Operation Homecoming: Lieutenant Colonel Robert Schaefer
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Schaefer finished his tour in Iraq, completed a Master's Degree at Harvard Graduate School for Arts and Sciences, now works as an attaché at a U.S. Embassy in Europe. Schaefer's book, "The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucus, from Gazavat to Jihad," is published by Praeger and will be available in October 2010.
Written while an Army Special Forces (Green Beret) Captain, this buried memory of an incident in the first Gulf War was dug up when he found himself in a same desert fighting the same army. He jotted down the poem only days after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It describes an incident Schaefer observed firsthand.
or were they
blue? White, red
ribbon everywhere --
Stay out. But they were so small, plastic, barely three
inches across. They didn't look deadly. Two
soldiers wandered in, curious. One
said: "I wonder what would happen if… ." and gingerly tapped one
with the toe of his boot which then evaporated in a pink frothy cloud,
a bubble gum pop, then cotton candy chunks
arcing lazily through the air
landing with little wet thumps
muffled by the sand. Then, he died.
just like that
just that quickly.
One moment he was alive and curious
and the next, he was just a scattering. But the second was still alive
And so, to help him, without thinking
others ran into that minefield pop
pop We too now running, and I, fastest, first, frozen
by the sight of so much crimson soaked clothing.
I didn't know where to start. Covered with the essence of others,
later, I was
mistaken as a casualty myself. But I would not let them take my uniform
they would still live as long as evidence
of them remained on my sleeves,
torn as they grasped for a few extra moments.
Excerpted from Operation Homecoming, by Andrew Carroll, editor. © 2006 by Southern Arts Federation.
She was beautiful,
really, really beautiful.
But I was afraid to touch her.
She was lying at my feet, naked
staring up at me, beseeching. She was fifteen
dazed, I hoped. I think I even said a prayer
Oh God, please…. But the flies told me otherwise. They stood directly on her eyes.
They stood directly on her eyeballs
and walked across her pupils and pushed
each other out of the way to look directly
into her eyes before flying off and joining the others, buzzing excitedly between her legs
collecting in her open mouth, a roiling
black mass in an obscene kiss. No blood, no witness save that pounding sun
oppressing her dark skin,
slowly whitening, like desiccated wood. Drenched with sweat from the sweltering heat,
spat out a mouthful of tepid water,
wishing I had a blanket.
© Robert W. Schaefer
Almost dying is a shock that some never survive. Almost dying is a flutter of the projector reel where the image is blurred for an instant before the camera operator in the projector room high above the darkened theater leans over and smacks it. Unexpectedly, suddenly, inexplicably that moment floats in front of you -- barely long enough to conceive of it, much less have the presence of mind to grab it. Some are not able to shake themselves free of the siren's song -- preferring to stay the fragrant, golden path headed to Valhalla; it's easier to just let go. Some try but are not quick enough to grasp that ephemeral celluloid butterfly; they go with a bitter curl on their lips, hand outstretched, whispering "almost." Some, however, move resolutely and live. And in that fragment of a moment, the bullet that was heading straight into your eyeball now instead catches the inside rim of your helmet, follows the contours of your head as it burns a long glowing welt into your skin and then exits… leaving you virtually unscathed.
You should have died.
Without question, you were going to die.
You were ready to die -- yet you didn't -- you merely almost died.
Realizing that you are going to die has a strangely calming effect. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of what is about to happen, a bourbon-like tranquility settles upon you as you await the crush of the inevitable. A cold fog envelops you as you step out of your warm, comfortable life and prepare to head out into something new and hazy. Strangely, the moment before the very end feels something like relief -- a freedom to finally stop running, striving, clawing, fighting, caring -- perhaps it is a moment of bliss as you realize that it is finally, exhaustingly, over. No more getting up at 5:30 in the morning, no more boss, no more cutting the grass on a Saturday morning when you'd rather be shooting hoops. This surprising feeling of relief is buffered only by the pang of regret that you will never see those that you love again -- never again to kiss away your daughter's skinned-up knee, never again to make a cape of your son's baby blanket. These are the final credits that roll by as you slip into the next world -- unless something miraculous happens and you are rudely snatched out of the big sleep.
But if the miraculous does happen, if in that final infinitesimal moment before death you are lucky enough to see the hummingbird with kaleidoscopic wings, there are some who would advise you not to grab it, as you will surely not survive unscathed. Karma decrees that the doorman's hand-stamp is indelible; almost dying may very well be worse than the real thing. I cannot say for sure -- having never actually died and lived to tell about it, but I have played poker with that bastard, and I can tell you that Death is not a good loser -- and he is not gracious when you cheat him. As he leaves the table he reminds you that although it wasn't long or deep, he has kissed you nonetheless, and you will live with the bittersweet taste of it until he comes for you again. He hasn't torn up the deed to your estate, but has passed it on to Guilt and Shame; poor stewards, nightmare tenants, now a permanent oozing pustule in your soul -- the nagging voice you will have to shout down every day for the rest of your unnatural life.
Because you lived and somebody else didn't; because maybe that somebody else deserved a second chance more than you did; because that somebody else's mother or wife or grandfather had to sort through a duffel bag of razor blades and photographs on a cold, bleak Saturday afternoon -- months after that other cold, bleak Saturday afternoon when they put that somebody else in the ground and played taps and fired the volleys and folded the flag with crisp precision. The slowest, most solemn and longest 30 feet in all of recorded geometry are the 10 paces the Color Guard Commander takes when he presents the flag to a grieving young widow. An ordinary man could live three lifetimes in the pauses between those steps.
And because you loved him too, because that somebody else was your buddy, you were there on that cold, bleak Saturday and because you lived and because he didn't, those grandfather eyes will tear a wound in your soul that can never heal because you made it and he didn't -- and although most everyone is too polite to say it, they all want to know why he died instead of you.
And so do you.
Almost dying means you will cry more than if you actually did make the journey to Valhalla. Dying men rarely cry -- it's the ones that live that cannot bear the responsibility. But the tears come later, long after any danger has passed, when you are in some safe place, performing some mundane task like taking a letter to the mailbox. And without warning or conscious thought, you suddenly find yourself on your knees in the front yard crying like a baby because the reality has hit you like a sledgehammer in the face. Because the idea of putting a letter in the mailbox makes you wonder what the letter about your death would have said, and about the letter that you had to write to your buddy's wife, and about the fact that no one around you in this alien place of neat, clean streets, well-kept houses and stores stocked full of crap can ever appreciate the magnificence of a sunrise as well as you can. It's why no one understands why bits of colored cloth sewn together or the sound of a bugle can reduce you to a blubbering mass of tears, why you never saw an episode of "Friends" or "Seinfeld," why you spend hours agonizing over words to try and impart to them a fullness of being, a completeness of spirit that will somehow be strong enough to forever carry the memory of a man.
© Robert W. Schaefer
Major Robert Schaefer was a part of the National Endowment for the Arts Operation Homecoming Initiative. Since 2004, the NEA Operation Homecoming writing program has preserved the stories of U.S. military personnel and their families. With support from The Boeing Company, Operation Homecoming has brought 59 writing workshops to troops at 27 domestic and overseas military installations from Camp Pendleton in California to USS Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Among the original workshop teachers are distinguished writers Tobias Wolff, Jeff Shaara, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Bausch, Bobbie Ann Mason, Joe Haldeman, and Mark Bowden.