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Iowa veterans tell their stories through poetry and prose

BY DI STAFF | NOVEMBER 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Fifteen fighters sat hunched over their desks. The room was silent; the only sound was the muddled scratch of pen on paper.

These veterans of wars — ranging from Vietnam to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — all came together on a brisk October night for one purpose: to write about their experiences.

For many, this was the first time they had written, even thought about writing. Others are veterans in more than one sense, with years of experience with prose.

"Writing can offer you a liminal space to express what happened," said Emma Rainey, the lead instructor of the three-day-workshop, "Writing My Way Back Home." "The difference between holding it in and speaking is huge. Writing is that little in-between space where you can get out and express yourself."

This is a deeper look at five of those stories.

SCOTT SMITH

Scott Smith still owns his dead friend's Bible.

Scribbled in the margins are writings to Doc Johnson's wife, but Smith can't bring himself to return the worn text.

Johnson died instantly after taking a rocket-propelled grenade straight to the head.

And Smith feels responsible.

"I was the one that was driving, so I felt the blame for that," the 29-year-old said, leaning back in his chair. "When he was killed, it changed things in a way. I wanted justice for him, but I didn't know what that was."

Eight years ago, Smith and Johnson were members of the same 500-man Marine battalion in charge of invading Iraq through Kuwait, moving north to the capital, Baghdad. Over the month it took for the Marines to reach the city, Smith estimates they lost five Marines to Iraqi ambushes.

In the one that killed Johnson, the Americans were armed in bulletproof vests. Though the Iraqis did not have that luxury, they gave it their all anyway.

"… they were giving us everything they had," Smith said. "Literally, that's suicide."

Eight years later, Johnson's death has not left Smith. In fact, the memory of his former comrade is a driving force in his work.

"He is the catalyst of all my work," Smith said, a stack of 200 printed pages resting on his desk.

Paper clipped into various segments, edits scribbled upon numerous pages.

Smith — who is enrolled at the Iowa Writers' Workshop — is writing a book.

"I don't know what I am writing. You call it a novel, but it's not a novel, because it doesn't have a plot," he said. "It's a collection of short stories, but it's all linked around a central death, Doc Johnson's."

Smith didn't begin writing as a form of therapy or release. He said he began because he was afraid he would forget. But something else drives him, something he can't put his finger on.

"I've been working on it for four or five years, and it's a nightmare," he said, thumbing through the stacks of paper. "I still have hope I can put it together, and I know I'll have it right when it doesn't make sense to me, but it makes sense to the public. And that is the point for it."

Making sense. That's what Smith's journey is about.

The Tiffin resident sat in his den. His desk was covered with the residue of war: red and green Iraqi currency, a packet of "American Magic Pepper," and bronze-eagle medallions taken from a less-than-fortunate Iraqi soldier.

Smith both loves and hates the war. The war killed his friend, thousands of other Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. And yet … it's complicated

"Think about the most exciting moment you ever lived in your life, and multiply it by a thousand. That is what the feeling was going into combat. You escaped something that could have killed you," he said, his fingers running across the edge of a bronze-eagle medallion. "That is a high that is unbelievable, and you don't want it to happen again. But God, I've never felt that alive."

Smith has a fiancée, a baby on the way, and a dog. And while he said he is happy with his life, there is a part of him that wishes he never left Iraq.

"I can remember the smell of gasoline burning. The feeling of gunfire in your hands," he said. "Now I live in this world. Look how quiet it is. I can hear my neighbor talking."

But this is the world Smith lives in now. His dress uniform hangs neatly in a closet, draped in a plastic bag. He is a civilian. And while the allure and violent romanticism of war still burns within him, he knows he can't go back. So he writes.

"It is cathartic. It is not therapeutic. It is intellectual. It is self-deprecating and motivating," he said, clutching the stack of 200 pages about Doc. "Closest high I can get from the war is writing about it. It brings joy and tears and heartache — nirvana — I can't get that from anything else."

BILL CAMPBELL

Bill Campbell crawled forward foot by agonizing foot. Blood seeped from his lower back on the sweltering day of March 8, 1969. A bullet had just ripped through him, 2 inches below the kidneys.

The then-22-year-old's face was slathered with a vulgar mix of napalm and puss that oozed from open jungle rot sores. He lay there, sick, shot, and starving. But he passed for battle-ready — one of 20 American soldiers remaining out of the initial 110 who had been fighting the North Vietnamese over a dinky pile of dirt called Chop Vum Mountain.

"They saw me bleeding, but the Sergeant looked me over and said, 'Oh, he's OK,' and I was thinking, 'Sheesh, f**k you,'" Campbell said with a chuckle laced with frustration.

