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I. 82nd Airborne
A Facebook post last Veteran’s Day shows
your Army suit coat stiff in your closet,
the patches, medals that shine for who knows
what—I could ask you, but how to posit
my curiosities regarding you
and all you meant? I mark a placeholder
and Google instead: the eighty-two
same as your birth year, worn on your shoulder,
Airborne in red white and blue, it’s almost
scout-like, the badge brilliant against your plain
olive jacket, in the photo a ghost
of the days you’ve worn it. How many planes
have you leapt from, and were you terrified
or thrilled—or neither? Did you close your eyes?
II. Combat Action Badge
Mom and dad often say they never saw
combat, so what signal, what advisory
warning could you glean from them? None at all,
maybe, but there must have been some story
they told that comforted when it came to mind?
Was it the middle of the day, or night,
the first time you heard shots? Did you feel blind
to what sought you or ready to fight?
I can picture you: the seeker seeking,
hidden around a corner, waiting to run
straight toward the quiet house, the sedan
that reminded you of home until wires peeking
out from under ruined all the fun.
When you met them, what did you do with your hands?
You’ve never been a swimmer, you’d rather
float, loll—but flight? I never would have guessed
you’d choose sky instead, make the air
your path and rocket through it. I read the last
test is called a Full Combat Load Jump at Night
and I imagine the simulation, maybe
even rubber bullets, fireworks. The roaming sights
of practice enemies fixed on you, baby,
and the trail your body leaves in the air.
The drama suits you, I’ll admit. I see your face
calm throughout, fear or glee just discernable there
behind your closed lips. Bless whichever place
you land, brother; may it be the right one.
Bless each descent, each new fall a small triumph.
IV. Army Service Ribbon
Tell them about the fingers full
of raspberries that never made it
to the kitchen. Tell them about the hair pulled
from two little sisters, or the snot flicked
at the wall behind the TV set.
Tell them about the nicknames
you earned for smoking until your head
vibrated, about the blindfolded games
you played in the flatbeds of every last abandoned lot
on the north side. Tell them about
your juvenile record, the nipple rings torn off
in the park, or when you broke into the sheriff’s house.
It’s all true. Tell them what we know of you,
what’s under the chest they’ve pinned that ribbon to.
V. Good Conduct Medal
Son, here’s your first real taste of glory:
bona fide Eagle Scout, gold-plated wings
broad across your breast. You’ve heard the stories,
and here you are with your lone star, grinning
like a new day. Look at you. We’ve never seen
you so big, your hulking shoulders
almost legend—no need for the creatine
tubs you used to power through in school. You’re older,
but something in your face still rings age eight;
your eyes haven’t changed a bit.
You’re a good kid, kid. Did a hard thing with a straight
face, and that’s saying something. Your distant
family will be proud, no matter that you can’t tell them
why. Good job and here’s your prize—now stand at attention.
VI. Iraq Campaign Medal
Most of the town pronounces it “eye-rack”
like a gimmick display in the optometrist’s office.
Good Soldier’s Family, we learn to say it properly, roll back
the “r,” display that we’re no novices
with regards to current geopolitical affairs. Wrong
as usual, when it comes to you. We pretend
to know what you wear, eat, which songs
you hear during your daily marches. We bend
the truth like something blown apart or freeze-dried:
shocked into a foreign state. Your silence
stuns us each time. Fretting in the family room, we try
to pinpoint your unidentifiable violence.
We keep pointing to you on the map, or where
we think you are. We keep wondering what you do there.
VII. Global War on Terror Service Ribbon
I want to turn you inside out. From head
to toe, I want to know each act you did
for us. I want numbers, how many dead
by your hand and whether they deserved it
in your mind. I fight to understand how
my brother has known what it is to kill
another, and what that might make him now.
I want to shake our nation with its twill
sports coats and golden fields fed with cow shit
by their shoulders. This war bred a terror
in you that it couldn’t take back if it
tried. It left you alone, the sole bearer
of pain it subsidized, your face turning blue,
and it won’t let up till it’s through with you.
