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Deserts + Mountains

Fa ll 2012 VetArts Cooperative

Stories from the Veteran Writers Workshop


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Contents Mike Chavez 7 Zack Dryer

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Sam Ellison

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Chris Hernandez 92 Malachi Muncy

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Introduction

W

e a r e t ry i ng to speak the same language. Rather, we are trying to speak two languages at once. I offer terms like “limited omniscience” and “reported dialogue,” while in their stories, I fi nd codes I don’t know how to decipher. What’s a claymore? I ask. It’s like 200 guns firing at once in a single explosion, the writers tell me. What does it mean to ex-fil? I say, embarrassed. Exfiltration, I’m told. Like, the opposite of infiltration—to be pulled from the fight. Right, I say. Of course. They teach me the military hierarchy, they make endless acronyms into words I can understand, they list off the names of every type of uniform and the downside of each. Most evenings, I am the only woman in the room, and I am always the only civilian (at least, I am the only non-veteran, the civilian who never stopped being one). The five men who join me at the table each week have spent a collective fi fteen years (at least) skipping holidays, eyeing the world through gun scopes, waiting and time-killing in the sand searching for enemy movement.

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Back when these writers were soldiers, the rest of us threw around words like “courage” and “sacrifice” and “bravery” as a way to talk about the work they did, the choices they made, or the choices they were forced to make. We used these words until they were nearly empty of meaning. Naturally, out of conditioning or habit, I’m tempted to use them here, but I realize they convey so litt le. They don’t explain the conundrum of executing a mission you believe will fail (when failure means losing your colleagues and breaking apart families). “Bravery” and “courage” don’t explain why you came home preferring motorcycles to cars because motorcycles feel imminently safer. “Sacrifice” isn’t large enough to describe how exhaustion and frustration compelled you to jump into the line of fi re just so the rest of your unit could get back to base in two hours rather than seven. But where our habits of language fall short, the words that follow prevail, and spectacularly so. In these pages, you’ll fi nd five stories from five men. Not all of the stories are military, but each is accomplished and fi ne, each hammers away at human error and perserverance. Each demonstrates an inherent understanding of the language of fiction—the characters are complex and compelling; paragraphs are vivid and dreamlike; there is something fought for or resigned to. In the eight weeks I spent with these writers, our languages slowly became less foreign to one another. Though I was the outlier, they allowed me to participate in some new, benevolent unit of storytellers. Our only combat was the occasional and loving argument about gender differences or a heated debate over an Alex Jones military conspiracy. The rest of our time together (our mission, dare I say?) became a collective search for the language that would properly and adequately deliver the stories that needed telling.

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Deserts + Mountains, Fall 2012

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The gentlemen you are about to read are gorgeous, lovely people. They’ve stricken me with goose bumps on more than a few occasions. For this, they would credit their good looks and unfl inching masculinity, but I can only say their daring and honesty are deeply humbly. I am honored to know them, to read their work, and to have some small part in sharing it with you. Cecily Sailer, Workshop Instructor

Ceci ly Sa i l er is a freelance writer and occasional teacher. Full-time, she is the programs manager for the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, which supports Austin libraries and provides literary programming for Austinites of all ages and backgrounds. Cecily’s freelance work has appeared in the Texas Observer, the Dallas Morning News, Austin Fit Magazine, and Texas Monthly.

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Zack Dryer

Z ack Dry er gr e w u p i n Memphis, Tennessee, and joined the Army in 2001. He served with both the 1st Cavalry and 10th Mountain Light Infantry Divisions. He served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and was discharged after sustaining injuries in a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his bravery and leadership in Afghanistan. Zack now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Sarah, and two children, Ireland and Mason. He is currently attending the University of Texas and hopes to earn a Ph.D. in English and teach with a focus on post-World War II American novels.

