A Mother, A Poet

2011 Blue Mountain Center resident Frances Richey wrote this poem after visiting her son, Ben Richey, an Army captain and Green Beret, while he prepared to deploy to Iraq in the fall of 2004. It is included in her collection, The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War.


2 pairs desert camo boots
sleeping bag
assault pack: NODs, ammo, night-vision goggles
wind-stopper gloves

These don’t belong to me.

Camelbak backpack for water
Kevlar helmet
MICH helmet
grenade pouches 
magazine pouches

I have no place here. This is not my life.

9-millimeter holster
equipment vest
same old ruck

He can’t bear my worry. Like the rucksack he carries
on his back, it seems 
to suck the life out of him.

socks … green/black
PTs — shorts, shirts for workout
SPEAR silk underwear for cold weather
SPEAR body armor … ergonomically correct
barracks bag for laundry
rain poncho and linerblack wool cap

I was always asking if he was warm enough.
Put a sweater on, I’d say. Your jacket …

duffel bag
entrenching tool
elbow pads
Nuclear, Biological, Chemical suit

I can’t protect him.

flu shot

No one could explain his nosebleeds. They always seemed to
come when I was packing for business trips: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit …

CDs: Springsteen, Sarah McLachlan, U2 …
DVDs: “In the Name of the Father,” “Boondock Saints,” “Elf” …
chewing tobacco

Tissues fell from him like crumpled doves.

pin light
“Case for Christ”
“Onward Muslim Soldier”
“Salem’s Lot”
“Catcher in the Rye”
laminated four-leaf clover

He tilted his head back, pinched his nose 
between thumb and index finger: 
“Don’t worry, I know what to do.”

Officer Record Brief
Hazardous Duty Orders
Zero Your Weapon

He’s given me his dog-eared copy of Komunyakaa’s 
“Neon Vernacular,” underlined: 
“We can transplant broken hearts/
but can we put goodness back into them?”

Life Insurance: to be split between Mom and Dad
Emergency Records … who gets called
battalion wants to know what to read
at your funeral, what songs to play

He looks up from the paperwork,
hard into my eyes:
“You said you wanted to know.”

Used by Permission.

Frances Richey is a poet and yoga instructor living in New York City. When her son deployed to Iraq in 2004,  Frances began writing poetry about her own experience and her son’s. Her first collection The Burning Point, published in March 2004, won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Poems from her new collection, The Warrior, have appeared in a two-page spread in O, The Oprah Magazine, Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column, on the Lives page of the New York Times Magazine, and the local PBS show “New York Voices.”

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Spraycans, Brushes, Markers and T-Walls: The Graffiti of War Project

Following Jaeson “Doc” Parson’s piece on Conflict Art  Tricia Khutoresky writes more about the Graffiti of War Project  for 10 Years + Counting

Via Graffiti of War Project courtesy of http://www.zoriah.com

Modern life conveniently keeps us desensitized and distracted when it comes to war. Beyond the watered-down version that the media shares with us, and lingering attitudes from generations past that locked war experiences away in a box, it’s no wonder we so easily turn the other way. Our growing lack of empathy towards war veterans and lack of interest in war victims isn’t justifiable. Yet adding fuel to a long faded fire is no easy task, and most people won’t blink at the passing of the 10-year anniversary of the invasion in October. Those who do notice may feel overwhelmed, disappointed and helpless… then return to worrying about paying their bills or getting home in time to make dinner, assuming they could never make a difference in the big scheme of things.

Via Graffiti if War Project courtesy of Audiovisual Services Dutch Defense

Complacency with avoidance is exactly where the problem lies. Paying attention if even for a moment does make a difference. At least according to a first hand expert, Jaeson “Doc” Parsons, who returned to the U.S. after being deployed to Iraq in 2009. Through his own experience dealing with PTSD and assimilating back into civilian life, Parsons fully believes in the willingness to listen, learn and most of all, understand. Of course an attitude adjustment doesn’t necessarily just swing open a door to conveniently packaged stories for us to digest. We might not always stop to listen, but veterans don’t eagerly spill out the things they’ve tried to forget. Enter Parsons’ project in development, “The Graffiti of War,” which presents real experiences shared through a powerful medium known as “conflict art.”

Traditional graffiti ranges as public art in the form of elaborate murals, quick phrases scrawled across surface, stenciling, or the repeated identifying tag. What has come to be known as “conflict art” painted on walls in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait not only by soldiers but locals, emulates this formula. Until recently, graffiti has not been generally accepted by the mainstream art world as valuable. The unspoken value of graffiti has instead been the uncensored, temporal commentary on societal issues or declarations by an anonymous but relevant voice. A culture of graffiti has remained silently present through a decade of conflict in the Middle East as both an outlet of expression and an unconventional historical record. Given the practice of graffiti as a highly social art form, it fittingly has found a relevant place within conflict zones.

Parsons came up with the idea of collecting images of graffiti during his first deployment in 2006. He describes passing time, smoking cigarettes and discussing the art found in Porta-Pottys, which revealed sentiments he could often relate to. The book idea didn’t actually materialize until he was back in the U.S. and encouraged to find a hobby to battle PTSD. For him, simply talking about what he went through in Iraq didn’t help. Instead, finding an art form like writing kept his mind busy. Parsons describes the difficulty for male veterans especially to express themselves, often because after 6 or more deployments, shows of weakness don’t feel quite right.  The need to get rid of or give away traumatic experiences isn’t always satisfied in a counseling session. Trauma is more fully released by channeling it into the creation of a piece of art, music, or writing. The images of graffiti that Parson has collected and written about, illustrate the release of deep seeded frustrations and emotions that occurred in real time within the minds of the people living it. Continuing this process by publishing and sharing the unconventional documentation of the raw and unfiltered experience, holds potential for further release and healing. Stories are retold true to how they occurred in the moment through the ultimate time capsule, a photograph.

Via Graffiti of War Project courtesy of Audiovisual Services Dutch Defense

To compile images for the book, Parsons attempted to gather contributions through word of mouth, marketing, and partnerships with embedded organizations. Unfortunately the 100-150 submitted images per month were not enough. Anticipating the narrowing window of access to Iraq due to the approaching 2012 withdrawal, Parsons decided a return to Iraq was the next logical step. Planning, fundraising and several setbacks finally put Parsons and his team in Kuwait in June. On this trip, Parsons collected over 2600 images of T-wall art, along with growing hesitancy about the authenticity of murals as a true reflection. Much of the unauthorized graffiti had already been scrubbed clean by the military, and authorized murals contained mainly themes the military advocates: pride, hope and honor. Parsons admits that the murals don’t seem as real as they lack in reactive emotion.

Emotions are more of what Parson is looking for, particularly because they tell the truth. He recalls the art he saw in 2006– less murals, more unauthorized statements and images. The mood of the art was anti-government, worrisome. The art reflected the fear in the thick of a long war that seemed somewhat lost. In 2011– upon his return, everything felt, looked and tasted exactly the same, except it was covered in what he described as the “deafening silence of war.” In Iraq currently, there is no war, no combat, just time. The art he has found recently echoes the sentiment of wasted time, and the need to get out. Looking over all the images of graffiti chronologically from 2003 to the present, Parsons sees a clear picture of a wartime rollercoaster ride. The ups and downs shifted and flowed through the graffiti as it continued to illustrate a never-ending war.

Any good storyteller knows there are multiple sides and perspectives to consider. Parsons also collected images by locals, as this art equally told a parallel story of the past 10 years. He is grateful to have had a chance to capture images of at least eighty 40ft by 15ft murals created by local nationals in the area of Basra, where murals presented themselves as historical record of land altered and changed by Saddam Hussein. Basra was once known as the Eden or the Venice of the Middle East where a beautiful culture thrived along the canals. Saddam, eager to prove to the rest of the world that Iraq could keep up with technological advances, decided to change the routes of the rivers and canals, which in turn wiped out the entire canal community. In 2008, the changes Saddam made were dammed up and the canal culture started to re-emerge. The murals and artwork in this area relay the story of a traumatic misplacement and re-building of a culture and community.

Via Graffiti of War Project

The thousands of images Parsons has collected might be enough to fill a book, but it’s not quite yet the book he wants to make. He feels that yet to be located images of Taliban art will complete the overall picture. As well, Afghanistan is so far from resolved, and the art created there currently is revealing a worsening condition. Poignant graffiti outbursts continue to warrant an audience and entice Parson as a willing narrator of a story he is too familiar with to turn away from. As well, he is committed to accurately presenting a story that can so easily be twisted. How we remember and understand this war as a part of our history is up to the records that are kept. Art has always been a complex and revealing window into the past.

For now, and as plans develop for another visit to the Middle East, the book is on hold. In the meantime, The Graffiti of War project will start an exhibition gallery tour across the U.S. to help raise awareness as well as attract a publisher.

For more information: http://www.graffitiofwar.com/

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Poetry of Provocation and Witness from Split This Rock: Poem #12

Oh Nature

Today some things worked as they were meant to.
A big spring wind came up and blew down
from the verdant neighborhood trees,
millions of those little spinning things,
with seeds inside, and my heart woke up alive again too,
as if the brain could be erased of its angry hurt;
fat chance of that, yet
things sometimes work as they were meant,
like the torturer who finally can’t sleep,
or the god damn moon
who sees everything we do
and who still comes up behind clouds
spread out like hands to keep the light away.

— Bruce Weigl

Used with permission

Bruce Weigl is currently a Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities at the Lorain County Community College and has been an active member of the poetry community for quite some time. He has won multiple awards for his work which include such honors as the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, the Poet’s Prize from the National Academy of Poets, as well as two Pushcart Prizes. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a poem he wrote in 1998, “Song of Napalm,” which drew from his experiences as a warfighter during the Vietnam War.

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How Safe Are You? What Almost $8 Trillion in National Security Spending Bought You

Chris Hellman of  National Priorities Project examines how much we’ve spent on “national security” since the 9/11 attacks in order to question whether (or not) we’re any more secure with almost $8 trillion invested:

The killing of Osama Bin Laden did not put cuts in national security spending on the table, but the debt-ceiling debate finally did. And mild as those projected cuts might have been, last week newly minted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was already digging in his heels and decrying the modest potential cost-cutting plans as a “doomsday mechanism” for the military. Pentagon allies on Capitol Hill were similarly raising the alarm as they moved forward with this year’s even larger military budget … (read more here).

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Conflict Art

Jaeson “Doc” Parsons, director of Project Operations for the The Graffiti of War Project writes on the emotions of war captured through art. 

Growing up around the inner-cities of Chicago and Dallas, I was exposed to countless territory tags of gangs and memorial murals for fallen members. A pride of sorts developed over the years as graffiti evolved from simply an act of defiance to an expression of the soul. In much the same way, Conflict Art is an expression and varies in stylistic and artistic qualities.

Though Street Art in the Western World has evolved into a respected genre of art, Conflict Art is just beginning to be recognized as more than simply illicit creations made in haste as bullets were flying and bombs were falling. During my own deployment, I began to see the significance of what this artwork represented: an unconventional, historical record of the conflicts of our generation. In collecting and documenting these images, we—the spectators—can examine the truth behind the propaganda, pull the curtain back, if you will, and truly feel the emotions of those who experienced war in all of its Technicolor horror.

In this age of technology and continuous news from around the  globe, our senses have become immune to the statistics digitally mainlined into our brains; 1,000 dead or 10,000 wounded: just numbers on a screen with no meaning or feeling, cold and tasteless. After ten years of two conflicts and the public force-feeding of data, the world is more informed, but paradoxically, it is more detached. How can one truly understand an experience through digital statistics? I would venture to say that one cannot.

However, art has always been used as a tool to share the experiences and feelings of another. In fact, many believe the true purpose of art is the transposition of the viewer into the emotions of the artist.

If one can look at a creative work—whether it be a painting, poem, song, or sculpture—and feel what the artist  was feeling—garner a new understanding of another human’s experience—that work of art has fulfilled its purpose.

The variation of Conflict Art is wide-reaching; from a simple sentence on a wall to a mural stretching over multiple walls, each one tells a story, shares an emotion, and documents a moment in history  for someone who experienced it first-hand.

By showcasing these images, we bring back moments in time to experience the wounds of many who will never get to tell their story, and we provide the world with a unique opportunity to feel another’s joy or sorrow, another’s loneliness or pride.

Conflict Art is more than just war and more than just art. It is the emotions of war captured on the canvas of conflict, showcasing the intimate experiences of the warriors who fought, whether they are civilian or military. And experiencing Conflict Art could be the most effective way for the general public to gain a more complete and honest understanding of what war is like for those who suffered the agony of combat.

– Jaeson “Doc” Parsons

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Gestures of Resistance

Ehren Tool, a Marine and Gulf War veteran, says that “once someone has witnessed a war they are forever changed.” Now, he makes ceramics that draw attention to the experience of war – small clay cups decorated with symbols of war that are designed to make people think about war’s impact as they hold them in their hands.

Here Ehren explains his work in a short video interview:

For more of Ehren’s story read this great article from his time as a Berkeley grad student.

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A Decade of War, 27 Days of Art: The Huffington Post on 10YAC

Writer and editor Nathan Schneider of people powered news site Waging Nonviolence wrote a wonderful piece on the ideas and aims of 10 Years + Counting for the Huffington Post last Thursday. Read the whole piece here.

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Poetry of Provocation and Witness from Split This Rock: Poem # 11

A Photograph
(Of An Iraqi Boy on the Front Page of the New York Times)

he sat
at the edge of the truck
(eight or nine years old?)
surrounded by his family:
his father,
and five siblings
were asleep
his head was buried
in his hands
all the clouds of the world
were waiting
on the threshold of his eyes
the tall man wiped off the sweat
and started digging
the seventh grave
New York, September 2006

– Sinan Antoon

Used with permission.

Sinan Antoon was born in Iraq and moved to the US after the 1991 Gulf War. His poems, essays and translations have been widely published in Arabic and English (The Nation, Ploughshares, Bomb, World Literature Today, Banipal). His novel I`jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody (City Lights) has been translated to five languages. The Baghdad Blues (poems) was published by Harbor Mountain
Press. His translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence is forthcoming from Archipelago Books in 2010. Antoon returned to Iraq in 2003 to co-direct the documentary film “About Baghdad,” about the lives of Iraqis in a post-Saddam occupied Iraq. He served as senior editor of the Arab Studies Journal and currently serves as contributing editor for Banipal:Magazine of Modern Arab Literature and as a member of the editorial
committee of the Middle East Report. He is assistant professor at New York

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Coming Home: A poem by Joe Wheeler from the Warrior Writers workshop

A poem by Iraq War veteran Joe Wheeler from the Warrior Writers  project.

Coming home

Iraq was horrific.

The intense searing heat
that suffocated…

Being shot at.

Hearing the mortar rounds 
fired at us.

The waiting, for the mortar

rounds to land on me or

one of my fellow soldiers.

The incoming wounded 
shot in the face.

The war broke my heart.

The war broke me.

What was worse 
was coming home
to a little girl
 who did not know me.

Naively, I expected open 
but to her I was 
the enemy.

I was the intruder.

I was waging war
 on her way of life.

Encroaching on her 
with her 
mother… my wife.

Worse than war 

was coming home a 
to my
 own family.

– Joe Wheeler

Joe Wheeler is a member of the warrior writers project who was deployed during the first year (OIF I) of the Iraq war with the 240th Forward Surgical Team attached to the Fourth Infantry Division as a surgical assistant. He was active duty army.

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The Second Day: 14 Year Old Filmmaker Remembers September 11th

At age 11, Brook Peters decided to make a film about September 11th and its aftermath to give his fellow students and teachers at Ground Zero area schools a chance to share with the world their experiences. The Second Day is his touching and inspirational documentary, completed when he was 14. He was recently named an ABC News Person of the Week.

The film can be viewed online.

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