Thirteen Months

Boarding a plane on a sunny San Diego afternoon

boys in combat fatigues take their seats like

vacationers and so many business men

smiling and joking,

naively unconscious of the dissonance

smiling stewardesses

and assurances from the cockpit of a smooth flight

casts against the backdrop

of their destination.


The hum of jet engines lulls and soothes the anxiety of young men

Whose bravado now diminished

leaves them longing for the peace of sleep rather than conversation or cards.

Only hours later

they are spilled onto the tarmac

of a strange world

that promises

it will transform them

in unimaginable ways.


Combat, place and time, alternately

shatters and dismantles

the beliefs that organize their world-

Of little consequence to the young

until vast stretches at the fault line

finally collapse

Leaving them shapeless and adrift.


Years ago, a veteran friend asked me to take him to see the movie PLATOON.

“Yes, that’s what it was like!” He tugged on my sleeve again and again;

the manic excitement of finally being understood.

The movie ended,

his story,

brought into focus

it tumbles from him

a great unburdening

outside the Pike Place Market.


“When I was commanded to interrogate a Viet Cong officer,

I relinquished all moral boundaries. It was a physical sensation-

a great swoosh and I felt my morality sucked from the center of my being.

The cost of my moral betrayal would be no less than everything

Because I clung to the belief that

There is a moral conscience that rules the universe.

Therefore, death would be recompense

For the terrible things I would do.

Strangely comforted by the conviction

I would not return home,

I felt free

To take our prisoner to the very edge of death.

Unencumbered by guilt

Confident I would pay for my sin.

Having lost my morality, I held onto those beliefs

That had shaped my life.

There would be hell to pay for what I had done”


On the thirtieth day of the thirteenth month

he settled into a seat on the commercial jetliner bound for home

his survival only accentuating the vertigo

he felt.

The comfort derived from a well-ordered universe was a casualty of war.

There is no moral order.

There is no divine justice.

There are no sacred truths.

The belief he brought was the belief he lost.

Here, he had learned to believe not to believe:

“It don’t mean nothin’” was the survivors mantra.

Before we parted he told me, “I never understood that the hell I had to pay

meant living.”

1 thought on “Thirteen Months

  1. David. This is powerful and three steps past poignant today.

    We saw last night in a little concert Mary Gauthier— see, hear “Rifles and Rosary Beads” written by a vet and her in the Songwriters and Soldiers Project. Michael’s 21 year old grandson flies to Fort Benning tomorrow to begin Army basic training to become, what his contract promises, an Army Ranger. We’re watching the Sunday morning shows— before Palm Sunday services— where John Bolton is the central question moving next steps in a frightening political context.

    Your poem is perfect. Beautifully constructed. Meaningful. Not surprised, but delighted and provoked. Thanks, dear David.


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