Kyle Powell died in my arms, November 4, 2006.
That's the first line of Gerardo "Tony" Mena's poem "So I Was a Coffin," which he set to music, added photographs from other members of the United States Marine Corps' 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, and posted on YouTube.
Mena wasn't always a poet. Growing up in Kansas City, he didn't even like writing. He graduated from Parkville High School in 2001 and was at college on 9/11; he finished that year of school and went into the military, where he eventually ended up as a special amphibious reconnaissance corpsman for the Marines.
"I was in for six years," he says. "It was bad enough that I didn't want to re-enlist. I'd done everything I'd wanted, seen combat, seen a lot of bad things, learned a lot about myself and other people. And then had a story to tell."
After the military, Mena went back to college.
"I was trying to take an easy class," he says. "I stumbled into poetry and had the most amazing teacher."
More than recognizing an exceptional talent, Mena says, teacher John Nieves saw in him "an insane work ethic. I'd always deliver whatever assignment on time and was pretty passionate about it. A lot of my stuff was very raw and angry, but somehow he saw if I learned how to develop my voice, and research all the voices that are in the mix now, I could really carve my own unique voice."
At a writing conference, Mena got more encouragement from veteran and poet Brian Turner. And after he posted his video on YouTube, he got an invitation to a New York City fundraiser with celebrities for the Headstrong Project, a mental health treatment center for veterans.
"(Headstrong Project Executive Director) Zach Iscol invited me to come read and perform with these famous people," Mena says, "and I'm just nobody from Missouri. I still think that's funny."
Mena would become a kind of celebrity, too, with more invitations to speak at writing conferences, veterans' conferences and other events. For him, writing worked like it has for so many other veterans.
"It wasn’t just writing to write, it was writing to process and heal," he says. "It was painful, but really helped me pull out all these memories and deal with them instead of shoving them down and drowning them in alcohol, which is pretty much the unhealthiest way to deal with anything."
Mena's video also caught the attention of Susan Swartwout, director of the Southeast Missouri University Press in Cape Girardeau. Two years ago, the Press published a book of Mena’s poetry: The Shape of Our Faces No Longer Matters.
"He creates beautiful metaphors," Swartwout says. Those metaphors, she says, "actually help you see the experiences better and help you change your preconceived notions from news stories or photographs in newspapers. There's also the sense of imbalance in being in that situation and in another country. You're seeing what's there, but you're feeling it in a quite different way."
Two years ago, Mena was the poetry judge for another book from Southeast Missouri State University Press called Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, an annual series published with help from the Missouri Humanities Council. Volume 5 of the anthology — about 250 pages of essays, stories, interviews, poems and photos by veterans and their family members, from all across the country — is out this week.
No shortage of material
Besides being a good read, it creates a historical document of veterans’ experiences. Swartwout says it also helps their families.
"Particularly families of Vietnam vets. They write to me and say, ‘I’m so glad you did this because he has never talked about this before.’ The veterans don’t want to burden their families, but when it comes to the importance of being in print and telling a story to the world, they come out with that story."
James Hugo Rifenbark of Merriam has a poem and a photograph in the latest Proud to Be. He served in Vietnam as an in-house photographer with the Army's 51st Signal Battalion and then transferred to the 221st Signal Company (Pictorial).
"I volunteered for the draft after the first lottery because my number was 13," says Rifenbark, who grew up in Kansas City. His poem, "Two of Us," deals with the mixed emotions of feeling lucky to have come back physically intact but mentally wounded, concluding with the lines: "Years later my brother says,/his brother never came home."
"My poem probably is typical of vets returning home," Rifenbark says, "because the family and friends have gone one way and the veteran has gone a different way."
After attending a reading by area poets H.C. Palmer and Bill Bauer, Rifenbark became a regular at a monthly RezVets writing group Palmer leads at the Kansas City Public Library. That's when he got more serious about publishing his work, though he's always written; when he came home from Vietnam, Rifenbark went to UMKC and graduated with an English degree.
"Even when I was in Vietnam, I wrote just to keep from doing other things that were going on back then," he says, recalling other soldiers' heavy drug use, especially in the rear areas such as Long Binh, where he was stationed, and other big bases.
"They figure as much as 25 percent of lower enlisted people were on anything from heroin to hash to you name it," he says. "When I was flying home, a fellow in front of me started to overdose on something. I don’t know if he made it back or not. So writing, painting and reading helped me keep from doing that type of thing."
Reading such stories in the 300 or so submissions SEMO Press gets for each year's edition of Proud to Be is the most difficult thing about being the series editor, says Swartwout, who reads most of them over a period of two weekends and a week.
"It’s so devastating to read all of that at once, and I think, ‘Hey, and I wasn’t even there.’ But (the writers) put me as close to the situation as possible, through their words."
One overriding theme has appeared in every volume, Swartwout says: "War is hell, but I'm doing my duty."
For Tony Mena, meanwhile, writing poetry didn't just help him heal.
"It also gave me some wisdom, in that some of the events I write about, I try to look at from the other side, the Iraqi side," he says.
"They’re like us in that they think they’re being patriotic. We think we’re being patriotic. It’s just such a giant mess and gray area. Writing helped me see all of that instead of just being a young punk (and thinking) 'I’m always right and I’m patriotic.' Well, so are they. So you can’t really hate someone for being on the opposite side of you when they’re the same as you."
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.