And then the grenade hit.

A little North Vietnamese grenade rolled near Campbell and detonated.

The young Army soldier took the brunt of the explosion in his back.

Campbell miraculously survived the battle and the war, but the grenade has left its mark in the form of impaired hearing and chunks of shrapnel in his back. But he didn't even have to be there. In fact, he had been given a guarantee he wouldn't be drafted.

In 1967, Campbell had been attending a community college in Iowa and working six days a week, but felt drawn to something else.

"Up to that point, I was being sophisticated and intelligent because no fool puts their life in danger, right? Nothing is worth that," Campbell said. "Well, that's not what you really believe if you were brought up the way I was. There were some things worth dying for."

But Campbell's father did not want his son to enlist. So they drove to Corning, Iowa, to meet with the Selective Service clerk, who guaranteed him he would never be drafted.

Campbell remembers how the clerk put herself at risk by telling him his place in on the draft list for Adams County. Adams was the least populous county in Iowa, and would be drafting just three men that year. Campbell was 12th.

With all but a guarantee of avoiding the war, Campbell told her to put him first on the list in that county.

"It was pretty much a gloomy ride home," he said, remembering his father's exasperated reaction.

Six weeks later, he was drafted.

Campbell spent a year in Vietnam; the bullet through the kidneys and grenade in the back wasn't his only close call with death.

He narrowly escaped death during a sweep through the jungle in June 1969.

Campbell was second in line, attempting to handle the compass as well as look for machine-gun nests. He was overloaded, and the third guy in line — Campbell's good friend Chuck — noticed.

Chuck offered to take the second spot, allowing Campbell's focus to remain on navigation. Just seconds later, they stepped into an ambush that killed Chuck, leaving Campbell unharmed.

Campbell made the proper strategic call, but there was a second reason he let Chuck pass him, a piece of advice from his battle-tested uncle.

"If somebody wants to go ahead of you, you let 'em," Campbell said, shaking his finger, eyes wide, remembering the emotional message his uncle shared many years ago. "I was expecting him to say something like make sure you got your bayonet in your teeth, and got a gun, but no. He said if somebody wants to go ahead of you, you let 'em."

And while that decision saved Campbell's life, it has left him with guilt that he still carries.

"How do you handle that? Chuck's goal was to be a principal [at a school]. Think of the impact Chuck would have had on so many thousands of lives," Campbell said, his voice breaking as his hand darted towards a photo of his old war buddy. "He stepped in front of me, and he took those rounds for me. I didn't get a scratch."

And for the last 12 years, Campbell has taken time to tell his story to students as a way of keeping the memories of his comrades alive.

He also found writing a year and a half ago and uses it as a way to pay homage to his those who didn't make it home.

"I deal with guilt. That's why we do this stuff," he said. "It's not about us, it's about the guys that didn't make it."

BOB KONRARDY

Bob Konrardy's parents couldn't cope with their son's impending deployment. His father — a World War II veteran — had trouble even acknowledging his son and drank the whole time.

His mother didn't handle it much better. She just kept crying.

Days before the then-23-year-old boarded a plane for Vietnam, he found himself at a cleaners, dropping off a suit for his funeral.

"I went to get my dress blues cleaned, because I figured I'd be buried in them," Konrardy said.

But Konrardy left with much more than freshly pressed slacks.

"The girl behind the counter was pretty cute," Konrardy said, smiling as he remembered his first meeting with Maggie. "I asked if she could do the Army a favor and go out with a 2nd lieutenant on his last night before going to Vietnam."

Maggie — engaged at the time — agreed. She scribbled her number on the back of a store receipt, which Konrardy now has framed in his writing room.

The pair spent the night at a drive-in movie. Konrardy can't remember what played; he didn't even eat any of the popcorn he bought. Instead they just talked.

"I thought I would never see her again, but I was happy. I could go to Vietnam knowing my last night at home wasn't spent alone, but with someone very special," he said. "And I hoped that she would cry when she read in the newspaper that I had been killed in combat."

But he was home in four months.

For three of those months, Konrardy led patrols in the 116-degree heat of Vietnam.

"Our mission was to clear the area. They gave us coordinates and we were told to reach it in three weeks," he said. "If you come across a hutch, search it, and burn it, and move on. You're out looking for trouble."

He found it.

On Nov. 15, 1965, Konrardy and the 1st Calvary were being airlifted back to base when they received a distress call from the Ia Drang Valley. The 7th Calvary had been ambushed, pinned down, and surrounded by more than 2,000 North Vietnamese troops.

