Monday, July 21, 2014

Warrior Writers Reading in Newark

A literary patrol of Warrior Writers poets will be performing Thursday, July 24, at Noon on the green in Military Park, Newark, NJ. The free public event is part of Lunchtime Poems in Military Park, showcasing a selection of poets scheduled to read in the 2014 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in October. Military Park is off Broad Street and Park Place in downtown Newark.

Warrior Writers poets reading on Thursday are Jan Barry, Kevin Basl, Sarah Mess, Walt Nygard, Eli Wright and James Yee. Selections of their work are included in a new anthology, Warrior Writers: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans, published by Warrior Writers, a nonprofit arts organization based in Philadelphia, PA.

Jan Barry, of Teaneck, is a poet and writer who served with the Army in Vietnam, author of Life After War & Other Poems (Combat Paper Press) and co-editor of Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, among other works.

Kevin Basl, an Army veteran of Iraq, is a workshop facilitator with Warrior Writers and Combat Paper NJ, based at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey in Branchburg, NJ

Sarah N. Mess, of Branchburg, served in an Army medical unit in Somalia.

Walt Nygard, of Teaneck, served with the Marines in Vietnam. Author of The Summer Joe Joined the Army (Post Traumatic Press), he is a writer, artist and paper/print-maker with Combat Paper NJ.

Eli Wright served as a combat medic in Iraq. He is an instructor for Combat Paper NJ, providing workshops for veterans and active duty soldiers at VA facilities, military bases, colleges and art galleries along the East Coast from Maine to Virginia.

James Yee is a former Army Chaplain for the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Author of For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, he is a facilitator with Combat Paper NJ. 

For more information:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Fighting for Peace

One way to study social movements is to do a lot of research and interviews. Lisa Leitz took a big step beyond standardized scholarship and joined the movement she wanted to study. That movement consisted of local to national actions of Military Families Speak Out, which she joined as the wife of an active duty Navy aviator, Gold Star Families for Peace, who lost sons and daughters in war, Veterans For Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War and allied organizations.

Her hands-on approach resulted in Fighting for Peace: Veterans and Military Families in the Anti-Iraq War Movement, recently published by the University of Minnesota Press as part of its series on social movements. During the time she worked on this book she taught sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and then at Hendrix College in Arkansas and “commuted” to war protests around the country.

I first met Lisa Leitz at an antiwar rally by Military Families Speak Out and Veterans For Peace in front of the White House right after Barack Obama was inaugurated president. She showed up at war protests in all sorts of places and took notes, exchanged phone numbers and email addresses and “became a part of my wider family,” she wrote. “I took late-night calls from stressed out parents and spouses ... I sat through the night with veterans traumatized by the war and with their families who worried about them… I shared activists’ fear, guilt, anger, pride, and joy.”  

The focus of her book is both to record an historic outburst of war protests by military veterans and family members outraged by the invasion and military destruction of Iraq with the loss of thousands of US soldiers, and to challenge sociologists to look deeper into the web of grassroots actions that create cultural shifts.  “We need to go beyond traditional protest to examine how change happens,” she writes.

Consider some of the shifts she discovered:

  • “While trying to change public opinion, the activists changed themselves,” she noted. “Activists found others who were sympathetic to their traumatizing experiences and the problems that developed from them, and these tactics channeled activists’ anger about those experiences toward the war.”
  • “One day, a middle-aged man with a military style buzz cut who said he was a senior officer grabbed my hand [at the Arlington West memorial to the Iraq War dead set up by Vets For Peace and military families in Santa Barbara, California], shook it, and said, ‘Thank you for what you are doing. People need to see this.’”
  • “the second time an Arlington-style memorial was set up outside Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California, two flatbed military trucks filled with Marines drove off base … [and] helped to set up the memorial and memorialized hundreds of their friends who died in battle. A three-star general visiting Pendleton told the activists, ‘You guys are doing it right.’”

In the course of working on this book, while her husband served four deployments in war areas, Leitz experienced the intense stress on military families that is another of the hidden wounds of war.  

