long after this worst day.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

GROSS: Tell us his story.

Ms. KENNEDY: His name was First Sergeant Jeff McKinney, and he was known for
singing on patrol "Sesame Street" songs, and pretty squared-away. The other
first sergeants in the unit would go to him if they needed help with something,
they need to learn something.

He had a new wife and a new baby, and he was talking about retirement and was
all excited about that, but he was also really stressing out over not being
able to take care of his men as well as he wanted to.

He felt like they weren't getting the food and the water they needed. So he'd
do things like not drink or not eat, and he wouldn't sleep because he felt like
he needed to be taking care of his guys constantly. And I think the combination
of those things, along with – he was with them, First Sergeant Kenny
Hendricks(ph), on June 21st, when they recovered the bodies. So he'd seen some
really bad things, too.

And he wasn't sleeping. He was acting strangely. His guys were noticing it. And
one day they went on a patrol, and he stepped out of the Humvee, and he put his
M4 under his chin and pulled the trigger in front of his men.

And one of the guys who saw it, and the medical records actually confirmed
this, said that at the last minute, he sort of twitched his head to the side,
as if he realized what he was doing and didn't want to.

It seems to have been an instant, not-thought-out thing, it wasn't like he was
planning it, and he hadn't been suicidal in the past. It just – that's how his
stress sort of erupted for him that day.

And the interesting thing about it was the other first sergeants, after it
happened, wondered if they were close to the same. They didn't look at it as,
you know, he's weak or we don't understand why he did this. They saw it as this
is a bad place, and we're going through a lot, and I need to take better care
of myself and my men.

GROSS: Well, shortly after the suicide, and after the worst day for this
platoon, they thought that they couldn't go out anymore, that they'd just kind
of hit a wall.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

GROSS: And although you were no longer embedded with the platoon, you write
about this. So I'm sure they must have told you in detail what happened, yes?

Ms. KENNEDY: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah, so you describe that the whole platoon marched, as a group, to the
mental health clinic. What did they have to say?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, soon after McKinney's suicide, another – they'd been told to
go out on patrol, and they said that road's black, there's bombs on that road.
We know that we're not supposed to go on that road. And because of the weather,
they couldn't get back out to Apache during a sandstorm or something.

That mission for them got cancelled, and they sent out another company instead.
And those guys went out in their 30-ton Bradley and hit another deep-buried
IED, and June 21st happened all over again.

And these guys were in a different company, but they were friends, still. They
were guys they knew. And it felt like for the guys, like, their leadership had
let them down, had let them die. So yeah, they went to mental health, and they
said if we go out on patrol in Adhamiya, we're going to kill everyone in our
paths. We're so angry that we cannot function with any kind of ethical code at
this point.

And the therapist, the mental health counselor said, you know, at some point,
you need to stand down. If you guys think that you're going to make bad
decisions and do things that are going to ruin your lives and others', then you
need to stand down.

GROSS: Okay, so you have this whole platoon that decides that they can't go out
again. They're even afraid that they're going to end up killing civilians and
going to jail for it, because they're that angry. They truly feel like they
cannot contain their anger anymore.

So what did their leadership have to say? I mean, you know, the mental health
experts agreed these men shouldn't go out. What did the leadership have to say?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, the leadership was – there was definitely a lack of
communication. The company commander didn't know about the trip to the mental
health clinic, and he didn't know about the medications they were on.

GROSS: Was he new?

Ms. KENNEDY: He was fairly new, yeah. He'd come on in the spring, and this was
in the summer. But their platoon sergeant apparently hadn't relayed the
message. And the platoon sergeant, who was also a former drill instructor, felt
like they should be obeying the order. You know, even though he'd said in the
past that it was time for 2nd Platoon to stand back, he wanted them to go out
that day.

There were some talk about how it wasn't fair for 2nd Platoon to stand back,
because that just meant someone else had to go out in their place, but then the
company commander actually came out later and said I was disappointed that they
didn't follow my order. That's their job. That's the military mission. But I
respect them for what they did. I respect them for understanding where they
were at in that moment and for not going out that day.

GROSS: So in the long run, they weren't seen as either selfish or cowardly, but
as kind of accurately representing their state of mind in thinking that their
state of mind was an inappropriate state of mind to go out on a military
mission.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right. Ultimately, they were eventually seen as courageous for
that decision.

