Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Remembering Armistice Day

"The New Century," linocut on Combat Paper by Walt Nygard

Veterans Day Talk
On November 11, 1918, my grandfather
on my father’s side was on a stateside dock
with his Army unit about to ship out
to fight in France,
when word was received
that the war had just ended.
Armistice Day, they called it.
Sometimes you’re lucky in war;
sometimes not.

On November 11, 1944, my mother’s
brother was killed in a Navy dive bomber
that crashed into the sea in a battle
near the Philippines.
There was no armistice
that Armistice Day.

 Surviving war is no guarantee it’s over.
Never know when something from the war
may catch you unawares. A flare up,
a flashback, a smell from a bad day long ago. 

With two bitterly contested wars churning out
more wounded, more dead, more veterans,
there’s still no armistice
on Armistice Day.

Veterans Day, they call it now—
as though all those war emotions
can be contained in a holiday.    

In Vietnam, I was a Boy Scout
turned into Army radio specialist.
A communications breakdown
in a war zone can be fatal.
Communications failure among veterans
and our support network
of family and friends
can also have scary consequences.

 That’s what we need to talk about today,
after the parades, the bagpipes,
the drums and trumpets, the bugle calls,
the solemn speeches, the moment
of silence, the hearty drinks at the bar—
when memories of war
still intrude into our dreams, our lives.

--Jan Barry

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Thao’s Library: Finding Life’s Purpose Amidst Loss

Thao and Elizabeth Van Meter at Thao's Library

Feeling depressed, given the state of the world/one’s life lately? Track down “Thao’s Library,” an astonishingly uplifting documentary about crawling out of despair and finding purpose in life that’s forever fractured. 

Actress Elizabeth Van Meter was devastated by her younger sister’s death by suicide. Then she saw a photo of a woman in Vietnam whose body was devastated by Agent Orange chemicals used by US military forces in the war, yet was cheerfully operating a homemade library for village children from her wheelchair. The photographer said the Vietnamese woman, Thanh Thao Huynh, had one request: some money for more books. 

Stumbling around New York City in a daze of grief, Van Meter felt drawn to help the disabled woman with her project in Cu Chi, a rural village near Ho Chi Minh City. This low-budget, low-key film tells the story of what happened next.

“ …it’s about building bridges with our friends in Vietnam,” Van Meter wrote in a poignant update on Facebook, “it’s about sharing stories about women made by women, it’s about introducing the world to my soul sister Thao, it’s about the acknowledgement of the ripple effect of war, it’s about love and the healing power of connection, it’s about resilience and forgiveness, it’s about the ability we all have to reach out and be of service to our brothers and sisters of the world with whatever gifts we’ve been given.”

Van Meter raised funds to provide a larger building next to Thao’s family’s farmstead to house a larger library and one-room school. Thao, as shown in the film, struggled to live without use of atrophied legs and found her calling in teaching young children how to read. She encourages those around her with her joy in living each day. 

At a recent showing in the Teaneck International Film Festival, audience members at the Puffin Cultural Forum were greeted by Van Meter, who directed the documentary. Her film is making the rounds of festivals and showings in some theaters. During the Q and A, she talked about feeling that her late sister, Vicki, was with her as she interacted with Thao. Vicki, famous at age 11 for flying an airplane across the US, killed herself at 26. 

“I feel as though the three of us made this film together,” Van Meter said in similar comments to an interviewer with Timeout in Chicago. “When we experience the loss of a loved one, especially in the way that Vicki chose to go, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions. It's not necessarily about ‘closure’ but about evolving to a new place. The pain, the loss, it never goes away but my relationship to it evolves.”

For more information:


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Sustainability or Lights Out

Monksville Reservoir, NJ   (photo: Jan Barry)

Modern people act quite often as though the Earth were replaceable—trash this one, order a new one in the morning.  So it may have been a revelation for many who heard Pope Francis tell world leaders at the recent United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York that harm to the environment harms us too.

Speaking out against “misuse and destruction of the environment” and a growing “culture of waste,” which has left increasing numbers of people impoverished and living in places poisoned by toxic spills and contaminated air and water, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church said the universe was not created by God for humans to tear apart. Man was given a gift of living on this Earth, Francis added, “he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.”

In his UN address, on the heels of an historic speech to Congress, and in a widely disseminated environmental encyclical to the people of the world, the head of one of the world’s major religions mounted a campaign to get government leaders and ordinary folks to seriously tackle environmental protection through social and economic transformations.

