Spectator USA

Skip to Content

Arts Features

Poems for Memorial Day

From a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq

James Jeffrey served in the British Army for nine years, from his commissioning as a second lieutenant shortly after 9/11 to leaving as a captain in 2010. He served in Iraq in 2004 as a tank commander with the Queen’s Royal Lancers, providing armored support to the 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, followed by another tour in 2006. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 with the headquarters of the Welsh Guards Battle Group on Operation Herrick 10, during which the regiment’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, was killed by a Taliban IED, the first commanding officer killed in action since the 1980s Falklands War. Jeffrey now works as a writer.

 

Tea Man of Al Amarah 

The patrol went firm under the blazing sun,

Each of us taking a knee on a roadside that smoldered,

The radio’s burning weight grinding my back as

I licked sandpaper lips, sore and cracked.

 

He came from a small shack,

“As-Salāmu `Alaykum,” he said

Holding out a glass of steaming tea;

He wouldn’t be denied so instead,

 

With stiff arms I slung my rifle,

“Shukran gazeelan,” I replied in thanks,

Taking that small chalice, our

Nations’ covenant — not yet defiled.

 

The sugar swirled around,

A sweet cloud becoming a crystal ball,

Yet I failed to see ISIS (though didn’t we all)

And read how many lives obliterated in 

 

Years staying hungry for sacrifice.

I sipped and he broke into a grin;

Delicious hot sweet liquid

Fell as monsoon-rains within.

 

Is he still there serving his tea?

While the Tigris and Euphrates glitter

In Al Amarah and other Iraqi towns,

Where sweet tea now swirls bitter.

 

Behind the butcher’s shop

The patriotic punter licks his lips

As the butcher beckons him follow out back:

“This way, sir, for the really prime bits”

Opening the door on the gourmet rack —

 

“Just in today — look at that fine flesh!”

He picks up a lean, tanned, young arm

Opalescent with cartilage, certified fresh

By the date on the tag from Nad-E-Ali Farm.

 

Beside it are more labelled limbs, arranged by size

A fine mixture – legs sawed-off mid-thigh

Others below the knee for compromise

Spoilt for choice, our discerning customer casts his eye

 

Over these products’ exotic origins:

Sangin, Garmsir, Musa Qala–imports from

New worlds of glory with operational medal wins

Claiming to stand with Goose Green, Normandy, the Somme.

 

 Stretcher case

The chopper is on the way, 

That fine example of our benevolent capability;

I click the radio pressel, briefing 

The pilot on the Afghan casualty.

 

Medics fret and fuss sincerely by the heli-pad as

The stretcher is laid beneath an old man’s shattered face.

On it the young boy is silent,

Hidden emotions leaving no trace.

  

He looks back at me impassively

But that cannot be so,

Because his bandaged right leg is 

Blunted shorter, never to grow.

 

You have to hand it to the medics,

Their finished work is neat:

Where his foot should be, instead

A mummified head — what a feat.

 

He didn’t take painkillers, a medic says,

But still no tears — mouth closed, face set, awaiting 

His next step.

 

Unbidden visitor

The day finished and clambered into bed, —

My mind churned, groping for sleep

Then it came, a figure stood close overhead;

From whence, I knew not, perhaps a realm hidden deep,

Where vicious truths creep from crevasses that weep.

    With covered head a shadow remaining still,

    —Suddenly she gripped my wrist, delicate fingers firm,

    Iraqi or Afghani? Frozen I couldn’t turn.

There was no danger just a tender chill;

Like Mary she had a question still raw:

‘Why did you take my son from me?’

I quickly opened my eyes before

Others gathered bearing that agonizing plea. 

 

Marvelous way to die

You’ll hear plenty of tallies for bombs and metal bullets

But you won’t ever know about the real chart topper

For the numbers become rather excessive with

Such eager exodus from so many loins

As soldiers maintain an interest

In what is sadly out of reach by 

Grabbing what’s closest at hand.

It doesn’t take much to start the simmer

A rare-sighted bra drying on a line or

Just the mind wandering to better times —

Then there’s not much left to do

But head to the ramshackle shitters

In the blazing sun and ignore the flies

And crack on with everyone’s favorite sin.

People talk about courageous loss of martial life

But what of these legions of milky souls spent

Some falling destitute to the sand others

More respectfully collected in tissues as

Eyes close in bliss, accompanied by a blessed sigh

—Such a marvelous way for them to die.

 

New packing list for your rucksack

you are left with all sorts of things to carry:

arguments at home or drunkenly by a taxi,

brotherly bonds strained to breaking point; 

frequent urges to weep, random and unrestrained;

lack of sleep, setting an alarm clock knowing it’s a joke,

approaching a bed nervously just wishing to

get through one night and reach

morning without another leaden brain, sluggishly forlorn;

the medals in your palm — not knowing what to do 

other than burying them at the back of a draw;

what looks to everyone else a leg or arm tucked out of view 

taunts, instead, as an amputated limb;

minced meat and chicken on the bone just aren’t so tasty anymore;

while the death’s head keeps laughing at you.

 

The Last Supper

In memory of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, bomb disposal expert, killed October 31 2009, Afghanistan.

A supper when we shared a table

Secure beside the bomb blast walls,

The ketchup bottle a reminder of home,

Stands out from six months of scram.

 

I remember your humor, the polite bearing

Explaining that insane job with zeal—

Each day spending hours defusing bombs

Lying on dirt tracks, staring through sweat at wires.

 

I sat wondering how it must feel,

Almost asking the unquestionable:

Might it be a matter of time with the numbers?

Perhaps you’d already thought this through;

 

Yet you never deterred from protecting others

All the way to where you could not turn back

From the blinding hot blast demanding sacrifice, 

Taking away the scruffy cheerful calm;

 

Leaving another picture in a mosaic.

 

The way the war ends 

Medals colorfully strewn in a drawer,

A beret crumpled in a cardboard box,

Framed photos of martial exuberance,

—Scar tissue creeping down, down through the soul.

 

This is the way the war ends—

This is the way the war ends—

This is the way the war ends—

Not with a cheer but a lament. 


Sign up to receive a weekly summary of the best of Spectator USA


Show comments
Close