War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

this site

this site is my online diary, my open sketchbook from three years of watching a Canadian infantry battalion, 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (1PPCLI) prepare for, go to, then return from war.

I started this work when I wrote an Elegy for Cpl. Anthony Boneca a young reservist who was killed June 9th, 2006, by a sniper in Afghanistan. it was an immediate response as a poet to a tragedy beyond our experience, an elegy being a communal form of grief.

I needed to get the images correct, the opening line: In fields of grapevines and hot white dust/Afghanistan… I was stuck on the colour of dust in Afghanistan. I couldn’t determine the colour of the talcum powder fine dust through either photographs or videos online and so I called DND and asked to speak to a young vet. after clearing with chain of command, a young vet, Cpl D (he wishes to remain anonymous), who had just returned from A’stan agreed to meet me. we talked and talked, he showed me photos, told me stories. I watched him unwind over 6 months post-tour. a natural communicator, Cpl D filled my head and my work with images.

meanwhile I received a call from John MacFarlane, head of the Canadian Forces Artist Program (CFAP) telling me I should apply to be an official war artist participant in the civilian volunteer program. when I said to him, “I’m not an artist” I was referring to Canada’s long history of sending painters into the theatre of war.
John responded, “we’ve never had a poet apply. you’re not a shoe-in by any means, but send an application and portfolio and the committee will review it” only one member from the military are on the committee. it is filled with artists, archivists, academics…

amazingly, because I’m a nobody, I was one of 5 artists chosen. with my family’s blessing I began this work. I will be forever grateful to them. to love someone, to really love someone, is to let them become the person they were meant to be. my young daughter and my aged mother, the two with the most to lose should I be lost, both stood by me the entire way. they still do.

as CFAP only offers a very limited experience of a few weeks with the troops, I knew if my work was to have any meaning that I’d have to do a lot of research. I knew nothing of the military and couldn’t tell the difference between a Major and a Sgt Major, a Captain and a Colonel (and I’m NOT joking). as far as I was concerned, I though a LAV was a toilet and not a Light Armoured Vehicle. having the CFAP designation as an official war artist opened door after door after door for me.

to rectify my ignorance I flew to Edmonton and with the aid of an excellent PAFFO (Public Affairs Officer) doors opened onto another way of life, a different culture (language, clothing, ritual, food, shelter, work) than I ever imagined. what I never imagined in a million years was how this work was to alter my personal life. turn it upside down. from fat housewife to PhD candidate (fully funded award) in another country, from Canada to Afghanistan to another country all in the span of 3 years. from a modest publishing history (I started writing seriously in 2006) to being interviewed by the BBC World Service…

I began my research first at Wainwright where I had a behind the scenes look at how the military are trained in a dress rehearsal. then later at Edmonton, a funeral for one of the fallen, MCpl Aaron Doyle it was then I wrote August Widow. I remember being led through the barrier past all the clicking cameras then into the church. I stood at the back, looked at the suntanned necks of those just home from A’stan. a few of them in wheelchairs. a few of them restless, so restless they shifted their weight left to right, right to left, a foot unable to stop. and I remember seeing the brothers in uniform carrying their comrade so gently into the church. his casket draped in the Canadian flag. the utter tenderness of these tough men struck me profoundly. the silence of a church broken by tears. it was a cold November day in August.

later that day I was take to the Patricia lines where by pure accident I was introduced to the new CO Jerry Walsh who was on his way to a basketball game with his men. the CO invited me all the way on the Road to War with his battalion. show up, we’ll look after you he said. I did. they did. he kept his promise. I owe him everything.

Walsh understood what I wanted to see. he never once restricted me from talking to anyone or seeing anyone. I was NEVER EVER told what I could or could not write. once I even managed to get the CO jacked up. but that’s a story for another day.

Walsh and the infanteers understood in particular what I sensed I was looking for when I said to the Patricias that I wanted to see them AFTER they came home. they said, no one has asked to see us after. but I knew this was the most important part of the story. and that’s why this site is still running. two days ago I was invited by a mother and father to attend a ceremony honouring their son. I knew their son. killed 18 months ago. the second year hard, hard. (I know this from losing a niece) because reality sets in. we held hands. and as with the Spec. Forces guy who held my hand as we made our ‘combat landing’ at KAF wrote to me a year afterwards, “I needed to hold your hand as much as you needed to hold mine. I was afraid of all I had to lose”. the thing is, we are all in this together. no matter how hard I tried to remain distant to these people, never socialized with them, always called them by their rank never their first names, always kept a distance, it’s inevitable especially in a war environment when any of us could be dead within the year, to form some bond. then afterwards, dealing with, witnessing the Jacob struggle with PTSD. everyone carrying at least a shiver of it in their bodies.

after Edmonton, I was at Wainwright with the chain smoking Van Doos (salut Sgt B!), learned night watch (the green glow of their underworld), spoke rusty French. slept in a leaguer in the Battle River Valley. hung with the engineers at their LAV because they had the best coffee. engineers ALWAYS have the best coffee. learned basic infantry survival… listen, obey orders, run like hell, eat lots of tylenol.

after that I went on my first big Ex with the Patricias at Shilo. it was at Shilo Manitoba where I first tasted rations, rode in the gunner’s hatch to watch stab runs and night fire, slept in a BAT with the boys from Admin (they started me out easy by giving me officer’s quarters first, then a cot in a BAT, then a sleeping bag and a space in a pup tent between 3 infantry riflemen pups, then finally no bed, just a space on a bench inside a LAV, squished up against the turret where I slept in full body armour alongside 8 young guys in full ‘battle rattle’ popping ibuprofen – infantry smarties). at Shilo I watched Delta Coy, the rifle company I grew to know the best, being born. I hung with the medics (never wear contacts in the field), learned how to climb a LAV (3 point contact at all times), hang on to the metal lip of the gunner’s hatch while the vehicle bombed down a road.

