Carrying a Backpack of Sorrow ... Soldiers on the Edge of Suicide
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More of our young soldiers are now killing themselves than are being killed in our wars in the Middle East. The sad statistics are at the end of this article, but the following poem by a 24-year-old former Marine, who slashed his wrists twice after four years of duty and two tours of combat, tells it all.
You fell off the seat as the handlebars turned
sharp left, throwing your body onto
the hot coals of Ramadi pavement,
intertwining your legs within your bicycle.
Lifeless eyes looking to the sky,
your neck muscles twitched turning your head
directly towards us. Nothing escaped your
lips except for the blood in the left corner
of your mouth that briefly moistened them
until the sand and dust dried them out.
The blood trail went behind the stone wall
where your body was placed, weighed down
by your blue bicycle and we laughed.
I used to fall asleep to the pictures and now
I can't even bear to get a glimpse.
-Excerpted from "The Bicycle" by Jon Michael Turner
The military "broke me down into a not-good person, wearing a huge mask," Turner told the audience at his poetry reading in San Francisco's Beat Museum, in North Beach. The March 12 event - on the birthday of "Beatnik" literary icon Jack Kerouac - was organized by the venerable Jack Hirschman, San Francisco's 2006 poet laureate, and by the local IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War). Jon read from his small, self-published book "Eat the Apple" and from several large pages of dark green, handmade paper - the product of The Combat Paper Book Project, where 125 vets, ranging from World War II through Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, shredded their uniforms to make books for their poetry. "Poetry saved my life," Jon told us, more than once.
The Burlington, Vermont, native was accompanied by his father and stepmother on a coast to coast series of readings from the little book, the name of which comes from a play on the word "core." The flier for the evening reading stated: "There's a term 'Once a Marine, always a Marine,'" Turner said, ripping his medals off and flinging them to the ground. As the room exploded in applause he adds, "But there's also the expression: 'Eat the apple, f*ck the corps. I don't work for you no more!'"
Jon walks with a cane and was physically injured in battle, but only his poetry reveals his invisible wounds, as in these excerpts from "A Night in the Mind of Me - part 1":
The train hits you head on when you hear of another
friend whose life was just taken.
Pulling his cold lifeless body from the cooler,
unzipping the bag and seeing his forehead,
caved in like a cereal bowl from the sniper's bullet
that touched his brain.
His skin was pale and cold.
It becomes difficult to sleep even after being
physically drained from patrols, post,
overwatches and carrying five hundred
sandbags up eighty feet of stairs after
each post cycle.
The psychiatrists still wonder why we
drink so heavy when we get home.
We need something to take us away
from the gunfire, explosions,
sand, nightmares and screams ... ...
I still can't cry.
The tears build up but no weight is shed.
Anger kicks in and something else
An empty bottle of liquor
People still look away as we submit ourselves
to drugs and alcohol to suppress these
feelings of loneliness and sadness,
leading to self mutilation and
self destruction on the gift of a human body.
The ditch that we dug starts to cave in.
And from "A Night in the Mind of Me - part 2":
Laughter pours out from the house as if nothing
were the matter, when outside in a chair, underneath
a tree, next to the chickens, I sit,
engulfed in my own sorrows... ...
Resting on the ground is my glass,
half filled with water but I don't have
enough courage to pick it up and smash it against
my skull so that everyone can watch blood
pool in the pockets where my collar
bones meet my dead weighted shoulders,...
Every time I'm up, something pulls me down,
whenever I relax, something stresses me out,
every time a smile tugs on my heart, an
iron fist crushes it, and I sit outside in a chair,
underneath a tree, next to the chickens,
away from the ones that I love so
that my disease won't infect them.
Sorrow and self-pity should be detained,
thrown into an empty bottle and given to the
ocean so that the waves can wash away the pain.
One wonders why this slightly-built, sensitive young man joined the Marines in 2004 at the age of 18 (he was sent first to Haiti at the time of the US-backed February coup that ousted the populist and democratic President Jean-Bertrand Aristide). Jon revealed that he came from a military family whose participation in every American conflict stretches back to the Revolutionary War. His father is clearly too young to have gone to Vietnam, but could have easily been in one or both of the Bushes' wars. Jon's big brother is also a soldier, ironically now in Haiti after the earthquake. Of the American military, Jon now writes in "What May Come":
That's the sound of the man at your door,
I'm sorry but you won't see your son alive anymore,
my name is Uncle Sam and I made your boy a whore.
And, from "Just Thoughts":
I often wonder
if this will be the rest of my life.
Schizophrenic, paranoid, anxious.
That guy that walks around the city center that
people steer their children away from.
"Mommy, who's that man walking next
to the crazy guy?"
"Oh that's just Uncle Sam sweetheart, he takes
the souls from young men so that
they have trouble sleeping at night"
"It takes the Courage and Strength of a Warrior to ask for Help" - we've all seen the ads, on billboards and buses, with the silhouette of a downcast soldier against a back drop of the stars and stripes, and a 1-800 Help Line just for vets, provided by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs. But "The Surge" in self-inflicted deaths continues, with our military reporting 350 suicides of active duty personnel in 2009, compared to 340 combat deaths in Afghanistan, and 160 in Iraq during the same year - the highest active duty military suicide numbers since records began to be kept in 1980. And for every death, at least five serving personnel are hospitalized for attempting to take their life, according to the military's own studies.
But these statistics do not include the far larger number of post-active duty veterans who kill themselves after discharge, or, like Turner, who make the attempt. (Vietnam veteran suicides number easily in the tens of thousands.) A CBS study put the current suicide rate among male veterans aged 20 to 24 at four times the national average. According to CNN, total combat deaths since 2001 (8+ years) in Afghanistan are now 1,016, since 2003 (7 years) in Iraq 4,390 - totaling 5,406 as of March 21, 2010. However, the Veteran's Administration estimates that 6,400 veterans take their own lives each year - an ever growing proportion of them from the recent Mid-East wars - with this figure widely disputed as being way too low. Multiply 6,400 by seven or eight years to compare the numbers of our young soldiers that are now killing themselves, to those being killed in our wars and occupations.
The last word belongs to Turner, from "Taught How To Love":
I'm sick of carrying this pain
everywhere I go. I'm sick of being
thanked for my service. I'd rather
have society thank the people that
don't believe in war, or thank
the people that get arrested for
an act of civil disobedience, or
thank the people that resist.
To buy "Eat the Apple," contact Jon M. Turner, Seven Star Press, 4 Howard Street Suite 12, Burlington, VT 05401; Email: JT@greendoorstudio.net See also: www.IVAW.org (Iraq Veterans Against the War)