Read or Listen to an Excerpt From The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
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Army veteran Kevin Powers has written what some are calling the first great novel of the Iraq war. Here, Powers shares his own experiences as a returning soldier—and what he sees as the challenges facing this new generation of vets.
In the past decade, more than a million troops have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, with many thousands more still to come. Kevin Powers is one of them.
For Powers, 32, who spent 13 months as a combat engineer in Iraq before returning to the States in 2005, “The question you always get is, ‘What’s it like over there?'” His searing debut novel, The Yellow Birds, tries to answer that question, by capturing the casual brutality and emotional isolation of the war as well as the disquietude of returning home when it no longer feels like home. The book—which centers on two young soldiers, Bartle and Murph, and the promise that binds them together—has been called the first great novel to come out of the Iraq war, earning comparisons to classics like Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried and Erich Maria Remarque‘s All Quiet on the Western Front.
But Powers says, “The most meaningful praise I’ve gotten is from other vets who’ve said that I was able to articulate something that they had been feeling for a really long time but hadn’t been able to express.”
Powers grew up on the edge of a middle-class suburb about 30 minutes outside Richmond, where his mother was a mail carrier and his dad worked for Philip Morris. He enlisted in the Army National Guard during his senior year in high school, when he was 17. “I wasn’t the best student and didn’t have a lot of scholarships coming my way. But also I really believed that it was an honorable thing to do,” says Powers. “My father served in the army. My uncle was in the Marine Corps. Both my grandfathers served in the army in World War II. When I looked at the male role models in my life, it seemed that they all had that in common.”
His National Guard unit was activated six years later, in December 2003, and the following year he found himself in Mosul and Tal Afar, working as a machine gunner providing security for the soldiers disarming bombs. “We would actually go out and look for IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. If we located one, we would call the [explosive ordnance disposal specialists] and they would come out and destroy them.” Powers calls himself lucky—in war, that he never got wounded; and back at home, where he found work, got married, and started taking writing and literature classes that nourished a creative spark he’d felt since childhood. (After his discharge, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University and a master’s degree in poetry from the University of Texas at Austin. He and his wife, Kelly, now live in Florence, Italy.) PARADE talked with Powers about his experience as a returning Iraq veteran and what Americans should know about the years ahead for soldiers coming home.
PARADE: In the book, you talk a lot about the dehumanizing effect of war, the numbness. How does that affect your ability to reenter civilian life?
Kevin Powers: As human beings, we have the blessing and the curse that we’re able to adapt to almost anything. No matter how extreme the circumstances you’re in, they become normal. Then there’s a sense that coming home is a letdown—because you’ve been in this kind of heightened state for so long, just the ordinary nature of everyday life can be confusing and frustrating.
What jarred you?
In Iraq, everything mattered: Your survival, your friends’ survival, everything that you did was life or death. And we were very often surrounded by civilians we felt an obligation to, being that our job was to try to locate these IEDs and help to remove that danger for them. So there’s this sense that, right or wrong, what you’re doing is important, and it has an immediate effect on dozens, if not hundreds, of lives. And when you come back, it just doesn’t feel like life matters in the same way. No decision that you make feels like it has any impact.
You feel helpless?
There was a really strong sense that my presence was not necessary. Overseas, I was part of a team; people relied on me. When you return, there’s this feeling of being isolated in your powerlessness.
Is it common for returning vets to feel that they don’t fit in?
Yes. It’s hard to find people to connect with. [Our peers] share the experiences of growing up, going to high school, first loves. But then there’s that compressed life experience you get from being in an extreme situation. We know about fear in a way that few people know. And you immediately recognize that very few people understand what that’s like.
In the book, you write that on the way home, some soldiers say, “Well, what now?”
I felt that very strongly. There can be a profound feeling of aimlessness and purposelessness. You can get back into life or, sadly, you can be lost. Suicides are rampant. A lot of [returning vets] turn to alcohol and drugs. There’s a huge amount of pain.
You describe Bartle [the main character in The Yellow Birds] as having turned into “a kind of cripple” when he returns home.
Part of that is feeling that somehow you’re unequipped to participate fully in life, because some percentage of your attention, your being, your inner life is dedicated to dealing with the residue of your experience.
And your experience has been killing, in many cases.
