Ryan Stovall’s poem “American Weddings” begins by asking readers why American weddings are almost never bombed?
In short, direct sentences, he explains that it’s partly because Americans don’t fire AK-47s into the air in celebration. And above all, they do not marry in Afghanistan. In a footnote below the poem, Stovall has some additional questions for his readers: “Where was your wedding? When? Airstrikes?
The poem is one of more than two dozen that Stovall, a former Army Green Beret who was twice wounded in Afghanistan, collected in his first book, “Black Snowflakes Smothering a Torch: Or How to Talk To Your Veteran – A Primer”. The book went on sale this month and Stovall has several readings scheduled in Maine this week ahead of Veterans Day, including Monday at 1 p.m. at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
Stovall, 41, began writing poetry to help his own understanding of what he had been through and how he could cope with civilian life, including the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. But as he wrote, he decided he wanted to shape his poems into an introduction, a text that could make it easier for civilians and veterans to talk to and understand each other. The one that makes people think about how someone else thinks.
“I don’t think a lot of civilians and non-veterans have a good sense of the veteran experience or how we see the civilian world when we come back,” said Stovall, who lives in Phillips, near Farmington. “If someone frequently offers some sort of thoughtless ‘Thank you for your service’, I’d like to give them an idea of how that doesn’t resonate and how that might make a veteran feel. But if there’s context around it, if it’s part of a larger conversation, then “Thank you for your service” sounds like a genuine expression of gratitude.
Since leaving the Army in 2010 – after seven years of active duty – Stovall has pursued writing, first by completing his English degree at the University of Maine and then enrolling in a writing MFA at Fairfield University in Connecticut. There, one of his teachers was Baron Wormser, who was Maine’s Poet Laureate from 2000 to 2006.
Wormser said that while many poetry students seek self-expression, he believes Stovall’s motivation is different because he approaches his writing with a mission in mind.
“He communicates his experience honestly and cuts through much of the rhetoric and hypocrisy that surrounds us in the world today. I think one of the things he means is that we’re all complicit in wars and what’s happening to veterans, even if we think we’re not,” Wormser said. “Poetry is essential writing, it’s urgent writing, and he’s able to tap into that urgency with these poems.”
Stovall’s book has a front that he labeled “Warning”. He warns that the book, although filled with poems, is not meant to be a book of poetry, but rather a manual for “teaching those who have lived through war and those who have not how to converse”. He writes that some of the challenges veterans face are not just the result of what they saw in the war, but because of qualities “inherent in the American way of life.”
The idea of winning and winners, for example, is a clearly defined concept in American culture and history. But his poem “Winning”, with macabre images of battles and attacks, begins with the phrase “I don’t want to win the old fashioned way anymore”. He keeps on:
we used to kick down doors
or blow them in
no breath or breath
by the hair on someone’s chin
then we would all come running
and shoot someone stupid enough
still hold a gun a knife a baby or
any other weapon
and mistakes were sometimes made
but clean simple and straightforward
and certainly an end
While some of the footnotes after Stovall’s poems have questions, some explain terms or give locations and dates of the incident in the poem. Others give credit to another writer or written work that Stovall may have drawn inspiration from or “riffed off”. The footnote for “Winning” credits “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare.
WANT TO DO YOUR PART
Stovall grew up in the small rural town of Troy, Montana, about three hours northwest of Missoula. He grew up outdoors – hunting, hiking, fishing and camping. After high school, he enrolled at the University of Montana and was studying there when the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred, setting the stage for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He felt like he wanted to “do my part” in the effort to defend the country and protect it from further attacks, but it took him a while to decide what. In 2002, he decided to enlist in the army but finished his year of university. In 2003, he enlisted in the army, a few credits close to a diploma. He was 21 years old.
He joined the Army Special Forces, known as the Green Berets, because he had heard that the training was rigorous and many people would not be up to it. He says he liked the idea of being around people – potentially in combat – who were well-trained and considered elite soldiers. Also, recruiters told him he could jump out of airplanes.
He was trained as a medic – someone who can provide medical care to soldiers in combat or, as Stovall describes it, as a medic with a gun.
In July 2009, Stovall and a dozen others were ambushed outside Kabul, Afghanistan while conducting a foot patrol. Stovall was injured in the gunfire, bullets creating fragments of rock and metal that pierced his thigh, some deeply. Doug Vose, the team’s intelligence officer, suffered far worse injuries – a bullet ripped through his lower back and exited through his upper chest.
Stovall rushed to his injured teammate’s side and sealed Vose’s wounds with adhesive plastic medical pads. He had to make an incision in Vose’s skin to find a vein and insert a makeshift IV. He inserted a tube into Vose’s trachea, to help him breathe and prevent him from throwing up. While working on Vose, Stovall occasionally had to rise to fire back at the enemy. The fight lasted an hour and a half. Vose was eventually taken in a helicopter and transported away from the site of the battle, but at one point Stovall does not know when he died.
This incident inspired the poem “Death on an ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha)”, as well as parts of others, Stovall said. “Death on an ODA” is about Stovall and other soldiers attending a memorial service for Vose, at an army camp later named after him. The poem ends with the lines:
I don’t remember who spoke that day
nor the names or even the faces
men who shook hands with us
but i remember my team
and how we were together
“Some of the poems are about me having medical guilt, teammates dying and that feeling always staying with you,” Stovall said.
Being a combat medic is a particularly difficult role for someone who hasn’t done it. When Stovall was preparing his book, he contacted Graham Barnhart, another Army doctor and published poet from Denton, Texas.
“It’s almost like there’s this pre-guilt. You are expected to keep everyone alive in the worst possible situations you can imagine. You can’t take enough stuff to process everything, you can’t know enough,” said Barhart, 37. .”
Five weeks after unsuccessfully trying to save a member of his team, Stovall was injured again when an explosion blew a piece of his leg off. He limped to hurt a soldier, and they bandaged up. It was night, so he did everything by touch. Eventually he and the other injured man ran to a helicopter and got to safety. The rock and dead tissue had to be cleaned from his leg, and he needs two more surgeries to stretch the skin and close the wound.
Shortly after this injury, at the end of 2009, he decided not to re-engage. He said he felt he and other highly trained special forces were not being used to their full capacity and to the best use, and he became “disgusted” with the mission in Afghanistan, after he saw the way the war was fought and dragged on. on.
He left the military in 2010, moved back to Montana and married his wife Kathy, whom he met while stationed in Germany. They found they couldn’t afford a house in Montana and decided to come to Maine. Stovall had been here before, and the mountains and forests reminded him of where he grew up.
He began seeing a psychologist while still in the military to deal with PTSD. He found he couldn’t “slow down my mind and rest.” A psychologist suggested that writing about his experiences might help. So he started writing and found it helped a lot, so he “ran with it”.
After the military, he worked for defense contractors for about five years, then completed his bachelor’s degree and continued with a master’s degree in fine arts. He found he had enough poems for a book, so he submitted them to a publisher, Woodhall Press in Connecticut, who accepted it.
One of Stovall’s goals with the book is to help readers understand that there are many nuances to how veterans think, react and feel. He says many people have a narrow image of PTSD as someone waking up screaming, but there’s a lot of variation in how it affects people.
“I want to help people have a more nuanced understanding of what a veteran’s experience can be like. It’s not always the same,” he said.