A Page in the World of a Veteran

This weekend’s Parade magazine features an interview with Iraq veteran and writer Kevin Powers, whose debut novel The Yellow Birds is out now. Much of the conversation highlights the challenges of returning to civilian life for our newest veterans. Powers speaks eloquently about the more systemic sense of helplessness, “a profound feeling of aimlessness and purposelessness.” He talks about the aftershocks of war, how the common smell of a passing bus’ engine or the cacophony of fireworks are powerful reminders of fighting thousands of miles away. Maybe most importantly, Powers reminds us that no matter how difficult it is to adjust or adapt to everyday life, each day is precious, evermore to the veteran who returns home safely.

Recent reports of the heartbreaking increases in veteran suicides and the complicated, long-term effects of mental health traumas like PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury) illustrate how vital it is that these issues capture mainstream attention. Everyone has a stake in the well-being of our veterans. One of the best ways to affect universal awareness is through culture. Lots of writers have written or reported on the life-changing nature of war and its aftermath, and Powers is certainly part of that trend. Here are some books I’ve read over the years that profoundly affected me.

  • Two Souls Indivisible, by James S. Hirsch: An inspiring story of an unlikely, but enduring friendship between Fred Cherry and Porter Halyburton, two American soldiers captured as POWs in Vietnam who crossed racial and cultural lines to help one another survive their imprisonment. I read this book quite a while ago and have been meaning to re-read it. Beyond the clear power of their journey to make it through their ordeal, learning about their decades-long friendship leaves an unshakeable impression.
  • The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien: A classic work of fiction/non-fiction that details the battle- and home-life of soldiers during Vietnam. I first read this in high school and recently read it again. There’s something very raw about this book; O’Brien doesn’t hold back. He pulls away the curtain on an experience the majority of us will never know. That’s what makes this required reading.
  • You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon: A collection of stories about the families left behind during deployments. Military families are the 1 percent who never ask for recognition but deserve it more than ever. They carry the heavy burden of numerous deployments and frightening news reports. Fallon, whose husband is in the Army, brings us into her world, even if through fiction. Another one to re-read, it’s incredible.
  • Final Salute, by Jim Sheeler: A powerhouse of reporting that has reverberated for me years later. It is so emotionally intense that I’m not sure I could make it through again. The stories, the families and the lives of the loved ones they lost—theirs is a portrait seared in my memory. For me, there’s something almost sacred about this book, and I’m not hyperbolizing. It’s the kind of thing I’ll never forget.

Have to get Powers’ book—it’s next.

Update (March 2013): I finally read Powers’ book and I have to say it’s hauntingly powerful–pardon the pun–and beautifully written. It is certain to be added to the canon of books about war and occupies, for me, the same space in my memory as the books above. Kudos to Kevin Powers for a truly unforgettable story.

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