At a forum at Ramapo College in September on Pope Francis’ call for action on environmental protection, a man stood up in the audience and said: “We have to start acting now! My children and grandchildren may not have a place to live.”  

Addressing the panel of environmentally minded professors, the speaker continued: “I was a student here in 1975-80. We were encouraged to be activists. We were provided tools to be activists.”

A few weeks later, in October, Ramapo College hosted a conference on student activism on environmental sustainability. President Peter Mercer said this focus is a priority for the state college, which borders the Ramapo River, a regional water supply stream, in Mahwah, NJ. Billed as “Campus Sustainability Day,” the event provided an opportunity for student leaders in various clubs to hear report outs from department heads about environmentally focused changes on campus—such as installing LED lights and cutting uses of paper—and to offer ideas for additional actions.

Among the students’ suggestions: institute a required course in sustainability in every major, turn lawns into “sustainable landscaping” such as wildflower meadows, provide compostable plates, cups and utensils in dining halls and at conferences.

“We’re working on a project to have 100 percent of food waste go to compost,” announced a student activist.

A few days later, the college hosted a conference for community activists on climate change and energy issues. Sponsored by the public interest group Food & Water Watch, the conference attracted more than 100 environmental activists from the New York metropolitan region. Many were there to exchange ideas on how to counter a deluge of fracked oil and gas being shipped by trains, barges and pipelines to refineries in New Jersey. Rail lines and pipelines cut through water supply areas and residential neighborhoods, state parks and forests.

Panelists included leaders of the Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains, Coalition Against Pilgrim Pipeline, NJ Working Families, NJ Pinelands Preservation Alliance, New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, Sane Energy Project and many other groups.

“You can feel change coming,” said Lawrence Hamm, a Newark-based civil rights activist, addressing the crowd in the keynote address. “We must reestablish our connection with Nature…We need to join these movements together in the same fight.”

Saturday, October 17, 2015

My Life as a Folk Song

Detail from FDU Wamfest 2015 poster

Growing up in a two-horse hamlet in upstate New York, folk songs as I recall were about long lost loves and heart-wrenching memories of faraway fabled places like Scotland and Tennessee. Yesterday, a singer-songwriter from Texas named Darden Smith plucked a folk song out of me.

“Why’d you join the Army?” Darden abruptly asked, just as I bit into a slice of pizza at a songwriting workshop he was conducting at a Creative Writing Club meeting at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Florham Campus in Madison-Florham Park, NJ.  

I’d dropped by the workshop to see what I might pick up to use in writing workshops I coordinate in New Jersey for Warrior Writers, an organization that provides an outlet for military veterans to work on ways to write and talk about hard-to-tell experiences. I was also there as a participant in a three-day words and music festival called Wamfest that FDU hosted. The theme of the festival was “The art of healing/ Veterans.” Warrior Writers Kevin Basl, Eli Wright, Sarah Mess and I read poetry as introduction to three well-attended concerts that wove together words and music addressing war and aftermaths.

At Darden Smith’s workshop, I was looking to see how a professional wordsmith works with tight-lipped students who had served in the latest wars. I nearly choked on pizza when he called out to me across the room.  

“Why’d you join the Army?” Damn, he‘s calling on me. I felt like a suddenly trapped student hoping not to be noticed in the back of the room.  I joined the Army a very long time ago, in 1962, after dropping out of college. But that isn’t the full story. My thoughts swirled wildly; actually, the story began long before then.

“I wanted to go to West Point when I was in 7th grade,” I blurted out.

Question by pertinent question, Darden pulled out the essence of my life story, while tinkering with guitar riffs, honing this phrase and that phrase that popped out of my mouth, all the while explaining to the circle of fascinated students how to focus on the “emotional truth” of a story being shaped into a song.

Welcoming suggestions and feedback from David Daniel, the creative writing professor who organized the event, and others in the circle, he demonstrated the process of “collaborating on songs” that he does with fellow songwriters, musicians, and people whose story he helps tell. Smith is the founder of an organization called SongwritingWith: that does workshops with active duty troops and war veterans and other survivors of traumatic events.

Later in the afternoon, he entranced a hall full of students, faculty and visitors with a concert of songs from such workshops. The finale of the concert was the song Darden Smith coaxed out of me and created in the course of a lunchtime workshop. It was the most concise version of what I've been trying to say for decades.

