October 11-17, 2006

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'Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace'

Service: New collection runs the gamut of experience.

War Stories

The universal pain and healing of 'Veterans'

By Sara Bir

My dad was in Vietnam. He was in the Air Force and had been trained as a fighter pilot, although during the war he flew a C-130 cargo plane. He didn't talk about it. The only image I saw of Dad in Vietnam was some Super-8 footage showing him shirtless and tanned in aviator sunglasses, grinning mischievously as he stood on an airstrip in the middle of the jungle, flying a radio-controlled airplane. I thought shenanigans like that comprised his whole time in Vietnam, like an episode of M*A*S*H without the scenes in the O.R.

Dad drank a lot. He came home from the VFW late at night talking garbled nonsense about dead gooks. The older I grew, the worse his drinking became. I hated him for making us miserable, and so I never considered what made him miserable and I never once asked him about the war.

I was 18 when Mom told me what Dad did in Vietnam. His C-130 was filled with body bags. That became his war for the rest of his life, smothered deep inside him, until it exploded and embedded shrapnel in all of us. I carry a shard of his war everywhere I go, but that part of my father will always be a stranger to me.

War is the longest story of all, and every person touched by it struggles to make sense of their own story; for every short reel of playful Super-8 footage in the basement there's a bottomless well seeping death and guilt. That's what makes the new anthology Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace (Koa Books; $20) such a moving, important work. The truly epic book includes contributions by 80 writers, all members of the veteran writers group begun by Oakland-based poet and novelist Maxine Hong Kingston in 1993. The group continues to gather for meditation and writing workshops four times a year in Sebastopol.

The selections range from sparsely worded poems of inner reflection to choppy verses of rock-like rhythm to raw, first-person memoirs. World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm--they're all represented in the writing of wives, husbands, sons and daughters.

Not all of the contributors to Veterans are veterans of combat, and not all of them served in the armed forces. This is bound to piss off some readers--I imagine people like Dad, grumbling that they didn't put their life on the line just to be grouped in a book with hippie peace activists--but the book is for and by all who have experienced violence and human loss. "A veteran could be a woman; a veteran could be a deserter; a veteran could be a civilian who had served in war; a veteran could be a survivor of domestic violence; a veteran could be a peace activist," Kingston writes in the introduction. This inclusiveness infuses the book with an equality of pain. We see war from many perspectives, but the anger, resentment and lingering confusion are universal.

There are stories of civilian life, stories of homes slowly destroyed by lingering vapors of grief and guilt, where war demons are passed down through generations like unwitting heirlooms. And there are stories of battle, told in language so plain it cuts to the bone. In "Hopper's Last BBQ," Roman A. "Hopper" Martinez relives a moment when his Air Rifle team was called early in the morning to rescue a downed helicopter. They hadn't had time to eat breakfast, and a smell of something cooking awakened Hopper's hunger. Minutes later, he sickeningly realizes the enticing smell is the flesh of his two friends' burned bodies, bodies he now must extricate from the wreckage: "I held back my tears, even while I had boots and other body parts come off in my hands; like pulling a drumstick off a roasted turkey."

But the most compelling passages of Veterans turn out to be the autobiographical introductions that precede every writer's selection. Encountering the aftermath of war on all these lives incites a feverish trance in the reader. It may be a trance of recognition, or of realization, but the sheer volume of human suffering evoked in its pages is almost unfathomable. The book tears open wounds and rubs in the salt; it opens our infected eyes and applies a soothing balm that stings, too. We need this book to make us angry and unsettled and awake. There's nothing more dangerous than ambivalence about war.

Contributors read from and discuss 'Veterans' at several free events. Oct. 11 at 7pm, Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera; 415.927.0960. Oct. 19 at 7:30pm, Readers' Books, 130 E. Napa St., Sonoma; 707.939.1779. Oct. 24 at 7:30pm, New College, 99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa; 707.568.0112. Oct. 27 at 7:30pm, at North Light Books, 550 E. Cotati Ave., Cotati; 707.792.4300. Nov. 10 at 7pm, Copperfield's Books, 138 Main St., Sebastopol; 707.823.2618. Dec. 7 at Quicksilver Mine Co., 6671 Front St., Forestville; 707.887.0799. Dec. 14 at 7:30pm, Many Rivers Books and Tea, 130 S. Main St., Sebastopol; 707.823.8871. www.vowvop.org.

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