GROSS: Was it considered a mutiny?

Ms. KENNEDY: You know, that's a word that some people in the battalion used. So
I don't think it was considered a full-on mutiny once people understood the
background to it. But they definitely refused to follow an order, and it was
known within the battalion as the 2nd Platoon mutiny.

GROSS: So just to make sure I understand correctly, when the platoon decided
they couldn't go out, and the mental health expert said you shouldn't be going
out. But then the command said, no, you need to go out, the platoon still did
not go out.

Ms. KENNEDY: Right.

GROSS: And so what was the immediate punishment, and what was the end of the
story?

Ms. KENNEDY: They were administratively flagged, which meant that they couldn't
get awards or promotions or go on leave or anything like that. And that lasted
for about two months, and then the company commander said I think that's
enough.

They pulled the sergeants out of the platoon and gave them new leadership,
which the guys saw as punishment. But the first sergeant and the company
commander saw as a way to sort of get them back in a fighting mode again.

I mean, they still had to cover their battle space, even with this platoon had
sort of broken in the middle of the mission, so...

GROSS: So how much more time did they have after this mutiny?

Ms. KENNEDY: About three months after the mutiny, they went home.

GROSS: And did they all survive? Did everybody in this platoon who refused to
follow orders survive the remaining three months?

Ms. KENNEDY: They did. And throughout their tour, that platoon had lost men. A
platoon's about 40 guys. But from that moment on, everyone was okay. There was
one more injury after that. It was a medic who was out on patrol and was shot,
Tyler Holladay, but he lived. He was okay.

GROSS: Kelly Kennedy will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book
is called "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Hardest-
Hit Unit in Iraq." She covers health and medical issues for the Army Times.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Kelly Kennedy who covers
health and medical issues, including PTSD, for the Army Times. She's the author
of the new book "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph and Tragedy of the
Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq." She was embedded with a platoon in this unit, 2nd
Platoon Charlie Company 126, in June 2007 and was with them on their worst day,
a day she described earlier in the interview.

What impact did that day have on you? Did you feel like you ended up with post-
traumatic stress disorder?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well, post-traumatic stress disorder is - it's - there's a full
range of symptoms you have to have, but people call some of those symptoms that
people generalize sort of as PTSD. When I got home I was blowing through stop
signs. I just didn't see them. I would get up in the morning to read the paper
and it would take me three hours. I was just very distracted. And I was sad for
about a year. I think in was in a mild depression. So I'd say sort of some
anxiety issues for me. Nothing like what the guys are dealing with and the
nightmares and the flashbacks and that sort of thing and - I mean, I didn't
have any of the guilt kind of stuff to deal with.

GROSS: Well, what about the men after returning? You kept up with them. Did
most of them suffer from nightmares and flashbacks and anxieties of various
sorts as a result of their experiences in Iraq?

Ms. KENNEDY: I wouldn't say most of them. I'd say a lot of them. It sounds like
all of the medics are dealing with some things. A lot of the guys had
nightmares. I wouldn't say all of them have full-blown post-traumatic stress,
but I'm definitely hearing about guys who are leaving the military now with
disability benefits because they're not able to function as well anymore. I
think the rate in general is something like 20 percent for combat stress or
post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

GROSS: One of the people you thank in your acknowledgments is one of the medics
from the platoon that you were embedded with, Tyler Holladay. You thank him for
making you feel like part of the group, not just a reporter looking for a
scoop. You write a lot about the stresses of being a medic in Iraq, especially,
you know, with that platoon anyways. And you say that the medics in that
platoon were taking on the men's psychological as well as physical problems,
treating them for psychological issues, and they were just absorbing all of
these problems and not having anybody to go to themselves. Now, he was very
seriously injured. What happened to this medic?

Ms. KENNEDY: Tyler was out on patrol and they were looking at abandoned
vehicles and trying to get rid of them. They were calling in to have someone
come pick them up. And as he was coming back from one of the vehicles, he got
hit by a sniper in the stomach. And I mean, a stomach wound is something that
the guys fear more than just about anything, because it's hard to address
immediately as a medic. And for Tyler, it was terrifying because he was the
medic.