“While many people think of post-traumatic stress as a military servicemember’s problem, recent research finds that military spouses’ rates of psychological problems are similar to those in uniform,” she wrote in a recent University of Minnesota Press blog. “With lengthy and deadly deployments common in our lives since 2001, spouses’ rates of stress-induced illness have increased, along with depression.”

The best way to address these problems, she concludes in her book, is through civic activism to reduce our national obsession with waging wars.

“The military peace movement hoped to put a human face on war so that Americans would have to think about specific individuals rather than nameless ‘troops’ and what wars did to them. … The idea was that by personalizing the pain of war, Americans would demand that troops be sent to fight only when absolutely necessary,” she wrote.

For more information:

Thursday, July 3, 2014

In Memoriam: Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean Myers, who wrote books for children about the brute reality of war and life as a troubled black kid in rough neighborhoods, died Tuesday at 76. I never met Myers, who lived in Jersey City, but I was drawn like a magnet to one of his books—Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam—that a fellow vet brought to my attention recently.

Myers’ crisp, curt prose poetry and stunning illustrations of jungle warfare by Ann Grifalconi propelled me to experiment and create water color paintings of war memories still rattling around in my head.     

In a writing career that produced more than 100 books for children and young adults, Myers kept returning to dig deeper into the patriotic mythology of war. 

“I joined the army on my seventeenth birthday, full of the romance of war after having read a lot of World War I British poetry and having seen a lot of post−World War II films. … My younger brother’s death in Vietnam was both sobering and cause for reflection. In Fallen Angels I wanted to dispel the notion of war as either romantic or simplistically heroic,” he said in an interview provided by Scholastic, one of his publishers.

“I want young people to be hesitant to glorify war and to demand of their leaders justification for the sacrifices they ask of our citizens,” Myers continued in the interview on the Scholastic website. “The young people who read Fallen Angels some twenty years ago are the same ones who are the senior officers in today’s military. I hope that reading Fallen Angels has made them prudent leaders. And when they progress to becoming decision makers, I hope that the earnest literature they have encountered, including Fallen Angels and Sunrise Over Fallujah will cause them to deliberate wisely.”

A high school dropout who joined the army seeking boyish adventure, Myers turned a yen for reading into a self-made career writing about youngsters struggling through tough times. Of his book titled Just Write, a reviewer at Booklist noted: "Walter Dean Myers offers a wealth of advice that is professional and pragmatic and often couched in the context of his own work. Feeling that books saved his life, Myers now gives his readers the same opportunity through his advice and his large-hearted example."

For more information:

Monday, June 30, 2014

From War to Peace Poet

Not many poets these days embrace being peace activists. Based on poems published in popular magazines, readers would have no clue what contemporary poets think about Americans’ addiction to waging—and continually celebrating—an endless litany of wars.
Doug Rawlings embraces being a poet and a leader of Veterans For Peace. His new book, Orion Rising: Collected Poems, is dedicated to his family and the veterans’ organization founded in 1985 by Rawlings and other former soldiers. Over time many others, including me, signed up as well.

I first encountered Doug Rawlings’ soul-shaking poetry on surviving an Army tour in Vietnam just as that war was ending. Several of his poems graced Demilitarized Zones, the anthology of angry verses by Vietnam vets that W.D. Ehrhart and I published in 1976. At the time, he was teaching high school English in Maine. Publication of those early poems, he notes in his recently self-published book, gave him a social and literary grounding.

Over the years, as his teaching path led to the University of Maine, he continued writing poetry and persistently advocating for peaceful resolutions of the far-flung wars that the United States insists on partaking in.

“As a veteran,” he writes in his book dedication, “I feel a specific obligation to bring back old memories, to rekindle anguish and despair long buried, and to speak out against this military madness that has so grotesquely distorted our past, that is tearing apart our present, and that threatens to extinguish our future.”

