Saturday, January 17, 2015

The War at Home

It has become a cliché that “18 veterans a day”—and then “22 veterans a day”—die of suicide in America. These appalling figures of the VA’s estimated daily average of military veterans who kill themselves have been reported in the news media for years. Telling the story of one of those veterans, and how his family battled the US government to change how it treats returning soldiers, will hopefully shake up enough people to truly make a difference.
That’s the aim of the authors, editors and publisher of The Wounds Within: A Veteran, a PTSD Therapist, and a Nation Unprepared.  It focuses on Jeff Lucey’s death at home after serving with the Marines in the invasion of Iraq. This is a still startling tragedy, which has been widely told before in news accounts, his parents’ testimony to various government entities, and in previous books, notably The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans, published in 2009.

The new element in The Wounds Within are the insights of co-author Mark I. Nickerson, a private psychotherapist who was trying to help Lucey navigate the VA treatment maze when the 23-year-old Marine reservist hung himself in his parents’ basement. 

“Never before has a client of mine taken his or her own life while working with me,” writes Nickerson, whose faith in his professional training and skills was shaken. “In hindsight, I was learning about a higher level of risk that can exist for veterans in the aftermath of war.” He was assisted in writing this book by author Joshua S. Goldstein.
Nickerson stayed in close touch with the Lucey family and worked at learning and teaching others how to better assist military veterans beset by nightmares, grief, depression and other symptoms of a mysterious malady that government agencies bureaucratically labeled post-traumatic stress disorder.

Meanwhile, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued to churn out, over the next decade, a generation of “lost” soldiers who killed themselves in greater numbers than died on the battlefields. Lawsuits by the Luceys and by veterans groups helped uncover a hidden crisis of VA mismanagement of treatment programs for veterans of all ages, with Vietnam veterans accounting for the vast majority of reported suicides.
The Wounds Within also tells the story of Kevin and Joyce Lucey’s campaign to change the system that they felt killed their son. I first heard them speak, in Boston in 2004, when they joined with Military Families Speak Out and Veterans For Peace in challenging the war policy that harmed so many of our own troops as well as terrified Iraqis. They challenged the VA health care system with numerous allied groups. They continued raising these concerns for the next decade, including a meeting with White House officials last summer. 

“After ten years, the reforms still don’t go far enough, but they are extensive,” Nickerson writes. “Quite possibly, if today’s systems had been in place when Jeff returned from Iraq, he would be alive.”
Among the treatments for PTSD that Nickerson feels the VA is getting right are stress management and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which he specializes in. Yet he acknowledges that many veterans were turned off by how they were treated in seeking VA care.

“An important advancement in treatment over the last ten years is the realization that the old model of deferring trauma treatment until a person is clean and sober is misguided,” he notes. This is one of the VA policies in 2004 that added to Jeff Lucey’s despair that no one could or would help him, as he tried to self-medicate with booze.
Another program the VA is getting right are the Vet Centers, which provide stress management, anger management, and various other treatment programs to vets of all eras in community settings. This is a program, which Nickerson writes the Luceys were not aware of until too late, that deserves a book of its own.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Happy Holidays 2014

When light returns

From winter’s darkest night

Earth rejoices, as do we…

Happy holidays

And new year!

Jan & Paula 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas Truce Centennial

Christmas Truce     (Painting by Angus McBride)

"When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages … behind the lines … something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other … and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham,” a German soldier, Richard Schirrmann, wrote of a memorable event in the First World War.

This spontaneous truce took place on Christmas 1915, a year after such truces sprang up in so many places where armies of several nations were faced off in trenches bristling with massed rifles and machineguns backed by artillery barrages that the world war Christmas Truce was enshrined in history books.

One hundred years later, this soldiers’ truce is being commemorated big time in England, which lost a generation of men in the war. Speaking at the unveiling of a statue at the National Memorial Arboretum, Prince William lauded the story of the Christmas Truce.

"We all grew up with the story of soldiers from both sides putting down their arms to meet in no man's land on Christmas Day 1914 - when gunfire remarkably gave way to gifts,” he said. "It remains wholly relevant today as a message of hope and humanity, even in the bleakest of times,” reported the Daily Mail.

The statue’s design of two clasped hands inside a soccer ball frame commemorates accounts of British and German soldiers singing familiar carols across the battlefield, then climbing out of their trenches, exchanging gifts and playing football or soccer.   