There wasn't another medic with him. So he'd done some training with those guys
to try to help them if they were in a situation like that or in case of a large
amount of casualties where he couldn't do everything himself. But all the
medics talk about how that first injury is the most difficult one to treat, so
he's surrounded by guys who haven't necessarily done it before and giving them
instructions, you need to do this. You need to use a wet bandage, not a dry
bandage, and he could feel his stomach filling with fluids.

And as he's telling these guys what to do, he's certain he's going to die and
he's telling them to tell the other medics that he loves them and he's just
sure he's done. And it turned out that if he'd had an appendix he would've been
- it would've killed him. But because his appendix had been removed, the bullet
didn't actually hit anything that he needed immediately and they were able to
save him.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about some of the stresses that the medics in the
platoon you were embedded with had to deal with. Why was it so stressful for
them?

Ms. KENNEDY: Well...

GROSS: And how were their stresses different than the stresses of the other men
in the platoon?

Ms. KENNEDY: Yeah, the infantry tends to be a little macho. So one of the
things they know can help for combat stress is to talk about it. But if you're
a tough guy, it's really hard to talk to your buddy about it. So the medics,
who are not in their chain of command, were sort of a neutral sort of a safe
place to go talk and they knew that if they told the medics they weren't going
to go talking about it to anybody else.

So someone would be having nightmares and Doc Holladay would listen to the
stories about the nightmares and try to get the person back on track. Or
someone would have a really bad day, you know, see another dead body on the
street. For a while they were picking up 10 bodies a day, and need someone to
sort of talk it out with what he'd seen and Doc Holladay would listen.

And then when they did get casualties, he was not only treating the guys, but
if they died, he was the one who was identifying the bodies and loading them in
the body bags. So, it wasn't just that he was dealing with injured men; he was
dealing with his injured men. He was dealing with these guys who told him, you
know, their fears and their hopes. And their friends, they're the guys that
they drink beer with back home and I think it's a whole different thing for a
medic in the military as opposed to, you know, a regular doctor.

GROSS: Well, Kelly Kennedy, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. KENNEDY: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Kelly Kennedy is the author of "They Fought For Each Other: The Triumph
and Tragedy of the Hardest Hit Unit in Iraq." She covers health and medical
issues for the Army Times. You can read a chapter of her book on our website,
freshair.npr.org.

One of the classic works of fiction about the Vietnam War, "The Things They
Carried," was recently republished in a 20th anniversary edition. Coming up, we
hear from the author, Tim O'Brien.

This is FRESH AIR.
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'Things They Carried' Back From Vietnam

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

On this Memorial Day, we're going to hear from the author of a classic book of
stories about the Vietnam War, "The Things They Carried." It was republished in
a 20th anniversary edition in March. The author, Tim O'Brien, served in Vietnam
as an infantryman in 1968. I spoke with him in 1990 when the book was first
published.

This collection of stories is tied together by a fictional narrator whose name
is also Tim O'Brien. In this passage, the narrator is reading 17-page
disjointed letter in which his former combat buddy writes about the problem of
finding a meaningful life after fighting in the war.

Mr. TIM O'BRIEN (Author, "The Things They Carried"): I felt it coming and near
the end of the letter it came. He explained that he had read my first book "If
I Die in a Combat Zone," which he liked, except for the bleeding heart
political parts. For half a page he talked about how much the book had meant to
him, how it brought back all kinds of memories, the villes and paddies and
rivers, and how he recognized most of the characters, including himself, even
though almost all the names were changed.

Then Bowker came straight out with it: What you should do, Tim, is write a
story about a guy who feels like he got zapped over that (BLEEP). A guy who
can't get his act together and just drives around town all day and can't think
of any damned place to go and doesn’t know how to get there anyway. The guy
wants to talk about it but he can't. If you want he can use the stuff in this
letter but not my real name, okay? I’d write it myself except I can't find any
words, if you know what I mean, and I can't figure out what exactly to say.
Something about the field that night. The Kiowa just disappeared into the crud.
You were there - you can tell it.