after Shilo and my intro to the Karl G, there was Wainwrighistan, then Edmonton for Christmas week, dinner in the hangar, drinks in the officer’s mess with the senior NCO’s being hosted, a hockey game (go Sgt J go the men shouted as Sgt J checked the officers, took no prisoners), then Edmonton for COIN talks, Dinner in the Officer’s Mess (wearing THAT DRESS), Suffield in the spring (live fire, the dreaded GI that had 1000 of us quarantined, death by suicide in the field, a flag half-mast), then Wainwright the dress rehearsal with D Coy, a few days with the Afghans in the villages, me dressed in a burka and then a veil, summer, Family Day in the autumn weeks before deployment, Afghanistan, the long winter as 12 died, 8 of whom I spent time with in the field and A’stan, repatriation at Trenton of a young boy I knew, a boy I fed chocolate chip cookies to and spent time on sentry with and laughed with and made bets with…

the whole year before deployment I looked at the young troops and thought to myself, it could be you, or you, or you, or you… and part of me wondered if it might be me to die. unlikely as they protected me, over-protected me really, but still, anything was possible.

I remember sitting with the OC’s wife at breakfast in Kingston after the repatriation ceremony we attended with the young soldier’s family, the Governor General, the CDS, the Min. of Defence, the Afghan Ambassador, the brass, the chalk that accompanied the boy home. it was hours after the rifle company had come inside the wire for the last time. I was congratulating her that her husband was finally safe when I had a message that KAF had been rocketed and for once real damage had been done. we found out later that several of D Coy’s men were within metres of where the rocket landed on the boardwalk, including the OC. then, a few days later, what rockets couldn’t do (delay the homecoming), a volcano in Iceland did. delayed the long trip home.

in the spring I attended a memorial, a change of command. then November, a major reading of soldiers’, their families’ words at In Arms in Edmonton. we mentored poets for 9 months then read their work. we had a live band, and photographs from soldiers’ tours.

Remembrance Day I spent with some Patricias, a father, sons, an officer, a senior NCO. I walked Whyte Ave and saw the boys in DUs and their A’stan medals smoking outside bars. they greeted their Sgt Maj, my escort, how’s it going sir? didn’t get jacked up by the Sgt Maj, (his chest jangling with medals) for not wearing tunics because it was Rem Day. that night we watched the CBC special on television, saw the faces of those we knew dead. wept.

then friendship where friendship previously had been avoided. I always tried to keep personal distance with them until I thought I was through my work.

and now phone calls, txts. emails. visits. distance. closeness. distance. wellness. illness. thriving. one of them chopped my winter wood. another snowshoed with me. one of them held me close in a time of crisis. another brushed my hair, shared her life with me, gave me a bed to sleep in. others have picked me up, rushed me from an emotionally challenging memorial service to an emotionally charged interview (thanks Mac!). I have felt love and loss and fear with them..I hear from them. family and soldiers. almost every day still. not just Canadians. a UK Col., two time Afghan, Iraq commander corresponds. a British Capt. sends his poetry. and this website has had over 80,000 hits. I’ve received over 9,000 emails, letters.

then at Christmas the War Museum in Ottawa, A Brush With War, I met 13 other war artists. rare birds. it felt good to be with those who understand. oh, and I met the glorious Flora MacDonald too. she was my guest. my 14 year old and Flora got on like a house on fire. kindred spirits… yes, Generals, Colonels of the Regiment, newly minted Privates, NCOs, Officers, a desert diver (CIED pacem P!), an OSSIS vet who keeps his eye on me, checks me to see if I’m okay…

and my fellow war artists, especially Scott Waters, ex-infantry. we write each other about everything. we get it. we get it.

and this website:

unedited, beta. the good, the bad, the really bad, and the ugly writing. lousy punctuation. mixed metaphors. tsk tsk tsk writing. my words stuck like a LAV in Suffield mud. heavy. plodding. FAIL FAIL FAIL. then maybe a line of WIN.

Come Wage Words my brilliant colleague Alice Major the poet says. yes Alice, come wage words.

and when asked why do I write about war I reply, there are only two subjects worth writing about… war and peace. besides, war is to paraphrase Dick Averns another war artist colleague.

‘they’ always ask, where/when’s the book? a book. that elusive thing. yesterday an editor who has published a few of my pieces in a gorgeous, gorgeous visual arts and design magazine (I’m her first poet she’s published) wrote to say she thinks paper artifacts may be on their way out.

meanwhile I’m busy with my Afghan Requiem, Requiem for a Generation (symphony/choral premiere Nov. 2012) and collaborating with Vancouver cartoonist on a graphic novel Shitshow, the Fortune of War. lots more to come. a PhD in the UK.

a new life. no longer a fat wife I guess. just someone trying to make sense of a period of time. a generation’s trial by fire.

wish me luck.


2 Comments (Closed)

Joan Dixon

And don’t forget the anthology: your personal essay about being embedded on the homefront! There’s a lot of meat in this posting…

Jul 21 2011 · 14:11

Alex VanderWoude

I followed a link from Small Dead Animals to your website long ago, and for some reason was immediately hooked. Perhaps it was because of the raw honesty and “beta-ness” of this site, I don’t know. Your words helped fill a void in me about just what the heck our kids are doing over there and how they’re coping. Thank you for that.

Jul 23 2011 · 14:10

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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled this site. It was posted here on July 21, 2011.

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