Darden Smith/Jan Barry

Eisenhower went to West Point
I wanted to be like him
I wanted to be a general
I wanted to win
I joined the army went to Vietnam
It’s when I first had my doubts
But I went to the Point anyway
There was something I had to figure out

Shattered Glass Pieces
Reflecting the whole
Story that had to be told

 At 21 I put down my rifle
I picked up a pen
I had to tell America
About the secret nasty war we were in
My view of my country was broken
In pieces on the ground
I put the story into poetry
And scattered it around

Shattered Glass Pieces
Reflecting the whole
Story that had to be told

50 years later the war goes on
50 years later we sing this song
War is not a game
It shattered man woman and child all the same

Shattered Glass Pieces
Reflecting the whole
Story that has to be told


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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Poetry for a New Century

Leave it to a poet to note that so many of the casualties on 9/11 at the World Trade Center were from many other parts of the world.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,

like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.

Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen

could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:

Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,

Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh…


That’s how poet Martin Espada commemorated, in “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” the cooks, dishwashers, waiters and waitresses who died in the Windows on the World restaurant that day. 

This perspective sets the tone for With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, 2014), edited by Douglas Valentine, an edgy, protest-minded anthology presenting a hard-eyed, often bitter look at how many poets see the world today.

Julia Stein traces, in “Iraqi Poets Society,” the poetic impact of the US military invasion and overthrow of the monstrous dictator Saddam Hussein:

…dreams grew that poems would erase

all the roadside bombs…


Iraqi poets now were breathing poems again.

For a few days, a few weeks, a few months, poems sprouted…

up and down the Baghdad streets.


When they began the terrible count:

“One poet was threatened. One was kidnapped.

One was killed. One fled abroad.”…


… suicide bombs exploded on the street

leaving corpses and the wounded.


Many of the poems in this collection are by poets from other parts of the world raising their voices against the corrosive violence that swirls like desert sand storms through their homelands and other places they care about—Central America, Palestine/Israel, across the Middle East, North Africa. A poet from Tunisia, Tahar Bekri, worries about what is tearing Afghanistan apart. A poet from Morocco living in Belgium, Taha Adnan, worries about a friend’s Facebook page being overshadowed by nationalistic flags in a revolution-and-reaction-torn homeland.
Other poems are by American veterans of our wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and around the world. Brian Turner writes in “VA Hospital Confessional” about battles that continue long after coming home.


Some nights I hear a woman screaming

Other nights I shoot the crashing car.


When the boy brings us a platter of fruit,

I mistake cantaloupe for a human skull…


This collection of glass-smashed poetry tries to convey the horrendous impact on people of the seemingly ceaseless wars that politicians and the news media treat as backdrop to their preening self-promotions and heedless, reckless, careless ambitions.

The next time you see a VIP wrap himself in the flag of honoring the dead of 9/11 and calling for more war, remember these lines from Martin Espada’s tribute to the workers from around the world who died in the towers:


…When the war began, from Manhattan to Kabul

two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,

mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:

Teach me to dance. We have no music here.

And the other said with a Spanish tongue:

I will teach you. Music is all we have.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Battling Suicide

Burying a Hero: Tyler Westbrook funeral    (photo: Jan Barry)

Since the deliberate crashing of airliners on September 11, 2001, the signature way of death in the Global War on Terrorism is suicide. In the battle against Islamist suicide bombers, the US sent military forces into Afghanistan and Iraq on what became essentially suicidal missions—patrol the same roads and paths over and over until hidden explosives go off, killing or maiming our troops, over and over and over. Bomb, assault, hit with drone missile fire house after house, village after village, city after city, year after year--creating outraged survivors seeking revenge.

Long hidden amid a decade of mayhem was a ghost army of US troops who shot themselves or otherwise committed suicide. Once the suicide toll was made public, these fuller casualty lists showed that far more of our soldiers and veterans were killing themselves than died in combat.

In recent years, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continued, the suicide toll has risen from an estimated 18 veterans per day to 22—or nearly one per hour—according to periodic updates by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The horrendous impact of these once hidden war casualties hit home this past weekend for a friend’s family in West Virginia. The loss for Marcia Westbrook and her family of 31-year-old Tyler, an Army sergeant first class who served two tours in Iraq, was staggering. Adding to the grief for Marcia is that she’s an activist with Military Families Speak Out, who has worked for years to try to convince the government to end these wars and provide more assistance for veterans wounded in so many ways.

But what in the past might have been a quietly grief-struck private funeral became a region-wide outpouring of support by hundreds of mourners. And many people in the crowded gatherings at the funeral home, the high school gym and at the community cemetery vowed to help address this national epidemic killing off so many of our men and women who served in military operations.