GROSS: Has anything like that actually ever happened to you, getting a letter
from a friend or having a friend say to you, you’ve got to tell my story, I
can't do it, but you’ve got to tell it?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh it's happened hundreds and hundreds of times. I've never taken
them up on the offer, and even in this case I didn’t. The letter is made up.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Do you feel that people almost define themselves by maybe a half
dozen or a dozen stories that describe the pivotal incidents in their life?

Mr. O'BRIEN: I do. But in my own life, you know, I would say there were a
handful, maybe a dozen incidents that are like touchstones that occurred, you
know, occur over and over in my fiction. There's one incident in the book about
the shooting of a baby water buffalo in Vietnam and the image of a defenseless
water buffalo being shot over and over and over again is one that's appeared in
I think everything I've written, or close to everything I've written. I'm not
sure, you know, what the image is there for in terms of symbol or metaphor.
Probably nothing. It just has the feel of meat, which was the feel of war,
flesh and blood and a poor baby buffalo being shot over and over and over
again. That's a senseless, you know, that's war.

GROSS: Well, in the novel, the person who's shooting the buffalo - the water
buffalo is doing it after he's seen a friend of his die.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yes.

GROSS: You know, one of his buddies die and this is interpreted as a kind of,
not exactly revenge but venting, some kind of venting of the frustration. Did
you witness something like this? Is that why the image keeps recurring in your
fiction?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah, I did. I witnessed, we were walking along a paddy dike one
day after a horrible - a few hours in a village adjacent to the village of My
Lai, where the massacre happened and we lost several fellows who hit landmines.
And the platoon was lined up in a long, long row across the paddy dike and 100
yards away stood a water buffalo. And with no signal the men began firing and
the buffalo stood there and you could see gobs of flesh jumping off the beast
and then it stuck.

GROSS: Were you one of the men who fired?

Mr. O'BRIEN: No. No. I watched dumbly. I understood. You can't justify
something like that but there was no enemy to take, you know, take it out on.
Men were feeling sorrow and rage simultaneously and the buffalo was there to
bear the brunt.

GROSS: How vivid are your memories from the war? I mean how much do you think
you remember of, what, the year that you were there?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh a few scattered images. In a way if you were to pick up a
photographic album and page through it you'd maybe seven or eight pictures of,
you know, that are really vivid, another 24 or so, vaguely recollect. The rest
of the album is empty. A lot of black, black pages which you'd expect, I think
that our memories leave us. But beyond that, a lot of the war was not
memorable, plodding along from village to village, hot days, mosquitoes. It was
a kind of monotony to it but a strange monotony. You know, it was boredom with
a twist.

GROSS: And what was the twist?

Mr. O'BRIEN: The twist was a kind of like a leaky faucet in your stomach and
like instead of water there was this acid feeling dropping out where you can
feel like it's eating away inside you. You’re bored, frightened simultaneously.
Try it sometimes. It’s tough.

GROSS: Let me ask you about a couple of the images in the book and see where
they come from in actuality or your imagination. I mean what they signify to
you. One of the men in the company, Henry Dobbins, is always wrapping his
girlfriend's pantyhose around his head. It's his protective magic - his good
luck charm.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did a lot of the men you know have something like that? Did you have
anything like that yourself?

Mr. O'BRIEN: No I didn’t carry pantyhose, but there were talisman that men
carried in war and the kind of talismans that touch on peace. That the
pantyhose business that's wrapped around a fellow's neck as a kind of comforter
is a reminder of all he doesn’t have - his girlfriend and the peace that that
girl represents for him. And, you know, like some men carried letters from
home, some men carried coins their father may have sent them. A lot of us
carried photographs, some carried lockets of hair.

GROSS: What were the things that you carried with you to remind you of who you
were and what it was that you loved?

Mr. O'BRIEN: I carried odd things. I carried, you won't believe this, I carried
a book of German grammar. I wanted to learn German while I was in Vietnam.

GROSS: That seems like such a remote thing to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'BRIEN: What an odd thing to be saying, you know, (foreign language
spoken) trying to get the accents right and then learn the, you know, the
grammatical structures of German after, you know, marching all day long through
really horrible things. It was a way - a lot of us, you know, by pushing the
war aside if even for a few moments.

