Poems of War
The stigma of another unpopular war is killing our soldiers.
The full scope of suicides among Iraq war vets is still unknown.
Poems of war
Making friends with the enemy
By Stacey Warde
CHERYL Softich answers the phone at American Bank of the North in Mountain Iron, Minnesota, her voice leaden, measured.
Her son, Noah Charles Pierce, recently took his own life, living with the harsh judgment of an estranged biological father who didn’t spend much time with his son, and who didn’t attend his funeral.
“You’re a murderer.” Noah never could get those words out of his mind, never could get over the pain of killing an innocent man during his second tour as a G.I. in Iraq.
The words had been uttered even before Noah left for his first tour by a man Cheryl says despises war, and the U.S. military. He said this to Noah, his son, whose dream from the time he was a young boy had always been to be a soldier, as well as a poet.
Cheryl says she’s doing OK, under the circumstances. This time is as good as any to talk, she adds. “We’ll see, we’ll see how it goes; depending on what we talk about.”
We want to talk about her son’s poems, the ones he wrote about soldiering in Iraq, about befriending and sharing food with an Iraqi boy who doesn’t speak English and leaving him behind, crying, alone, unwilling to part—afraid of what might happen.
We want to talk about the poem that asks, “What the fuck kind of war is this?”
“Look,” Cheryl perks, her voice rising, “my son did take his own life, but he’s a casualty of the war. I don’t consider my son’s suicide shameful, nor do the people who knew him. I’m just as proud of Noah today as I was the day he was born.”
In late July, Noah Charles Pierce, 23, having returned home from his second tour of Iraq, drove his truck to a favorite fishing hole in the Gilbert area of Minnesota, less than one mile from his childhood home, taking along his gun and six medals, and ended his life.
Carved into the dash of his truck were the words, “freedom isn’t free.” He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], haunted by the memory of shooting, under orders, a man he later learned was innocent, a doctor who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Tonight just doesn’t seem right,” Noah wrote in the poem titled “WTF,” that recounts the harrowing moment: “The feeling won’t shake / Can’t smoke enough cigarettes / Why are these vehicles fucking with me / I shine my spotlight, he pulls over / The other stomps on the gas / Oh fuck, another car bomb / I shoot / Someone shouts, ‘This one is dead.’”
The investigation said Noah followed the protocol of combat, “done by the books,” and still, an innocent man dead. An all too familiar and sad experience for American troops fighting a war in which the enemy easily blends with the civilian populace, and harmless people become targets.
Noah also carried the memory of his best friend who died close by his side in an explosion.
“Noah was always a sensitive person,” his mother says. “He had become in his eyes exactly what his biological father said he was.” A murderer. Yet, those who loved him most, his mother, sister Sarah, and stepfather, Tom Softich (the father that Noah had nothing but good to say about and respected above all others) saw him differently, as a dedicated young man, with a poet’s yearning, hurting from the effects of war.
Cheryl notes that vets have told her they still live with the nightmare of war some 40-50 years later, unable to shake the horror of killing and maiming. She wouldn’t have wanted Noah to live with that for the rest of his life.
The stigma of another unpopular war is killing our soldiers.
No one knows for sure the exact number of Iraq war veterans who have taken their lives since returning home, but as recently reported in the Marine Corps Times: “Veterans’ groups and families who have lost loved ones [to suicide] say the number of troops struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues is on the increase and not enough help is being provided by the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department.”
The full scope of suicides, notes the online journal, is still unknown.
“The problem that we face right now is that there’s no method to track veterans coming home,” Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told the Times. “There’s no system. There’s no national registry.”
And the Veterans Administration doesn’t track the numbers either. Nonetheless, those reaching out to distressed soldiers say military suicides appear to be on the rise, with calls for help increasing from both veterans and their families.
Adding significantly to the problem is the stigma attached to getting help. Soldiers afraid to appear weak are less likely to seek the support they need to deal with the traumas of war that they bring home with them.
Noah, says his mother, clearly suffered from the effects of the war even though he always firmly believed that it was right for him to be there. He just wasn’t himself, she says, when he came back to the U.S. “The spark was gone,” she said in an interview with the Mesabi Daily News, which covers the Mountain Iron region. “The guilt just ate at him. He was too kind-hearted.”
