"Poetry as Medicine" by Veteran Technical Sergeant Omar Columbus
Invisible scars tattooed forever in my psyche
Flashbacks daily, nightmares nightly
In the air, we fight
In the sand, we fight
On the sea, we fight
From outer space, we fight
Addicted to war
With no end in sight
War itself is an art
A devastatingly terrible beauty
Every detail is a mission
The mission back then
The mission now
My name is Omar Columbus and I am a United States Air Force Veteran living in New York City. I am an artist, at least when I allow myself to be one. I have been through a lot in my life, some good, and some bad, and am learning daily to express my experiences. The medicating words flow from my heart through the poems and short stories that I write. They free me from my past, and the burdens that I carry every day. Through art and poetry I continue to grow, forgive, and heal my life, and wounds, through my own words. What is written above is from my poem titled “War” that I wrote recently about my feelings while deployed.
I truly value the twelve years of experience that I gained while on active duty. I achieved more than what many people I grew up around ever expected I could do. In the military I was able to climb through the ranks. I was a leader. I had troops that were in battle under my supervision. It was hard to believe that I, Technical Sergeant Columbus, was the very same man that, as a boy, had to run home from the school bus, through the woods, to avoid fighting the three trailer park bullies who consistently picked on me. In my mind, I had beaten the odds that my world had already set for me. As if growing up as a poor, black, and closeted-gay church boy, in a small eastern North Carolina town, was not tough enough. Being the oldest of three children to a single mother, I did not have many options after high school graduation. Joining the Air Force was my best move. It was an escape for me. An escape from everything and everyone that I was afraid of. I was afraid of my family and friends. I was convinced that there was no way that God loved me. The pastor told me when I was nine years old that all fags belong in hell. My uncle told me at sixteen years old that the “Army don’t want no sissies!” I was terrified that if my momma and the rest of my family found out that I was gay, they would not love me anymore. I would be all alone and unable to survive.
The Air Force taught me how to survive. Boot camp was the toughest challenge that I had ever faced. There were many times that I had to stand tall in the face of danger. I had never worn combat boots in my life before basic training. When I got there, I could do nothing right. It was 0445 on the second day there. Half asleep, getting dressed, and running down three flights of stairs, I was in last place, chasing after sixty other trainees falling into formation. We had less than four minutes from wake up to that moment. Drill Sergeant had instantly focused on my unlaced boot during morning inspection. I was a slow learner with the proper wearing of military fashion, but I was smart at memorization. Drill Sergeant spotted me out in the sea of camouflage, and he swiftly marched and pivoted over to me, stopping directly in front of me, toe-to-toe and with a stern voice, he asked me why my one boot was unlaced. I just stood there with my eyes forward, looking directly into his pointy Adam’s apple that constantly moved up and down like a horse on a carousel. I did not say a word. I knew enough to not volunteer any information, so I stayed silent. I could feel the heat from his flaring nostrils begin to form a cloudy spot on my forehead with his every breath. Frustrated because I did not answer about the boot lace, Drill Sergeant took a deep inhale and in his strongest command voice screamed, “What’s a 323’rd trainee?” Drill Sergeant did not think that I had memorized the squadron chant that he had given to all us just before we had gone to bed a few hours earlier.
I paused for a second, and then yelled back at the top of my lungs,
“SIR, A 323’RD TRAINEE IS
TRUE TO THE COUNTRY
TRUE TO THE FLAG
LOYAL TO THE END
FINEST OF THE LAND
ALWAYS ON TOP
CREME OF THE CROP
CAN’T BE STOP
Drill Sergeant was impressed, and he backed away. Things got better for me as I continued to learn to survive. Over the next twelve years, I was stationed all over the world, everywhere from Spain to Japan and Korea. I began my career working in Logistics Readiness and later retrained in Military Intelligence. I was fortunate enough to be able to see the world while in the Air Force. The most shocking thing that I learned from my time in the military, was the racism extended around the world. I thought it was just The South. I was stationed in a few countries where I was stunned when finding out the locals did not want their daughters to have relations with the black troops. The discrimination did not affect my love life personally, yet it did hurt a bit mentally and emotionally. It tapped into my childhood memories of me being teased by peers and me not feeling good enough, mainly because I was gay. The Air Force changed that. I was awarded numerous Commendations and Achievement medals while on active duty. I still remember everything I had to go through to earn them. At the same time of honor there was still the shame. All of the personal and professional sacrifice while serving under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Protecting the freedom of others and forced to lie and deny to fit in. I was not alone though. Along the way I made some amazing friends who will forever be “family”.