GROSS: Well, I guess it was also a way of like affirming that you had a life of
the mind, that there was more besides like your body in the war.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. I think that was a great part of it and a way of just
touching on civility and civilization, which for me books represented then and
continue to. I mean that's what they are.

GROSS: What else did you carry?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh gee. Oh I carried so much. I carried cans of orange juice that
my father had sent me from Minnesota. These were as precious to me - he sent me
12 cans and they were heavy. And it wasn’t the orange juice that I craved. It
was the fact that these cans of orange juice had come from my dad from so, so,
so far away. And I gave myself one month for each can. One can a month.

GROSS: So you measured your whole tour of duty by those cans.

Mr. O'BRIEN: By those cans of orange juice.

GROSS: Did you ever try to travel light?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. I mean eventually you have to. I think you discard things.
You discard odd things as a soldier. You discard things like hand grenades and
belts of ammunition, the things you think you'd keep, claymore mines. We were
so burdened by stuff that we were like giants lumbering through that
countryside hauling along with us the whole, you know, all of the resources of
the American war chest.

GROSS: Your first book, "If I Die in a Combat Zone," was really one of the
early war memoirs. When did it first come out? Was it 1973?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yes.

GROSS: And then, "Going After Cacciato" came out a few years later. It was
still one of the early Vietnam novels. Was it different for you writing about
the war before Vietnam had so penetrated fiction, movies and television?

Mr. O'BRIEN: Oh, I can't say that the output of recent books and movies and so
one about the war has helped me or hindered me. I haven't seen many of the
movies and I haven't read many of the books.

GROSS: I'm surprised to hear that.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Well, you know...

GROSS: I mean I thought you'd to curious either to see like what other people
were doing with it or to see if how it compared to your own experiences or your
own telling of the experiences.

Mr. O'BRIEN: I think for me, at least, and I'm not much interested in the war
stories. Most of them tend to be melodramatic and predictable and bad stories.
And I think a lot of readers feel the same. We’ve been, you know, brought in
too many John Wayne movies and too much bad writing. This isn't true just for
Vietnam, of course, it's true for, you know, for, you know, if you look at love
stories with all the Harlequin Romances out there and, but nonetheless, there's
something about a war, the war story that makes me want to turn my head and
move away gently.

For me, the war is, I mean, that isn't important to me now. What’s important to
me is language about the war and about the human heart. I was never a very good
soldier. I hated that war and it’s now in the distant past. What's in the
present for me are the stories that have really in a way, nothing to do with
the war. They're set in the war but they're stories for me of friendships and
ghosts and girlfriends and that kind of thing.

GROSS: Another image I want to ask you about and I wasn’t sure whether this was
literary or actually.

Mr. O'BRIEN: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: There's a sequence and it's a pretty pivotal sequence where a couple of
the characters in your novel are in a field of sewage.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And the smell just won't go away. I mean long after they’ve left the
smell just won't go away. And I mean it’s - the literary image there is clear.
I was wondering if that was an actual experience too, if there were fields of
sewage like this that you got caught in.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. I mean it was meant to be a description of actual things and
not as metaphor and not as symbol, just lots of stuff...

GROSS: I'm really glad to hear that, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'BRIEN: But they were shocking to read in, you know, in some column or
review that, you know, this was taken as a metaphor for something. It didn’t
occur to me. As soon as it was written I said oh my God, you know, I can see it
but it was intended just as stuff, a field full of sewage that we camped in one
night and we were attacked and mortared and the men went under.

GROSS: The men went under the sewage.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. No metaphor, just under.

GROSS: I'd like to try to explain why it is that I'm almost relieved that it
really happened. Do you know what I mean? It's something that really happened
it seems quite horrible. As something that would've been metaphor it would seem
like too much.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah. Yeah it would've. You know, in a way it’s one of those
things where, you know, if I would've like thought a little more clearly about
it I might have avoided it, but what would I do? Why would I change things? I
probably wouldn’t in the long run. I think if Melville in writing "Moby Dick"
thought that that whale would be finally like just a metaphor he might've
changed it to, you know, a tuna fish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'BRIEN: Not quite so godlike.

GROSS: How long did it take before you could wash the sewage off and get out of
there?