Indeed, the grief and jolt to do something in the wake of the self-destructive death of a highly decorated soldier buried, with full military honors, as a hometown hero quickly spread across the country.

“As some of you have heard, last week Coach Nick received some tough news,” noted a statement on the website for Crossfit Suisun City in California, which was widely shared on Facebook. “His high school and college friend and wrestling partner, Tyler Westbrook, took his own life. 31 years old and an accomplished U.S. Army Veteran, he served his country honorably, doing things most of us will never see, know, or should experience. He is a hometown hero in Coach Nick’s home state in Williamstown, West Virginia and is survived by his wife and one year old son.

“We live in a world where PTSD, suicide and the effects of ‘the longest war’ are taking it’s toll on the men and women who have served our country. The Department of Veteran Affairs has released that approximately 22 veterans a day take their own lives. It’s 22 Too Many,” the statement continued, providing a hot link to an organization addressing this issue. “This Wednesday, September 9th, during ALL classes we will be performing a WOD we’ve created in his honor and in memory of all the veterans who have taken their own lives to show that we appreciate their dedication to protecting and serving our country.”

A very similar sentiment was expressed at Tyler Westbrook’s funeral service in the Williamstown High School gymnasium. The place was packed with neighbors and friends who remembered him as a star athlete, joined by a Patriot Guard motorcycle honor guard that escorted his funeral procession from the Akron, Ohio airport, American Legion members who saluted his flag-draped casket, military buddies who drove for hours from Colorado and North Carolina, and a Special Forces honor guard in full dress uniforms. Tyler died while stationed with a Special Forces unit at Fort Carson, Colorado.

“Tyler’s service to his country cost him his life,” Chaplain (Major) Joe Ward said in his remarks, which he proclaimed to the crowd were conveyed “on behalf of the United States Army.” Ward added that Tyler was a casualty of “hidden wounds.”

Further adding to the tragedy is that Fort Carson has hosted suicide prevention programs since 2009.

"The stigma of suicide must go away," Maj. Gen. Mark A. Graham, the commanding general of Fort Carson at the time, said at a press conference in January 2009 called to discuss the latest suicide of a soldier assigned to that post and a new Army program focused on suicide prevention. "This is not just an Army issue and concern. To me, it's a national concern."

Commemorating the death of Spc. Larry C. Applegate, a decorated soldier who served in Iraq and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Graham said: "This young soldier died fighting a different battle… I lost a son fighting a different battle to suicide - and we are saddened by it."

Warning Signs

The post newspaper, the Fort Carson Mountaineer, added:  “Graham's son, Kevin, a top ROTC cadet, committed suicide in 2003. Since then, Graham and his wife, Carol, have spoken out about the importance of seeking help and of recognizing the warning signs of suicide.”

The latest Army initiative was conveyed in a news release issued from Fort Lee, Virginia a week after Tyler Westbrook killed himself in Colorado with a gunshot wound.

“This year, some of the data from the ‘Army Study to Assess Risk and Resiliency in Service members,’ or STARRS, was released, and it is helping to drive changes in the way the Army views suicide.

“Several risk factors for suicide occur among civilian and military populations including: an existing diagnosis of depression or severe anxiety; recent behavioral health hospitalization; alcohol or substance abuse; chronic pain or a serious medical condition; experiencing a highly stressful life event; relationship conflicts; and bullying at work or among peers.

“In addition, Army STARRS showed some military-specific risk factors - i.e. being an enlisted Soldier, having a recent demotion or having deployed - put troops at a higher risk for suicidal acts. …."

The Army announcement goes on to say: "Those interested in learning more about suicide prevention and intervention, should consider attending an applied suicide intervention skills training session offered on Fort Lee. The free, two-day program is designed to help equip community members with more advanced skills for intervening in suicide.”


Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Road from War

Combat Paper art show  (photo: Jan Barry)

The distance from the Roosevelt Room at the White House to Lorton, Virginia is 20 miles and traverses several eras of American history. I made that journey recently after attending a meeting of war veterans and military family members at the White House to discuss waging diplomacy instead of war and boosting programs for healing war wounds. 

The next day, Paula Rogovin and I went to the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton to see an art show and poetry reading by soldiers who had just completed a post-traumatic stress program at Ft. Belvoir. The event in a prison complex that previously housed women jailed for demanding the right to vote, Vietnam War protesters, and all sorts of people held for petty offenses, was the culmination of a series of workshops conducted by Combat Paper NJ and Warrior Writers at Ft. Belvoir and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.