In his collected poems, Doug Rawlings confronts the worst of life, and celebrates the best of life, in poems that transform calcified clich├ęs into lightning bug flashes of insight, foresight and delight. His war poetry punctures the patriotic balloon that imploded amid soldiers in Vietnam. His political poetry turns home front homilies into trumpet calls for peace campaigns. And his poet’s gaze on family, friends and nature—from his corner of Maine to the star-spangled universe—is no less, quite often, breath-taking.

In “Low Intensity Warfare,” for instance, he contrasts the atmosphere in North America—“Up here/ fall is in the air/ the mornings are crisp and clear”—to that in parts of Central America torn by civil wars stirred by US military and economic exploitation: “Down there/ young peasants/ are slipping into puddles/ of mangled skin…Down there/ the morning air/ smells of burning flesh…”

Doug Rawlings’ alternative way of life, embraced by many war veterans, is conveyed in his poem “Flower Song”:

Live your life
like a flower

Blossoming every hour

Reaching for the sun

Growing with the rain

Living every moment
like it’ll never come again

Orion Rising, which includes artwork by neighbors and friends Carol Scribner and Rob Shetterly, can be ordered through, the online publisher.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Medicine Garden

Planting Sweet Grass in Torne Valley

A stone’s throw from the Ramapo River, a cheerful crowd of Native Americans and local supporters gathered Sunday to plant a medicine garden on a patch of cleared ground in Torne Valley where Ford Motor Company recently removed tons of toxic paint sludge.

The traffic roar on the nearby New York State Thruway evaporated as Native American drums and songs arose as though from the distant past to accompany garden dedication ceremonies, including sharing pinches of tobacco sprinkled into a fire and the planting of plugs of Sweet Grass. The roughly half-acre site in a former sand and gravel quarry is laid out for growing Sweet Grass and Sage, used for basketry and smudging, as well as “healing herbs beneficial for cancer patients,” according to the invitation.

Two turkey vultures circled overhead, looking for road kill along the highway and railroad corridor that cuts through the once bucolic gap in the Ramapo Mountains. One speaker noted with a chuckle that vultures are symbols of recycling.    

The Healing of the Earth Ceremony marked a long-haul, grassroots effort by local residents and environmental activists to get Ford to remove the lead and chemical solvents-tainted waste, which was trucked from Ford’s Mahwah assembly plant and dumped along riverbanks in the 1960s. The buried debris in this field was next to a well that provides drinking water to much of the area around Suffern, NY. Further downstream are wells serving Mahwah and other towns in New Jersey.     

Cleanup area in Ramapo well field     (photos by Jan Barry)

“Today, with this healing ceremony, it’s a tipping point” toward protecting the environment in the bistate Ramapo River watershed, said Christopher St. Lawrence, the Town of Ramapo Supervisor, whose municipal government successfully pressed for clean up work that New York state officials let slide for decades despite repeated calls from area officials.

“This was ground zero for the buried lead paint,” said Chuck Stead, a Ramapo College adjunct professor and an environmental educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland County. As a result of work that he and his students did over several years in mapping buried debris locations and filing reports with local and state agencies, Ford contractors last year removed 42,000 tons of tainted soil and hazardous waste from the Ramapo River well field parcel.

Stead lauded the Detroit-based auto company for eventually taking that action, planting dozens of native trees on the well field tract and paying for a sturdy deer-resistant fence around the medicine garden plot. But each of these steps, he noted, required persistent discussions and negotiations.    

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officials are now overseeing a similar remediation plan for Ford to excavate and remove more toxic waste along Torne Brook, a nearby tributary of the Ramapo River.

Dwaine Perry, chief of the Ramapough-Lenape Nation, who lives in the adjacent village of Hillburn, NY, thanked a number of the people at the ceremony for their combined efforts. “The one message that comes through is persistence, persistence, persistence pays off,” said Perry. He added that Ford’s work on this site “hopefully is the beginning of corporate decency” on environmental issues nationally.

“Be proud that you live in a town that supports you,” said Vivian Milligan, a leader of the Ramapough community in Ringwood, NJ, where another Ford dump site is partially cleaned up. “Hopefully, some day we will have a garden in Ringwood.”

