The chances of a poet reaching us are slim

I wrote this after working at Madigan Army Hospital in 2009 for three months as a temporary doctor. I am posting it here because Shoreacres sent me this link about poetry and medicine.

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I would pray if I could. It seems ludicrous to pray for a poet, but there it is.

It started with two soldiers. The Army was embedding a behavioral health specialists (the new politically correct term for mental health specialists) in units starting before 2010. Soldiers were trained in suicide prevention, instructed to stay with a buddy if they made any comments about suicide. A soldier was to walk his or her buddy directly to the behavioral health specialist or to to higher rank. As soldiers went on their fourth and fifth tours, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and traumatic brain injuries were rampant. Unfortunately, psychologists basically felt like they were putting Power Ranger band-aids on hemorrhaging brain arteries. It wasn’t working.

A soldier was accompanying a convoy in Iraq when an IED went off. Right through the bottom of a convoy truck. The driver died screaming from an arterial groin bleed. Two of the eight soldiers were killed. The truck was abandoned and the rest of the convoy got back to the safe (mostly) zone. That soldier had the glassed ghost look in her eyes and got quiet. The usual response was to avoid someone’s eyes and hope for the best, but another soldier wouldn’t let her alone. She kept asking, “Tell me. What happened?”

The first soldier finally snarled out part of the story.

The second soldier pinned a poem to her pillow, describing the event. Our first soldier came in screaming and threw the crumpled ball of paper at her chest. “That’s not what happened! That’s not how I felt! Not even close!”

“Well, what DID happen!” The rest of the unit tried to hide in plain sight or disappeared to the bathroom or got really interested in books or watching the same video over and over, but the two of them stood face to face and went at it. Words, not fists. The crumpled paper was retrieved, the poem rewritten. It took two weeks before soldier one suddenly said, “That’s it. That’s pretty good. For a poem.” But she was back, her gruff foul mouthed efficient self.

Of course it wouldn’t have gone anywhere if the behavioral health specialist hadn’t joked about it to his superiors. The Army was really desperate. In spite of all the work, the suicide rate was still challenging the combat death rate, and there just weren’t enough people to deploy.

The Army went looking for poets. Four were promptly deployed into units. Two of them turned out to be pretty useless, but the other two: the units thrived. Word started getting around. The poets were swamped with people from other units.

The recruiting campaign: “We want you, yes we do, poet show your heart so true!” was painful, but the Army did not care. And poets stepped forward from within the ranks! Don’t ask, don’t tell turned on it’s head. In spite of the medical community’s cries for waiting until more scientific studies were done, and the press and cartoonists drawing pictures recruiters welcoming wimpy pale asthenic writers with open arms, the Army embedded a poet in every unit, right beside the behavioral health specialist. Oh, of course they tried prose too. The academics had a field day fighting about why prose didn’t work. But it didn’t.

It’s the height of irony that we’re cut off with everything we need, except a poet. A water source, food, ammunition. We’re holding our position. Our back up poet is dead ten days ago, but our main poet got an IED blast. Traumatic brain injury, two weeks ago. We can’t get him out, of course. You would think someone would bleed if they were that bad, but he just can’t hold on to any memory. The soldiers tell him their stories, he struggles and tries, but he can barely hold on to one line. Can’t read, though he can write. Can’t see very well either.

The whole unit is starting to look glass-eyed and haunted. Smith asked to go in the jail yesterday and for the door to be closed. He promptly started screaming. It got quiet after a while so they went in. He was sitting on bunk. “Ok.” he said. “I might come back tomorrow.” Some soldiers are writing their own limericks or free verse. It’s ironic that it hurts morale so much, knowing there’s help available. Knowing the chances of a poet reaching us in time are very slim.

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I will use this for the Ragtag Daily Prompt: comeback.

2 thoughts on “The chances of a poet reaching us are slim

  1. This is a beautiful and poignant story. I’m so grateful I got to read it!

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