In commemoration, this year British football leagues organized Football Remembers events involving thousands of professional, amateur and youth football players. Information packets about the historic significance of the Christmas Truce were sent to more than 30,000 schools, the BBC reported.

This story has yet to stir much interest in the US, aside from an Associated Press story picked up by The Salt Lake Tribune.

“This Christmas, the British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s has taken the idea and turned it into a blockbuster ad, showing opposing soldiers living the truce amid a football match at the center of the heart-tugging, some say sanitized, view of that Great War day,” the AP noted of a stunning video that has been circulating on Facebook.

Meanwhile, the news agency continued, “Michel Platini, the president of Europe soccer’s governing body, underscored that unique mood of brotherhood at the unveiling of the Christmas monument on Thursday on the former battlegrounds known as Flanders Fields in western Belgium, scene of some of the most horrendous killing. The monument is a steel ball sitting on the remains of a World War I shell.”

But some Americans get it. Singer-storyteller John McCutcheon is performing a series of “Christmas in the Trenches” concerts this month in Knoxville, Seattle, Kansas City, and New York.

As the Seattle Times reported today, “McCutcheon’s most treasured memory of ‘Christmas In the Trenches’ having a real impact comes from a concert he gave in Denmark 30 years ago.

“’I met four German men who traveled from Berlin because they’d heard the song on the radio and wanted to meet me. They were in their late 80s and had been a part of the Christmas Truce. They were just kids when it happened. They’d tried to tell people about it and weren’t believed. I was gobsmacked that they wanted to thank me,’ he recalled.”

McCutcheon’s tribute to the World War I truce will be the highlight of his “Christmas in the Trenches” concert at the Great Hall of The Cooper Union in New York on December 20. McCutcheon’s audience will include many veterans who fought in numerous wars since The War to End All Wars.

The 7:30 pm concert is sponsored by the Veterans Peace Council of Metro New York, whose member organizations include Veterans For Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, and Friends and Family of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.


Hopefully, this centennial call will be heard in this season of Christmas celebrations, amid seemingly endless US military operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

For more information:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Writing Workshop for Vets and Families at FDR Library

Veterans Writing Workshop, NYC     (courtesy: Warrior Writers)

Writing Workshop for Veterans and Families at FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY on Saturday, November 22

On the weekend of November 21-23, the Veteran Arts Showcase at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum is presenting an art exhibition, poetry and book readings, music and theater performances, and a writing workshop. The events are at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt historic house at 4079 Albany Post Road (Route 9), Hyde Park, NY.

The writing workshop on Saturday, from 10 am to 12:30 pm, is facilitated by Jennifer Pacanowski and Jan Barry. Both are facilitators with the Warrior Writers Project, whose new anthology of poetry and art by veterans is titled Warrior Writers.

Jan Barry is a poet, author and editor of several collections of work by veterans; he served in the Army in Vietnam. Jennifer Pacanowski, who served in the Army in Iraq, is a poet, public speaker and dramatist, who will be performing with The Veterans Project: Leaving Theatre on Sunday, November 23 at 2 pm.    

“Our goal is to create community through writing together,” says Pacanowski, “all veterans, all eras, military family members and friends. You don't have to a writer, just have a willingness to be part of a conversation incorporated with your writing on experiences being a part of the military culture.” Refreshments available and lunch will be provided for writing workshop participants.

The Veteran Arts Showcase is sponsored by Creative Writers, Orange County Arts Council, The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, and The Veteran Family Support Alliance.

For more information on events at the Veteran Arts Showcase:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Another Kind of Poetry

Imagine a poetry opera: seventeen poets presenting an array of poems that wove a tapestry of battle-battered, yet persistent themes on war, accompanied by a jazz band and a trio of singers whose wistful harmonies were bell-ringing clear and eerie as funeral hymns.

That’s the program the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival presented at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ, last Saturday night. Thrust into the daunting role of presenting the first poem in the 90-minute production, titled “Another Kind of Courage,” I nearly choked up when the band played a thunderous grand entrance fanfare, as I shuffled across the stage in NJPAC’s enormous concert hall. It was the startling opening of an evening of startling stories by war veterans and military family members drawn from the depths of nightmares and momentous, life-long memories.