Teddy Roosevelt, whose Progressive Era enthusiasms still animate the current occupants of the White House, might well have approved the transformation of the infamous Washington, DC prison farm in Lorton into an arts center assisting wounded warriors.

“A lot of our wounds are not from the enemy but from our commands and our hospitals,” said a woman Army veteran who served at the Guantanamo Bay military prison facility where POWs from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been kept for more than a decade.

Teddy Roosevelt, who led US troops in battle to free Cuba from Spanish military abuses, surely would have bellowed a bull moose roar over such behavior by American troops. In a poem she read, the woman described abuses directed at her by a commander at Guantanamo that “evoke fear and terror.”

Struggling Back from War

“It’s been a 12-year struggle,” said a soldier named Vinnie, noting that his injuries include traumatic brain injury as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. Added a stocky young man who said he’d been a Marine for 12 years: “It’s a struggle to admit that I’ve been broken.”

A woman who referred to herself as a Walter Reed patient read a poem titled “Dear Doctor.” It included this angry indictment: “Dear doctors who didn’t have time to/ listen to my symptoms…who preferred to prescribe/ pills rather than run tests…who made me feel like/giving up on myself…I got my diagnosis today.”

A dozen or so young men and women showed their artwork and read selections from their journals—which included reflections on surviving high speed car crashes in suicide attempts, disastrous battles in war zones, mistreatment in military hospitals, drug abuse compounded by disorienting medications, domestic abuse and other traumatic events. I wished that government officials who oversee our nation’s military policies were there to hear it.

The previous afternoon, in a very different setting, representatives of Military Families Speak Out, Veterans For Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War met across a conference table in the history-laden Roosevelt Room with White House staff members who oversee outreach programs for veterans and family members.

It was the third such meeting at the White House since President Obama took office. Nothing came of the previous meetings, in 2009 and 2014. The Obama administration’s negotiated deal with Iran over nuclear weapons, however, gave hope that arguments for expanding diplomacy to the war zones bracketing Iran—that is, in Iraq and Afghanistan—might finally be seriously discussed. We felt that this time we were listened to.

“As a veteran of what is called the Persian Gulf War in 1990, I want to remind you that the U.S. has engaged in military operations in Iraq for 25 years,” said Michael McPherson, executive director of Veterans For Peace, based in St. Louis. “By any measure of success other than perhaps creating chaos in the lives of the average Iraqi and maintaining U.S. presence there, U.S. foreign policy in Iraq has been a failure. … The underlying problems in Iraq are political and cannot be solved through military means.”

On behalf of the delegation, McPherson presented a list of steps to take to wind down US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I spoke briefly about the need to involve the American people in grassroots citizen diplomacy.We are alive today because of the urgent diplomacy of the Kennedy administration with Soviet leaders to avert nuclear war” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I noted.  “We’re also alive today because of citizen diplomacy by civic and religious groups in the US and USSR that opened doors for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War and its constant danger of nuclear war breaking out in crisis after crisis. The Reagan administration called the people-to-people citizen exchanges ‘track II diplomacy.’

“Diplomacy, not war, is vital regarding Iran. It is also vital in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Civic groups that do peaceful programs in those war zones need to feel confident that when they open doors, Washington sends in seasoned diplomats, not special operations assault teams or missile-firing drones,” I concluded. 

Struggling with Ending a War

Military Families Speak Out members described the stresses on soldiers and families of soul-wrenching, often multiple deployments to combat zones.

“If we could not accomplish our goals with over 100,000 troops, why would anyone think we can do it with just 9,800 troops?” asked Mary Hladky, who lives in Kansas City. Her son served with an Army unit during the height of Obama’s surge of combat troops in Afghanistan. “The Afghanistan war is an abysmal failure.  We need to change course, stop military intervention and support a political solution that doesn’t favor one side. As long as there are U.S. forces in Afghanistan there will be no peace.  As President Obama has said, a lasting solution will depend on Afghans and their neighbors reaching a political settlement.”

Our delegation also presented a list of recommended improvements to government programs for assisting soldiers in making the transition to civilian life and in getting assistance along with veterans of previous wars for hidden ailments such as PTSD, as well as physical wounds.

The recommendations included moving quickly to fill the reported 41,000 job openings in the VA system, provide timely information to vets and families on where to find appropriate assistance, and create an oversight system to track and correct problems in VA care.

Within hours of the White House meeting seeking increased attention to aiding injured troops and ailing veterans, the Military Families Speak Out phone tree lit up: a son of one of the group’s members, an active duty soldier, had killed himself during the night.