More disturbing, Cheryl notes during a telephone interview, has been the callousness of people who not only don’t support the war or the military but who refuse to show any sympathy or moral support for the troops fighting in it.
Within a few days of his return home, a familiar figure in Noah’s hometown shouted: “Hey Noah, did you kill anyone?” Noah couldn’t acknowledge the person and promptly left the scene, Cheryl says. It was too much for him.
“Sure, these kids are returning home from a war. Of course, they may have killed someone but you don’t ask them that.”
Additionally, there are some who argue, “These guys knew, or should have known, what they were getting into, so why feel sorry?”
Not everyone is this calloused, but the attitude is prevalent enough to appear in local conversations and in reader comments on web sites that report on the suffering of Iraq war veterans.
“In an all volunteer army, to pretend soldiers have NO culpability for their complicity is ridiculous political pandering,” commented one reader of the Mesabi Daily News story posted on the progressive web page Common Dreams (www.commondreams.org).
And later: “Don’t pity people who murder in the name [of] god, country, or patriotism and don’t pity people who raise people to believe murder in the name of god, country, or patriotism is okay or justifiable.”
That insensitivity to soldiers irks Cheryl, and she bristles at those, on the left or right, who use soldiers’ sufferings for their own benefit, to promote political causes or crusades for or against the war.
“I think it’s wrong,” she said. “No one knows what these boys are going through.”
Cheryl declares her son’s commitment to defend the U.S. against its enemies arose from the ashes of 9/11. Even before the attacks, he believed it his duty to serve, she adds. He would have joined no matter what. But 9/11 propelled him.
His last year of high school, Cheryl says, “he spent a whole year on the computer, researching the different services, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, and he kept coming back to the Army. So he signed with the Army.”
At the end of Oct. 2001, one month after the Sept. 11 attacks and two months before his 18th birthday, Noah approached his mom for consent to sign with the Army. He had to go, he said, and if she didn’t consent now, he was going to sign anyhow in two months.
Cheryl and her husband, Tom Softich, knowing that war was coming, tried to reason with Noah, tried to get him to reconsider. But he was determined to join.
Because her son was committed to military service, and had been since he was a boy, Cheryl consented, and Noah signed into the delayed entry program, going active soon after his 18th birthday.
“Noah always knew he was going to be in a war; he just didn’t know which one,” Cheryl says. “Just like I knew when I first held that baby in my arms that I’d outlive him.”
Her last text message to Noah before he died, “You are my heart, Noah,” words she has tattooed on her leg.
Cheryl Softich is careful about how her son’s poems are to be used. She doesn’t want people with an agenda to profit from them. “Noah wouldn’t like that.” She wants people to read the poems for what they are, based on their own merit.
Noah knew as well as anyone the power of words and used them with effect to convey his love for his mother, the pain of his experience of war, and the guilt that was too much for him to bear. He wrote of the hemorrhages of war and the separations from what we love most, our homes and families—of the loss of life.
While not practiced, Noah’s poems bring us into the immediacy of war, into the senselessness of its tragedies, and into the longing for home that comes in the midst of unbearable and avoidable carnage.
We received a copy of Noah’s handwritten poems through a friend who had a connection with William Kerzie, one of the color guard that offered a final salute in a memorial to the troubled soldier.
We received the poems, copied from a spiral notebook, only days after news broke of another soldier’s apparent suicide; Spc. John R. Fish of nearby Paso Robles was found dead from a single gunshot wound to the head in late August in a New Mexico desert, about 30 miles from Fort Bliss.
According to a report by the Associated Press, a handwritten note was found on his bunk, “I have some things to take care of. I won’t be coming back.”
At first we thought these might be John’s poems and were struck by their directness regarding the experience of war. Only later, when we decided to pursue publication of the poems, did we learn that Noah had penned them.
We offer these poems as a tribute to a fallen soldier and as a reminder of the horrors of war. §
Tyler Bruun, a friend of Noah Charles Pierce, started an organization to raise money to help those struggling with PTSD upon their return from the war. The organization is called Northern Organization for Assisting Heroes N-O-A-H.ORG.
Tyler Bruun can be reached by email: email@example.com.
Stacey Warde is editor of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.