Based on the thunderclaps of applause from the audience, this audacious opera conceived by Dodge Poetry Director Martin Farawell worked spectacularly. Among the interwoven themes were love and loss among soldiers, pride and prejudice in the military, and of course death, grief and mourning, with a recurring, raw-edged, still stunned emphasis on suicide.

The set list of poems included established pieces by acclaimed masters of modern poetry and emerging work by young veterans whose powerful poetry and performances were developed in workshops conducted by Warrior Writers and Combat Paper, the veteran-oriented arts programs that encourage plumbing the depths of “unspeakable” memories.

The eclectic cast included Dodge Poetry Festival featured poets Jehanne Dubrow, Elyse Fenton, Charles H. Johnson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gardner McFall, Marilyn Nelson, Brian Turner plus—from Warrior Writers/Combat Paper—Jan Barry, Kevin Basl, Chantelle Bateman, Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, Lovella Calica, Hugh Martin, Jennifer Pacanowski,  Carlos Sirah, Jon Turner and Eli Wright.

Music was provided by the Tomas Doncker Band, which played pieces composed for poems by Komunyakaa and Jennifer Pacanowski, and the Parkington Sisters, who sang with the band, did a solo, breath-taking rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will,” and closed the show with a haunting melody they wrote, “In the Garden,” sung to their own violin and guitar accompaniment.

Another presence on stage was Jacob George, an Afghanistan war vet and folk singer who killed himself last month. His poem “Support the Troops,” published in a Warrior Writers anthology, was read by Chantelle Bateman, who served with the Marines in Iraq and with Jacob in peace actions calling for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other spectral presences evoked on stage included Gardner McFall’s father, who died on a Navy bombing mission in Vietnam; Marilyn Nelson’s father, who survived World War II and thrived in a military career but couldn’t quite shake the insults of racism at home; and Private Miller, a member of Brian Turner’s Army unit in Iraq who shot himself one morning—and, as Turner said in his poem “Eulogy”… “for this moment the earth is stilled.”

My contributions to this theme included a new poem, meant to evoke a lost army of missing soldiers and veterans.

Singing Out

How big would the war
Memorial wall be
If it listed all the names
Of soldiers who died of suicide—
Adam, Baker, Charlie…
Jacob David George
Three tours in Afghanistan
Jeffrey Lucey
Marine vet of Iraq invasion
Theodore S. Westhusing
Col., US Army
Who wrote in Iraq
“Death before being dishonored”

I couldn’t write about
The first Vietnam vet I knew
Who killed himself—
I couldn’t write about him
I couldn’t write his obit
Because newspaper policy prohibited
Reporting suicides

I didn’t know what to do
With that—that—that—muzzling

The second vet I knew
Who killed himself
Was found with a copy
Of one of my writings
In his wallet—
We cannot protect our buddies
We cannot protect our friends
With words alone

We need to change
Our apocalyptic, hellacious
Hell-bent, death-dealing culture—
Our flag flapping, sword saluting
Sworn to secrecy
Stiff upper lip, suck it up
He-man, iron man military mindset

We need to transform
The “death before dishonor”
Code seeded in our souls—
To singing out for life,
For a lifetime
Singing out
To challenge, to change
Our dancing with death

--Jan Barry

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Warrior Writers Reading at Dodge Poetry Festival

Warrior Writers poet Jennifer Pacanowski

A literary troop from Warrior Writers and Combat Paper will take the stage Saturday, October 25, at the 2014 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ.

The group will be reading in a featured event at 8:15 p.m. billed “Another Kind of Courage,” with performances by poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Charles H. Johnson, Brian Turner and others who are military veterans or military family members.

Warrior Writers and Combat Paper poets participating in the event are Jan Barry, Kevin Basl, Chantelle Bateman, Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren, Lovella Calica, Hugh Martin, Jennifer Pacanowski, Carlos Sirah, Jon Turner and Eli Wright.

Selections of their work are included in a new anthology, Warrior Writers: A Collection of Writing and Artwork by Veterans, and previous works published by Warrior Writers, a nonprofit arts organization based in Philadelphia, PA.

Martin Farawell, Dodge Poetry Director, chose the theme of “Another Kind of Courage” to honor the transformational work that many veterans and military family members have made in turning anguish into art.

“Classic war stories often evolve around finding the courage to enter battle, but there is another kind of courage required of veterans and their families as they face the impact and aftermath of war: The courage required to acknowledge trauma; to turn with love toward those transformed and wounded by war, including ourselves,” Farawell said.