Konrardy and his crew got rerouted mid-flight, and were dropped into the valley to help. The odds were not good: It was 400 Americans facing off against 2,000 North Vietnamese.

"There was a lot of smoke. They stopped our artillery when we were coming in, but there were sniper rounds hitting the chopper, tink tink tink," Konrardy said, his hands flashing past his head, eyes alight.

The commander told Konrardy to lead his men toward a sector where American troops had been all but wiped out.

"As we are going over there, we go past this tree, and it looks like there is firewood stacked up against this tree," he said, the words slowly seeping from his lips. "It was American bodies in ponchos. As we got off the chopper, they were filling them up with bodies."

Konrardy and his men sat chest-deep in a roughly-dug pit, blindly firing for 45 minutes. Then, two or three hours of nothing.

It was almost like fighting ghosts.

On the third day, the 1st Calvary was ordered to retreat, but a mortar barrage struck the soldiers.

Konrardy turned to bark orders to his men, but then he fell.

"I thought someone had pushed me to the ground. I felt no pain at all," Konrardy said. His radio operator rushed to his side, and held him down. "He put his hand on my back and then to my face and there was blood. I was done."

Konrardy was in bed for three weeks. He was going to go home, but instead of relief, he felt guilt. He was leaving the men he was supposed to lead.

The injured vet returned to Dubuque, where he rekindled with Maggie. They married six months later.

But the transition to civilian life was not easy.

Konrardy became a workaholic, so he didn't have to remember.

"I tried to drink, and that didn't work for me because I got sick. I never tried drugs. Was too responsible to be homeless, so next best thing was to work all the time," he said. "This way I didn't have to be home, was always doing something."

But after retiring from managing assembly lines for John Deere, Konrardy was confronted by a new ghostly enemy: free time.

He couldn't sleep, plagued by nightmares of Ia Drang, and so he turned to writing to help slay the memories.

"It was a relief, it was an outlet," he said of sitting down in the middle of the night to scratch out stories. "I write as if I am there at the time."

And through journalism classes at the University of Iowa, along with veteran writing workshops, Konrardy is well underway to completing his final mission.

"I want to write all my memoirs before I die for my grandsons," he said with a smile. "I have a good start."

WAYNE SAPP

Wayne Sapp sipped deeply from his cup of black coffee and began the story of two soldiers.

Soldier One sat in the Quad Cities International Airport one year ago. The young man waited alone, uniform pressed, medals gleaming.

A voice echoed from the intercom, calling all military personnel to board first.

The soldier stood and looked at the rest of the people lounging in the terminal. As he stepped forward, the people around him got up and began to applaud.

Once on the plane, the soldier made his way toward his seat but was stopped. A fellow passenger offered him his first-class seat.

Now nestled comfortably at the nose of the plane, complimentary drink in hand, the soldier settled in for his flight.

Soldier Two stood in a New Jersey airport for 13 hours in March 1970. He, too, was in his uniform, but not by choice. In fact, if he had any other clothes at all, he would have gladly changed.

He had been warned as he left Vietnam after a year of active duty not to go home in uniform, because people didn't look kindly at soldiers.

As he waited for the boarding call, a mother and young boy no older than 7 passed in front of him. The woman turned and asked the soldier rhetorically why he would want to do something like go over to Vietnam. As if he had a choice in the matter.

Soldier Two boarded the plane. None of the other passengers would look at the man in uniform as he settled in for his flight home. He felt awful about the cold shoulders and indifferent glances — as if his service to his country was worthless.

Sixty-two-year-old Wayne Sapp was Soldier Two.

"You kind of expect some respect when you come back, but boy, you didn't get it," Sapp said, his eyes trained towards the golden cornfield that stretches behind his Maysville, Iowa, farmhouse.

Sapp met Soldier One in the airport one year ago. The emotions he felt at the time surprised him.

"When he got up, and everyone around him stands up and applauds, it pissed me off. Just made me angry. I really didn't expect it," Sapp said. "I want the guy respected for what he is doing, but on the other hand, it just dredged up a bunch of sh*t."

Sapp struggled with his emotions for three days, the run-in with the unknown soldier reopening old wounds that had been hastily sewn shut.

"It's sad because I don't want to feel like that," he said. "I fought that for three days up at the cabin, and that's when I wrote a poem about it. And that helps; I think the writing helps if you just put it down."

Putting down words in poetic form, he says, allows him to cope with the memories that flood his consciousness from the year he spent in Vietnam as an M60 machine gunner.

But still, there are some memories that he can't describe.

"You can write about it all you want, but you cannot depict how close you get to the other guys," he said, speaking of the bond he formed with other soldiers, regardless of race or prejudice. "That is the thing I have tried for years to depict, but, can't."