Being deployed over to the Middle East in 2003 to fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom forever changed me. I did not realize it at that moment. I was brave when I wanted to be scared. I was over there doing America’s business. It came with a price tag. War, it stole my peace. I haven’t slept soundly a single night since returning. Only with therapy and creativity have I found a way to begin letting go of the pain from the damaging military operations that I have been a part of, and the guilt of living when friends that I love are now gone. I served in the Air Force from 1994 to 2006. There were periods during my career that were more than overwhelming: Stress, depression, the pressure of combat, and the stress of trying to be “man enough” for everybody else, and not “man enough” for myself. I was discharged from the Air Force in 2006 for a seizure disorder, though I never had seizures prior to my military service. After being medically discharged from active duty I enrolled in the Veterans Administration (VA), for my medical care. After numerous treatments, the VA discovered no seizure activity. I was diagnosed with Post traumatic stress, yet it is not connected to my military service. I have been fighting for over eight years now trying to get service-connection. I will continue to fight. It is unfortunate what we Veterans go through trying to claim benefits through the VA system. We are sadly over medicated. Especially combat veterans. The VA prescribes a pill for everything. Nightmares, there’s a pill for that. Depression, there are tons of pills for that. Hearing voices, the VA issues pills for that too. I feel like I was once an asset to America, now I am a liability.
Creativity works well for me. Days when life is hard and I feel like giving up, I can always take a photograph or write a poem to get outside of my thoughts for a moment. Even though it is only a temporary fix, creating something that I would be willing to share with others brings a lightness to my heart. I have met a lot of veterans that are sad. I am sad at times too. I am finding my happiness. It comes when I read my poems to others, it comes when I share stories with coworkers and friends about my time in the military. It comes when I am all alone with my camera and the world around me. I wish that I could share that feeling with other veterans. I understand pain. I have tried other means of escaping pain. I have to make a choice every single day of my life, everyday to live. Push through pain. Survive.
I started writing poems about my combat experience in 2011 with a group called Warrior Writers NYC. It is a writing group for veterans learning to heal, share, and express their combat experiences through short stories and poetry. I read my combat poems with Warrior Writers at our invitation to the Dodge Poetry Festival 2016 and most recently the New York City Poetry Festival 2017. I like poetry because it does not have to follow the rules. I was forced to follow the rules for so many years. It feels good to be free to just express and speak my truth.
Poetry has helped me in so many ways. The confidence lost after separation, and the resilience to come back. I struggle daily to break through personal barriers and write my truth. The struggle is like when I was driving convoys overseas, the road was tough and there were roadblocks, but eventually I made it home. From one day to the next, from my daydreams to my nightmares, it never goes away. The paranoia, fear of war, guilt from combat, and the struggle of being a veteran lingers. Writing makes it a little easier.
Below is a continuation of the above poem titled, “War”.
Attack is imminent
Chemical warfare gear at arms reach
Two minutes to ready the ground ensemble
Nine seconds to don and clear the gas mask
Missions ordered by humans
Directed to other humans
To fly aircraft and
Drop bombs on certain humans
Because those humans are bad
Sounding the cadence of war
Someone is going to be bombed today
I don’t want it to be me
Someone is going to die today
I don’t want it to be me
Someone is going to kill today
I don’t want it to be me
Suffering begins today
And it begins in me
Daily I try to forgive myself
For my acts that were not always peaceful
It was my duty
In defense of my nation
War makes murders out of decent people
No one wins
Thank you Omar for sharing your story. Be well.