UMSL alumnus Charles H. Brown

Charles H. Brown, a Vietnam War veteran, reads from his poem “Long Days Journey into Light” in the Mercantile Library at UMSL last week. Brown, BA English 1982, was one of six veteran authors featured for the launch of the book “Proud to Be: Writing by Warriors, Volume 2,” a collaboration of the Missouri Humanities Council, Warriors Arts Alliance and Southeast Missouri State University Press. (Photo by Dak Dillon for Missouri Humanities Council)

“The real damage of war is never going to be known unless those who have been there share their stories,” Colin Halloran told the audience gathered Nov. 15 in the Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Halloran, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and a poet, was on hand for the launch of the anthology “Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volume 2.” Edited by Susan Swartwout, the book was made possible through the collaboration of the Missouri Humanities Council, Warriors Arts Alliance and Southeast Missouri State University Press.

The Mercantile Library hosted the readings in connection with its exhibit “War and Healing: Artwork from the Combat Paper Project.”

Six veterans told their stories in powerful, often heartbreaking words.

Charles H. Brown, a veteran of the Vietnam War, said he was a 19-year-old buck sergeant when he enlisted in the Army in 1970.

“Little did I know that decision would define who I am today,” Brown said.

He read from his first published poem, “Long Days Journey Into Light,” about dawn on his last day in Vietnam in 1972.

“Like a giant green snake the bodies squirm along bathed in sweat, throats parched,
Eyes dazed. Just like the army to force an endless formation on the last day in-country.
So close to being a civilian you can feel it:
The soft denim of your favorite jeans cools your legs…
The fading taste of the last Big Mac lingers on your tongue…”

Brown returned home to the St. Louis area and alternated college on the G.I. Bill with work as a carpenter. He earned a degree in English from UMSL in 1982.

He credits his fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Golden, for “striking a spark in me” when she read a poem to the class.

“I held on to that spark and wrote my first poem when I was 19,” Brown said.

He’s written in a journal every day since 1975 and some of it took the form of poetry.

Brown worked for the City of Webster Groves in maintenance for 26 years, “because I had a family to support and couldn’t make any money writing poetry,” he said. But when he retired in 2011, he took up poetry full time. He is taking writing classes at Jefferson Barracks VA Center in south St. Louis County.

Tim Leach, another Vietnam veteran, returned to St. Louis and worked as a writer – journalism, advertising and public relations – for 40 years. When he retired, he enrolled in classes in UMSL’s MFA in Creative Writing program. His poetry has appeared in 23 journals and four regional anthologies.

From “Little Lead Omens,” Leach read,

“Our joyful fingers ripped the Christmas wrap
as crisp as full-dress uniforms from boxed squads
of little lead soldiers.
Sprung from dye-cut cardboard foxholes,
Molded to heroic poses, our troops
Always won toy wars boys waged…”

The other authors reading their works included: Jay Harden, Andy Anderson, Charity Winter and Pamela Foster, whose husband is a Vietnam veteran.

The second volume of “Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors,” edited by Susan Swartwout, can be purchased from Southeast Missouri State University Press or Amazon.

The exhibit “War and Healing: Artwork from the Combat Paper Project” has been created by veterans through papermaking workshops. Cutting their uniforms and beating them into pulp, the veterans create sheets of paper, which are then used for prints, books or molded into sculpture. The exhibit contains dramatic and compelling works that vividly convey the emotional impact of the combat experience and its aftermath. The exhibit, in the second floor gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Library on UMSL’s campus, runs through Jan. 6.

Maureen Zegel

Maureen Zegel