St. Lawrence, whose sprawling Rockland County town stretches along the border with New Jersey within miles of Ringwood, added in his remarks: “We need to all come together and work on Ringwood.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fishing Story

"Fishing"       Jan Barry water color

Stopping by a favorite haunt one day, an egret spied a fisherman. The cell phone camera couldn’t do justice to the wily fisher silently stalking the unaware fisherman. So I set my hand to telling this tale in water colors.


Friday, May 16, 2014

Seeing Lou Grant

Lou Grant  (photo: Wikipedia)

I wrote on my calendar for May 15 that I was going to see Lou Grant.

And so we arrived at the Bergen Performing Arts Center to see Ed Asner in his cross country, long running presentation of his one-man show, FDR. As the largely elderly audience was still settling in, Asner abruptly took the stage in a wheelchair, and then stomped about on a pair of canes and presented a very compelling characterization of the polio-crippled President who forcefully led the country through the crises of the Great Depression and World War II, despite formidable political foes and the howling hounds of the press.

As the FDR show wrapped up to a big round of applause, I was still looking for Lou Grant—the curmudgeonly, get-that-story, and get-it-right newspaper editor Asner played on television in the 1970s and early 1980s. That TV character was perhaps the biggest influence on my then-budding career as a journalist.

In Lou Grant’s world, journalists suffered crises in their own lives, but still got out there and pinned down the facts of events, on deadline, that were important for the public to know about.  “The series frequently delved into serious societal issues, such as nuclear proliferation, mental illness, prostitution, gay rights, capital punishment, child abuse, and chemical pollution, in addition to demonstrating coverage of breaking news stories such as fires, earthquakes, and accidents of all kinds,” a Wikipedia description astutely noted.

“The Lou Grant show ran from 1977 to 1982 and became the most popular newspaper drama ever broadcast on television,” noted a review in Booklist of “Lou Grant,’ a book about the show. “Journalists at the fictional Los Angeles Tribune strove to question authority while covering issues as thoroughly as possible. … often reflecting real news of the day, from Vietnam vets and inner-city school violence to political corruption and homosexuality … For five seasons, Lou Grant and his colleagues delivered a weekly dose of dramatic realism …”

And then CBS abruptly cancelled the program. “In the later years of the series, Asner became known for speaking out on numerous social and political topics, especially in opposition to the U.S. involvement in Central America. The show was canceled in 1982, reportedly due to poor ratings, while some—including Asner—have speculated that the actor's activism may have influenced the decision to end the series,” according to

The Lou Grant show roughly coincided with my first stint as a daily newspaper reporter. After getting laid off in 1980, in the wake of writing an investigative series about Vietnam veterans’ emerging health concerns about Agent Orange and other chemicals used in the war, I had more time at home to study how Lou Grant’s savvy newsroom covered controversial issues.

Then, getting involved in grassroots activism with a local peace group countering the Reagan Administration’s nuclear missile-rattling with the Soviet Union and military moves in Central America, I appreciated Asner’s outspoken stance on these and other issues. This provided additional inspiration in my life.

Three decades later, I heard Ed Asner was coming to do a show in a neighboring town. What I felt was that Lou Grant was coming to town.

Turns out that my partner, Paula Rogovin, knew Asner through her family’s network of activism. So we were invited to meet him backstage. So was a bunch of other people Asner had meet over the years, including a family that knew him growing up in Kansas City, Missouri. Herded up into a bare dressing room in the old vaudeville theater in Englewood, NJ that was saved by a civic campaign, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Ed Asner in Englewood  (photo: Paula Rogovin)

Amid a flurry of greetings, snappy recollections, hugs, handshakes, and cell phone photos, suddenly I was being introduced to Ed Asner. Still hale at 84, leaning on a cane, he gripped my hand hard and looked directly into my eyes, recalling a mutual campaign from years ago. And I felt, yep, very glad to finally shake hands with Lou Grant.   

For more information: