From Above, From Below: A Feature with the Veterans Writing Project

The Veterans Writing Project is a 501(c)3 organization that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, service members, and their adult family members. The Veterans Writing Project also publishes these writers’ fiction, nonfiction, and poetry both online and in print in a journal called O-Dark-Thirty.

She creaks and groans with every foot we submerge
Layers of paint and rust show her age
Like wrinkles webbing from a grandmother’s cheekbones
We descend purposefully,
Praying our presence goes unnoticed
The keeper of the deep waits for us
He knows we’ve cheated him time and again
He calls for us
Men hold their breath
They look anywhere but at each other
Terrified the fear in their eyes will betray them
A whisper echoes through the steel hull
Trapped here since it was first announced thirty-five years ago
Dive dive
It chants
Dive dive

The Bard War Writing Today: Notes from the Plays

It is the mission.
It is ambition
that creeps across the
stage in dreadful marches
to delightful measures
contrived by those whose
plots have laid inductions
dangerous. Return
and turn around to
endure this going
hence for we shall meet
again—us banded
merry few. There are
deployments yet to
come with battles fought
and wars not won.
Don’t ever unpack.
We’re always going back.

June 5th, 1967; Operation Focus

A morning full of April’s mayhem
on summer’s résumé. Two growling
fists flew south from northern Israel
to make a brave deposit—hyper-real
negation—on perfume from a dream
of spring; “blame is placed in place
of balm or bombs” is what the wise
said. Two forward-thinking Vautour planes
reached Port Said, soared upward
with the past ahead of them.
A dreadful breeze blew through
the Suez Canal; white shadows, each
with a lance of nonchalance: risk
production’s unfelt violence. Electronic,
gamy gametes baffled radars; fables
on anti-aircraft screens were
imageless. From the abode of all that’s
doable but doubt—the only thing
to doubt is doubt itself, it’s said
of battle—Dakotas and Stratocruisers
monitored nearby, gave the okey-dokey
signal. Israeli bombers—no slowpokes—
woke up airfields; opened Egypt’s
irides of char to wink at its maker
and beholder. With ochre antipathy
predating Antioch, 286 enemy aircraft
were destroyed. The Mirage IV (French
hardware) was installed on the entire
Israeli fleet like a corsage; but the barrage
of skill and busy courage buys overkill,
nobody buys them. The pilots slept
on bunk beds to meet destiny’s opposite:
beyond hills like monks’ heads, sober
rivers, and rabid borders; patterns less
paternalistic; faith’s strong fragility.

It is late autumn and Ramadan.
Feral dogs and kids without shoes
scavenge the highway looking for food.
The convoy is halted due to a possible threat ahead.
There is a call in over the radio and there might be IEDs.
Gun Truck 1 reports animal carcasses lining the road.
Not one, two, but tree.

Navy, Air Force, Coasties, and Marines:
letters and numbers are not what’s learned in school.
Instead of the ABCs
it’s Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie—
“Niner” instead of nine because
of a couple wars with Germany.
Roger is not a name but affirmation:

Received and understood.
Incoming is not the mail.
YOYO is “you’re on your own.”
Quarters is where you live and would rather be.
Contact is violent and not a mere touch.
The convoy is halted because Tracking is to follow
what may be tracking you.

The convoy is halted because they took a right
instead of a left since right is a direction.
And it should have been “Roger”
but he was in the turret
when they started receiving bullets
from a high, flat rooftop where
clothes and fruit were hung to dry.

Contact left. Contact right.
“Adios, motherfuckers.”
the net heard him reply.
That should have been “Alpha Mike Foxtrot”
censured the inquisition
who came to question the survivors.
It is an ambush but
now from the friendlies’ side.

The convoy commander halted the story and breathed,
“Charlie Foxtrot,” and an analyst asks for the meaning of
what I keep repeating: Clusterfuck. Clusterfuck. Clusterfuck.

This is where
you ask me where I’m from.

And this is where
I tell you that my family and I
are in the Air Force.

Focused as a death-ray lens
on the playground ants below, you suddenly blaze
that my pants are on fire.

I do not understand why.
I know some hard things, just as the sky is blue:
My family is in the Air Force.

I have already moved four times
that I can remember. Each address
has been a new bicycle, and learning to pedal

through conversations like this one.
Kids can’t be in the Air Force, you laugh.

I burn, my face hot. My eyes sting.

But I get it now:
I am not from around here
and you are not

one of us.

Randy Brown, Joe Couillard, Jake Sheff, Charity Winters

Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. A 20-year veteran with one overseas deployment, he subsequently authored the poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared widely in publications that include Stone Canoe, Drunken Boat, and So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. As “Charlie Sherpa,” he blogs about citizen-soldier life at, and about military-themed writing at Brown recently co-edited the anthology Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War.

Joe Couillard is an Operations Manager and former U.S. Naval Submarine Officer who currently resides in Minneapolis, MN. His poetry has been featured in O-Dark-Thirty and Sixfold. In his free time, he enjoys cooking, playing sports, writing, and spending time with his wife and their dog, Captain.

Jake Sheff is a pediatrician in Oregon and veteran of the US Air Force. He’s married with a daughter and six pets. Poems of Jake’s are in Radius, The Ekphrastic Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Cossack Review, and elsewhere. He won 1st place in the 2017 SFPA speculative poetry contest and a Laureate’s Choice prize in the 2019 Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest. Past poems have been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. His chapbook is Looting Versailles (Alabaster Leaves Publishing).

Charity Winters is a 2003 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. While on active duty she served as a Security Forces officer and completed three tours in Iraq. After separating from the service, she earned a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Austin Peay State University and is now a freelance writer living in Key West. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Proceedings, Leatherneck, Scintilla, The Red Mud Review, Lutheran Digest, The Report, Free State Review, Roundtable, O’Dark Thirty, The Blue Mountain Review, and Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors.

Tyler Champion

Tyler Champion is a freelance illustrator and designer. He grew up in Kentucky before moving to New Jersey to develop his passion at The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. After graduating in 2010, he headed back south to Nashville, TN, where he currently resides with his girlfriend Melissa and his son Jude. Tyler has produced work for magazines, comics, design companies, and children’s books, including work for Sony, F(r)iction magazine, Capstone Publishing, and Tell-a-graphics.

First Featured In: No. 16, summer 2020

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