Yeah, or witnessing killing, or dealing with the aftermath of killing. I mean, we’re talking about the worst thing that human beings can do to each other, and having that be normal. So when you come back, it doesn’t stay distant the way that other memories do. And even the kind of physical responses that you develop to what’s happening around you …
Noises and smells, those can bring back powerful memories. I remember when I was going to school one Fourth of July, and there were a lot of fireworks going off. I knew that I was in Richmond. I knew that I was a college student. But I thought people were shooting at me. It took a little while to recognize that things were okay.
That it wasn’t somebody trying to kill you.
Right. And there’s a certain kind of smell—it’s like a diesel engine smell. Something about that would immediately put me—you know, like I was back there. If I’m walking down the street and a city bus goes by, I’ll catch a whiff and just kind of take a second.
There are so many choices to make when you get home. Is that overwhelming, too?
Absolutely. Just on a functional level of going from an experience where you knew exactly what you had to do.
Because somebody told you?
Because somebody told you. And it may be the most difficult thing that you ever had to do in your life, but you knew what you were supposed to do. And then coming home, [you have] essentially no direction. I think “rudderless” is probably an appropriate way of describing it. You see the world; you see all these directions that you could go. How do you possibly begin to decide? Particularly if you’re feeling emotionally numbed.
When you returned to civilian life, you had no college degree. But you were lucky: You got a job. And you went back to school.
I spent the summer after I got back framing houses with my brother. And then I got a job at a credit card company here in [Richmond], answering phones. I’d been writing since I was a kid, but I had more or less stopped. At VCU, I really started to remember how much I enjoyed writing and reading, having discussions.
NEXT: Returning Veterans Who Face Unemployment >>
Powers (right) in northern Iraq outside Mosul in spring 2004.
What about those who don’t find work? Unemployment for returning vets is a huge problem. How much does it affect a returning vet if he or she can’t find a job?
I can’t imagine having that added anxiety, trying to reintegrate, trying to adjust, if I didn’t know where I was going to live, if I didn’t know how I was going to eat. And, you know, I’m not sure how [that anxiety] influences an employer’s decision to hire a vet or not. After I had been at one job for a couple months, the person who hired me said he had worried about hiring a vet, because he thought I might have lots of problems. But I think the reverse can also be true. I mean, I think the difficulty of entering back into the world, not only does that apply to personal relationships and relationships with family, it can make it difficult to reach out to potential employers. It’s, “How am I going to interact with these people if I get a job? They’re not going to understand me.”
Bartle doesn’t seem to be able to fit in when he comes back. Was that your experience?
It can be hard to make friends. Even basic things [get in the way], like wondering why people are late. They’re showing up 10 minutes late and they don’t care. And you’re thinking, “Do these people know how lucky they are?”
Meaning that they didn’t see what you saw over there?
No. It’s more a realization that life is precious and fragile, and taking it for granted just seems kind of baffling.
What about the attitude of this country toward the war in which you served? In the book, Bartle refers to “the dull world that ignored our little pest of a war.”
It’s complicated. I understand that it’s incredibly difficult to watch what’s happening on the news every day and not become inured to it. I’ve fallen victim to that myself, wanting to look away. But I also felt powerful resentment that it seemed like nobody cared that we had gotten into this thing without thinking what the consequences would be.
And does that in your mind diminish what you’ve just done with your life for a couple years?
It’s a disconnect. You might think of your experience and then say, “Nobody even knows or cares.”
We’re in the middle of a presidential race. What are the larger issues you’d like to see discussed? What’s missing from the dialogue?
In some ways, the dialogue itself is missing. It seems the public conversation has disappeared. There are still soldiers in Afghanistan right now. There might be a wounded soldier as we speak who is feeling his life slipping away from him. And it doesn’t warrant a mention in some venues. I think that’s tragic.
Veterans Day is coming up. What should Americans think about?
I think making sure that there are opportunities in place, knowing what some veterans have given, parts of their lives that they’ll never get back, parts of their bodies that they’ll never get back. Having some sort of safety net in place, to me, seems like it should be a key feature of any sort of political discussion. I know there are exceptions, but in my experience, to a man, every person that I served with wanted to contribute to our country, felt that it was something that they could do on behalf of their fellow citizens.