Warrior Writers is a veteran-focused arts organization whose mission is to give voice to veterans’ experiences, provide a creative community for artistic expression, and bear witness to the experiences of warriors through casual, welcoming workshops held at colleges, art galleries and other sites around the nation.

Combat Paper, a program of the Printmaking Center of NJ, holds papermaking workshops in which veterans turn their uniforms, memories and experiences into art. A Combat Paper art exhibition, “Trigger Experience,” is currently on display at the Morris County Administration Building in Morristown, NJ through January 6.

Poet bios:

Jan Barry, of Teaneck, NJ, is a poet, journalist and 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. He served in the Army in Vietnam.

Kevin Basl, an Army veteran of Iraq, earned an MFA in fiction from Temple University. He is a workshop facilitator with Warrior Writers and Combat Paper NJ, based at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey in Branchburg, NJ

Jeremy Stainthorp Berggren,  a Marine veteran of the Iraq War,  is a writer, poet and visual artist. He is included in an upcoming documentary about spoken word artists in the triangle area of North Carolina

Chantelle Bateman, of Philadelphia, PA, served with the Marines in Iraq. A poet, artist and writer, her work has been featured in the film “Out of Step,” Warrior Writers anthologies and the National Veterans Art Museum.

Lovella Calica is Director of Warrior Writers, based in Philadelphia, PA. She is a poet and editor of Warrior Writers, After Action Review and other anthologies of writings and artwork by military veterans. She received three Art and Change grants from the Leeway Foundation and was honored with the Transformation Award in 2009.

Hugh Martin, an Ohio National Guard veteran of the Iraq War, is author of The Stick Soldiers and So, How Was the War? Recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, he was the inaugural winner of The Iowa Review Jeff Sharlet Award for Veterans. He is currently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.

Jennifer Pacanowski, of Allentown, PA, served in Iraq as an Army combat medic. She is a public speaker, poet, playwright and writing facilitator for Warrior Writers.

Carlos Sirah served in the Army in Iraq. He studied Performance at Fordham University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Performance at Brown University. He is a playwright and actor.

Jon Turner is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War and a humanitarian mission to Haiti. He is a poet, visual artist and director of the Center for Healthy Change in Vermont.

Eli Wright, an Army veteran of Iraq, 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.

For more information:

Monday, September 22, 2014

Saving the World: Where’s the Cavalry?

U.S. Cavalry in Yellowstone Park    (photo: PBS)

In 1886, a troop of U.S. Cavalry rode into Yellowstone Park in a remote corner of Wyoming to save its stunning scenic features and array of wildlife targeted for wholesale hunting and destructive commercial development. As recounted in Ken Burns’ PBS series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” the U.S. Army protected Yellowstone on behalf of the public for 30 years, until the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.

With our nation now threatened by industrial pollution’s impact on the world’s environment, the question is where is today’s cavalry? Where is the modern version of General Sheridan’s campaign to save a corner of the earth from the destructive forces the U.S. Army blazed the trails for and ushered into the American West?

Where is Uncle Sam’s national security plan to protect Americans from epidemic levels of cancer and other diseases from industrial toxins; from increasingly destructive floods and droughts, hurricanes and blizzards from industrially induced climate change; and from the precarious economy built on these self-destructive forces?

In the absence of such a government commitment, a citizens’ army of several hundred thousand people trooped through New York City on Sunday to send a message to national and international leaders who are scheduled to meet this week at the United Nations. Among the wide variety of environmental, animal rights, human rights and other civic groups that sent substantial delegations to march through Times Square and other major streets in New York in the People’s Climate March was a small troop of military veterans.

“U.S. Military: Largest Consumer of Oil, Largest Emitter of CO2” read the message on a giant bomb-shaped float provided by Veterans For Peace. Other groups represented in this bloc of climate marchers were Iraq Veterans Against the War, Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Military Families Speak Out.

A banner carried by the vet contingent stated: “U.S. Military: Biggest Consumer of Fossil Fuels on Earth; Stop the War on Mother Earth.”

It wasn’t as dramatic perhaps as the U.S. Cavalry riding to the rescue of Yellowstone Park, but the People’s Climate March for saving the Earth from the destructive forces that the U.S. military is too often party to was an historic occasion.

Veterans For Peace float    (photo: Jan Barry)

Vet and military family marchers  (photo: Jan Barry)