Mr. O'BRIEN: I never have. I mean that smell is still in my dreams. It's the
one thing that's really stuck with me. I don’t dream Vietnam but the smell - I
don’t know if you ever had an operation and had ether.

GROSS: Yes. Yeah.

Mr. O'BRIEN: I did as a kid.

GROSS: My tonsils - getting my tonsils out.

Mr. O'BRIEN: Now and then every three years or eight years the smell of ether
returns to me. It's not set in the hospital. There's a folding feeling in the
brain, just a folding over the brain with a smell inside the folds and that's
what returns to me now and then, the smell of that field of sewage folding
through my dream.

GROSS: What do you think it is that it's the smell that stays with you more
than anything else?

Mr. O'BRIEN: That's a pretty terrible smell.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. O'BRIEN: And that's part of it and part of it is I'm sure is linked somehow
to the awful thing that happened in the field that night.

GROSS: Tim O'Brien recorded in 1990 after the publication of his book "The
Things They Carried." A 20th anniversary edition was published in March. You
can read a chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org. Tim O'Brien now teaches
creative writing at Texas State University.

Coming up, Jehanne Dubrow reads from her collection of poems "Stateside" about
being a military wife whose husband is deployed overseas.

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Reflecting 'Stateside' With A Loved One At War

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

For many soldiers, sailors and Marines deployed overseas, a family or a loved
one waits at home for their return. Poet Jehanne Dubrow is one of those people
waiting. Her husband, a career naval officer, is halfway through a nine month
tour of duty on a destroyer in the western Indian Ocean which is conducting
anti-terrorism and anti-pirate operations.

Dubrow's new collection of poems, "Stateside," is written from the point of
view of a military wife. The book has a forward by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet
Ted Kooser.

We asked Dubrow to introduce and read three of her poems.

Ms. JEHANNE DUBROW (Poet; Author, "Stateside"): A number of the poems in
"Stateside" take their titles from military terminology. The phrase secure for
sea refers to the process of making sure that all unstable objects on a ship
are safely tied down before deployment. But secure for sea is also what a
family does before a sailor is deployed in preparation for the long absence.
This poem is called "Secure for Sea."

Maritime terminology. It means the moveable stays tied. Lockers hold shut. The
waves don't slide a metal box across the decks, or scatter screws like jacks,
the sea like a rebellious child that wrecks all tools which aren't fastened
tightly or fixed. At home, we say secure when what we mean is letting go of
him. And even if we're sure he’s coming back, it's hard to know: The farther
out a vessel drifts, will contents stay in place, or shift?

My next poem talks about a time after my husband and I first married, when I
found myself seeing danger where I hadn't seen it before, even channel surfing
became risky. I could no longer watch the History Channel or the nightly news
and the silliest of war movies made me cry. "Against War Movies."

I see my husband shooting in "Platoon," and there he is again in "M*A*S*H." How
weird to hear him talk like Hawkeye Pierce. And soon I spot him everywhere, his
body smeared with mud, his face bloodied. He's now the star of every ship
blockade and battle scene - "The Fighting 69th," "A Bridge Too Far," "Three
Kings," "Das Boat," and "Stalag 17." In Stalingrad he's killed, and then he's
killed in "Midway" and "A Few Good Men." He's burned or gassed, he's shot
between the eyes, or shoots himself when he comes home again. Each movie is a
training exercise, a scenario for how my husband dies.

When I think about my husband on deployment, I imagine him pared-down to the
essentials: his uniforms, perhaps a couple of military manuals and a few
personal possessions, nothing else. Everything from the civilian world is left
behind. This next poem is called "Nonessential Equipment."

The dog and I are first among those things that will not be deployed with him.
Forget civilian clothes as well. He shouldn't bring too many photographs, which
might get wet, the faces blurred. He only needs a set of uniforms. Even his
wedding ring gives pause. What if it fell? He'd be upset to dent or scratch
away the gold engraving. The sea bag must be light enough to sling across his
shoulder, weigh almost nothing, each canvas pocket emptied of regret. The trick
is packing less. No wife, no pet, no perfumed letters dabbed with I-love-yous,
or anything he can’t afford to lose.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Jehanne Dubrow, reading three poems from her collection, "Stateside."
She teaches creative writing at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.
You can read the full text of the three poems we heard on our website
freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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