Toward the end of The Yellow Birds, Bartle says, “I don’t want desert. I don’t want prairie. I don’t want plains. I don’t want anything unbroken. I’d rather look at the mountains, something manageable and finite that could break up and fix the earth into parcels small enough that they could be contended with.”
He wants a life he feels he has some, maybe not control over, but some agency in. He wants to have a life that’s manageable, that he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by.
Because coming home can be so overwhelming?
Because the entirety of the experience is overwhelming, the fighting, the coming home, the readjusting. So, I think, in his case, he has a desire to live simply, to just be ordinary.
Is that what you’ve seen in other returning vets?
I do. And I think a lot of the guys I know and a lot of people I’ve talked to, what they want is very often what most people want, a kind of simple life, a livelihood, a family, people who care about them, people they can care about. I think vets on the whole want the same things that everybody else does.
Read or Listen to an Excerpt From The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
10 Books by the Latest Generation of War Veterans
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An Interview with World War II Veteran
by Dan M.,Congers, NY I interviewed my great grandfather, Angelo Abruzzi, who wassubjected to the horror and terror of World War II. He was 25 years old at thetime and now his 87-year-old mind thinks back to its darkest memories. Eventhough I tried not to ask many heartfelt questions, my great grandfather brokedown and wept. I truly felt the sadness that his eyes have seen and just by hiswords, depression fell heavy on my heart.
What did it feel likewhen you found out that you were chosen to serve our country in war?
War -that's an interesting word. It sends many emotions through my mind: anger,power, destruction, hope, nationalism, pride. Feelings and pressure surrounded meas I left for the war, and I knew one way or another that I'd return a changedman.
What happened to you after you left the Bronx to fulfill yourduty as a citizen of the United States?
Well, even though I was nervousand afraid to get on the bus full of men my age, adrenaline and excitement flowedthrough my body. It was a hot day, and the stench of sweat filled the bus. Thedoor closed behind me, and I grabbed a seat in the back of the bus and slept. I'mnot sure for how long, but I woke up to silence as we entered the camp. Here weall were given cots and clothes, and for the next two months, wetrained.
What happened during the actual war itself? What is yourmost memorable thought of the war?
Truthfully, I've tried to leave all ofmy memories in the past because they always get me in an uproar. But what I doremember is that I woke up every morning to the sounds of moans or explosions,and we had to sleep in shifts so the others could sleep safely. Smoke filled theskies constantly as screams surrounded the camp area. Most of the time, I criedmyself to sleep thinking of Francesca, my wife to be. My most memorable thoughtwas of my newly acquired friend, Ben. He was right beside me (near enemy lines)when an explosion occurred. I'm not sure what caused it; he was shot 20 feet intothe air. He broke both of his legs, and lost an arm. He was discharged, and Iremember wishing I were him just so that I could go home.
What didyou feel like when you were on your way home to see Francesca again?
Atfirst I was quite afraid because I had been gone for so long and my imaginationran away, making me think she had met someone else. As I began to see familiarsights of my neighborhood, my heart filled with happiness. The memories of beinga kid on those streets made my face light up with a smile. I passed Francesca'shouse, and thought my heart was going to leap out of my chest with passion. Iremember wanting to jump out the window and run to her front door but I couldn't.I was almost home, and my life was about to start again.
Didpeople treat you differently when you came home?
Surprisingly enough, no.I mean my family did, but the neighbors and other people acted as if nothing hadhappened. It got me mad for a little while when I wanted to talk to people aboutit, and they changed the topic. Oh, well. It's not like I did anything great. Iwent overseas, killed some Nazis and came back. Why should they be happy orexcited? Maybe because I risked my neck for their country and theworld!
Whatever happened to you and Francesca, and the rest ofyour life?
Well, this is hard for me to talk about, but I'll try my best.It seems that my imagination was right after all, because Francesca had foundanother man and married him. I was completely destroyed, and I felt that therewas no reason to live. I slit my wrists, but my mother found me and took me tothe hospital. There I met your great grandmother, Rosa. When I first met her, Icould have sworn that I was dead and she was an angel ready to take me to heaven.One year later I married her and we had three wonderful children. Our lifetogether was great, and even though she died five years ago, she'll always bewith me in my heart.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.