VIII. Overseas Service Medal
I know you had shit to do over there,
called to duty to protect your country
and provide for your children. Sure, that’s fair
and well and good, yet somehow the brunt we
know you bore seems only to be compiling
interest, with no return. I’ve kept all the receipts,
each familial transaction stowed tidily
away. As feared, the gathered dues seep
into well-wishing, leave a mark. I heard “amen”
everywhere, but never the comfort of your shadow.
I needed you to bully the violence out of the men
who made a bullseye out of me, and if you must know,
I saw red when you left. Felt the absence you bought,
each IOU stacked with every day you fought.
IX. National Defense Service Medal
There are 318.9 million people in this country
to worry over. Just think of all those eyes,
all those pant legs filled with intention
and productivity. It must feel good to be savior,
have a second chance at something you didn’t
mean to, once, back on that country road.
Back then, our praise spun you into a
mutter: you didn’t feel much
like a hero. I don’t know a thing about
heroism anymore, but my child heart
still gorges on that idea of you, still swells
toward a “you out there” and fills itself with a dumb pride
neither of us can stand long enough to admit.
X. Army Achievement Medal
There’s a man on the subway carrying
the telltale bag: mottled olive and tan,
slung and oversized as his right shoulder.
His shoes seem sick and tired of ferrying
left foot in front of right and back again
down the long, swaying, pole-stuck corridor
with no open doors, and not a penny
worth giving up. We’ve seen too many
men today, their paper cups wide awake
and loud with their earnings. You’d imagine
the Army-issued backpack would stir some
particular sympathy, that we’d shake
our change loose to thank him. No, he’s come
to expect. We don’t have to give. We take.
XI. Marksmanship Qualification: Expert
Chalk it up to sibling rivalry,
accept our un-discussed differences,
but what when I can’t defend? I don’t agree
with your penchant for guns, looming fences
that petrify into walls. I can’t stand
up for the unyielding cataract-sick
way you’ve come to see the world, or what the sand
did when it lodged in your eyes, full toxic
in how it’s warped you. Or were you always
this way? Where the boy I knew in our youth
ran to, I can’t discern. Our hiding tree still sways
homeward, its striated face a wish, proof
that you found solace there once. I can’t pray. The good god
our mother raised us with sowed trouble before moving on.
XII. Valorous Unit Award
You spent every burning cent
on a linen jacket, pants to match,
and a ticket to Miami. Skipped rent,
set the kids down with a last batch
of quick-cooking Quaker oats and double
locked the door. It wouldn’t have surprised
anyone, this story, and that’s the trouble
with taking you at your word. You cried
earnestly, black sheep, but the wolf
fooled everyone. We all noticed her faux
leather shoes, but figured she preferred a roof
over her head and a deep closet to stow
them in. We thought all those bloody dollars
you came back with would do more than fill
a garment bag, didn’t expect your stiff will
to line the shelves with cufflinks and starched collars.
XIII. Presidential Unit Citation
What was all that about anyway,
the blue-filigreed certificate in Phys. Ed.,
as if the President had time in his day
to worry over which kids could touch their heads
to the top of the rope, do ten pull-ups, run a mile
fast enough. Did he sign them? You got it
every single year, then football scholarships, a worthwhile
way to use your body’s greatest trick, hit
hard and run. You didn’t have to talk,
just head down and helmet through it. I bet
it’s the same in a lot of ways, the first block
of training days heavy, hot and out of breath.
He’d better sign this one for you, at the very
least. Go ahead, show him how much you can carry.
XIV. Army Commendation Medal
slap on the back
smack in the face
leave and come back
carve out your space
cut you some slack
to get a leg up
it’s this or it’s that
enough is enough
you can’t take it back
you heave and you crawl
it bends or it cracks
you came and you saw
bless a body intact
you went, that’s all
Editor's Note: “VII. Global War on Terror Service Ribbon” originally appeared in Impakter.
Originally from Wisconsin, Sara Joy Márquez is a writer, worker, and community activist. She holds a BA in English and Environmental Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. Her poems have appeared in Impakter Magazine, The Grief Diaries, The Mississippi Review, and Amazon’s Day One journal.
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