One of those bonds, Sapp recalls, was with a man he only knew as "Blue."

Blue was a diminutive black man, quiet as a whisper.

"For God's sake you couldn't drag words out of this guy," Sapp said, chuckling to himself as he leaned back in his chair.

Sapp recalls his unit leading a sweep through the jungle when a claymore mine triggered, wiping out the first three guys in line. Blue was the fourth.

From a bunker, the North Vietnamese started firing, and Blue, toting an M16 in one hand, rushed forward and dragged the first man, whose legs had been severed in the blast, back to cover. Blue then spun back and hauled a second man's lifeless body to safety. Both of those men were white.

"I have never met a braver man in all my life," Sapp said and paused. "I put Blue up for a Silver Star, and the first sergeant, who was from Mississippi, stopped it. Because Blue was black."

Segregation was something Sapp said was common on landing zones, but in combat, every man was equal. That connection to his squad, his comrades, his friends, was what he missed the most.

So Sapp writes poetry.

"If you have been in the situation where you lost friends, like my best friend Jim, who died over there, you can't find a reason for it," Sapp said, adding he doesn't think writing will ever help him understand what he witnessed.

Sapp has created a collection of poems ranging from the story of the two soldiers in the airport to political poems to writings about his time in combat that will soon be self-published.

The title is "Dinky Dau," a Vietnamese phrase for "crazy."

CHRIS MYERS

Chris Myers perched on the edge of his bed five years ago, tightly clutching the cold steel grip of his handgun. With the barrel against his head, Myers said he was doing "what needed to take place."

But just before he pulled the trigger, his cat Razzy sauntered into the bedroom. Her presence made Myers, now 49, pause.

"She just was kinda looking at me and rubbed my arm," Myers said, who remembers how happy the cat seemed to be petted.

Time to put the gun away.

Myers stored the bullets in a cabinet, got into his car, and drove to the local VA, where, as he says, he "broke down into a pile of rubble."

The Cedar Rapids family man — who had spent some of his military life helping Afghani schools — was struggling with what would later be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, and was failing to assimilate back into his former life as an elementary school principal. Therapy at the VA, which included writing, has helped tremendously. But it has been a long road.

Myers recalls being edgy, wishing to avoid people, feeling constantly wound up, and things slowly started to get worse.

Simple decisions like whether to send a group of children outside or keep them in for recess when it was drizzling, overwhelmed him. "I would go into the bathroom and hide, because I couldn't make the decision," he said.

Decision-making wasn't the only hard part of assimilating; Myers also suffered flashbacks, in which he felt as if he were back in Afghanistan. One occurred as he walked through the halls of his school.

"I am walking down the corridor, and literally everything in front of me turned into one of the schools in Afghanistan," he said, his eyes lingered on the scene out the living room window of his Cedar Rapids home. "All the doors become metal. All the walls are brown, all the doors are green, and I start feeling for where my weapon is and my body armor as I am walking down the hallway."

Soon, Myers decided it was best for him to leave the school. Though he said it is impossible to pinpoint a specific event that led to his PTSD, one run-in with three Afghan children stuck out.

As a part of his missions, Myers made an effort to provide supplies to schools in need.

"They had — I can't remember how many kids — so many kids that had nothing," Myers said, remembering Shaqamber, an elementary school in Gardez, Afghanistan. "Especially the girls. Nothing to write on, nothing to use to take notes."

The few supplies Shaqamber had — like desks — weren't used effectively.

"They had all of these desks on top of the school, because they couldn't figure out how to get the desks in to the room, which was approximately this size, and still have 80 kids in there," Myers said, pointing around his average-sized dining room.

He took part in a supply drop of paper, pens and pencils to Shaqamber in April 2005. While unloading the Toyota Hilux, he spotted a girl and two young boys drawing water from a well in the distance.

He beckoned the children to come over in order to give them some of the supplies, but the girl spoke to the boys and whisked them away, their heads lowered.

Later that night, his unit got a call that there had been an explosion in Gardez. His unit sent out a quick response team and found out that three children — two young boys and a girl — had found an unearthed land mine.

"The kids were throwing it back and forth, and it goes off and cuts both of the boys literally in half," he said.

Myers looked downward, touching a cream-colored rubber bracelet on his wrist that reads "Support our Troops."

"Here I was all happy we were handing out paper and pencils," he said. "And in the meantime, I forgot there are mines in the ground."

Today, Myers finds new ways to fill his days. One of them is writing.

"Words are pleasurable to me; words are things I can manipulate, can move around," he said. "I can say one thing with this set of words, and with the same set of words, I can say something different."


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