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A Moonlit Stroll We had been ordered to build a Combat Outpost in the middle of a cluster of ramshackle villages stuck somewhere in the Stone Age but with cell phones and beat-up junked cars. When we pulled off the thing that one might somehow call a road into an empty field behind a mud-brick police station, we knew it was going to be a shitt y summer. We lived out of our vehicles and spent every moment dressed head-to-tail in full batt le-ratt le, sweating ourselves thin. We worked constantly through blistering summer days, and the nights brought windstorms that ground into our already blistered skin. We took turns doing everything—eating and guarding, guarding and sleeping, shitt ing and guarding. We shit in a fi ft y-five gallon drum that had been cut in half with a blowtorch. We took turns fi lling the barrel with diesel and sett ing it on fi re, stirring it with a rusted green fencepost while leaning back to avoid the heat and black shit smoke. Our COP sat at the mouth of a mountain pass that had been carved into one of the only passable roads in the whole country. Entire Soviet divisions had been slaughtered there in the eighties, and that fact had not been forgotten by the local baddies. They owned every shit-hole village and didn’t take kindly to our arrival in their backyard. They tested us out on the fi rst night with an RPG attack and pushed hard in the fi rst month of summer. They attempted to blast us out daily with rockets and mortars that fell like fat raindrops into the dead ground, spitt ing explosions of dust into the air that sett led on the Outpost in continual layers and fi lled our mouths as it hung in the air. The mortar fi re swept down the face of the mountain daily, led by flashes that speckled the sides of the foothills. Each flash gave off a distant and muffled thud, which raced the explosion down to us at the base of the valley.

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They watched us constantly and made no attempts to hide it. Their stooge children sat on the other side of the barbed-wire gate that stretched across the opening to our makeshift COP and relayed counts of soldiers coming and going over their ancient walkie-talkies. They learned our unit patches and our vehicle numbers. They studied our names and practiced them standing at the gate, yelling obscenities across the path and holding their crotches like litt le Michael Jacksons. They yelled across the road and threw stones that fell into heaps in the dirt, as they laughed and pointed at the soldiers they knew could not shoot them. After a month of futile ambushes by the baddies, to which we responded by tromping through the countryside unleashing hell and stacking bodies for the local “police� to collect, the upper echelon of the enemy got wise and adapted to the new game. They pumped in real soldiers to backfi ll the hired-gun yokels and farmers we were stacking up along the moonlit roads. Not ready to give up the pass, they got faster, stronger, smarter, and better armed. They began using the terrain to their advantage and sett ing better traps with solid exit routes that allowed them to attack and fade into the foothills through irrigation ditches and natural formations that had been traveled by their ancestors. The rusty AK-carrying farmer-soldiers were replaced by IEDs and opportunistic RPG teams, which attempted to pick off the rescuers trying to salvage lives from mangled vehicles. They would unleash hell and then run, knowing we had them ten out of ten times in a real order of fisticuff. They cherrypicked the weak units traveling through the pass. Attacking in full force, they decimated transportation units and supply rigs with all-out ground blitzes. Then they’d hunker down to let us pass without a noise unless they had a lucky-placed IED. We started patrolling on foot up and down each and every

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identical rocky shithole mountain and every identical fi lthy shithole village. We pressed the ground game constantly and wandered the fields and hills every night plucking out bad guys as we stumbled upon them. We spent our days watching our troops end up mangled with no one to fight about it, our trucks burning on the side of the road. We spent our nights ransacking houses and barns looking for weapons or laying atop wind-blown foothills watching for movement below. As we looked over the road that headed through the pass, we cringed and held our collective breath as each ragtag convoy of support units drove through the enemy’s sweet spots, waiting for the night to explode with fi re. When the August heat had reached its peak, I watched as the long train of vehicles passed below through the green fisheye lens of my night vision goggles. I watched as the gunners swiveled their heads back and forth, slunk down in their trucks, fearing the bullets that could come ripping out of the darkness without notice. I watched as a ball of fi re sprang to life beneath the third truck from the rear, enveloping it in a flash of light that made the green-tinted world of our night vision glow painfully white. The explosion below sucked the dust to the ground then vomited it up into the air. The cloud of fi re lit up the pass and threw shadows across the mountains. The hills on the other side of the pass came to life, and the flashes and sounds of bullets smashing into vehicle armor made the pass sound like a carnival ride. The smell of cordite fi lled the night as we rushed down the mountain headlong into a long overdue fight. We slid on our backsides, grinding our feet into the steep rocky soil, attempting to slow ourselves down. The platoon broke into two even teams without needing an order, and the avalanche of dust and gravel split into two smaller avalanches cutt ing down the mountain.

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Special thanks to Austin Steamers BookPeople Bottom Dollar String Band Carpetbagger Chris Hays and Her Sunday Best Cunto East Cameron Folkcore Guns of Navarone Haydon and the Hoodoo Boys The Hole in the Wall KOOP Radio KUT Mike and the Moonpies Mrs. Glass Robin Gilthorpe Shakey Graves Sons of Fathers WriteByNight

VetArts Cooperative seeks to empower veterans through artistic expression by creating community and providing instruction and guidance in all aspects of the arts. Deserts + Mountains will serve as a journal to help veterans share their stories through fiction, poetry, and art. For more information, visit desertsmountains.org.


Design: Deserts + Mountains chapbook