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Poetic Therapy: Healing Wounds Through Words of War

Chris Collins saw a lot of bad things on his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Explosions. Injured soldiers. Dead civilians. But what haunts him most is the image of a young Afghani boy, about 8 years old, who had stepped on a land mine.

He was manning a checkpoint when a man rushed up carrying the screaming child. The boy lifted what was left of his leg. It was a shard of bone. Both legs had been blown off. Two of his men who were EMTs treated the boy on the spot, trying to stop the bleeding, until the medics could take him away.

“I don’t know if he lived or died,” Collins says. “It was a centering moment for me. He makes an appearance in a lot of my poetry.”

Collins is one of the lucky ones. He survived his tours and returned home undamaged, at least physically. To treat the damage inside, he turned to poetry. He says it’s a way for him to “order the disorder” he experienced in his 12 years as a reserve officer.

“It’s therapy,” he says.

Collins got his start as a writer when he was studying business at Thomas More College. In his sophomore year, he took a creative writing course from the Franciscan writer Fr. Murray Bodo. The course—and the priest—changed his life. “I never had someone tell me I was good at something,” he says.

Collins changed his major to English, graduated in 1998 and taught at a Catholic school while studying at Xavier for his teaching degree. He graduated in 2001 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army. Then Sept. 11 happened, and he was sent to Afghanistan for eight months. He did two other tours in Iraq and left the Army in 2011.

Collins pursued poetry throughout his military career. It was while studying for a Master of Fine Arts from Murray State University that his poetry became linked with war. Now Collins is studying theology at Xavier and teaching high school English in Cincinnati. But he keeps writing.

His work has been included in two poetry anthologies, and he published a chapbook earlier this year titled Gathering Leaves for War: Poems. The title refers to the pressed fall leaves his wife and son sent him while he was in Afghanistan.

In the title poem, the father dies with the pressed leaf still in his pocket. In another, a child’s foot grazes a curb before exploding into mist and confetti. Yet another imagines cauterizing the memory of the injured boy’s legs. The poetry is helping him overcome his anger.

“I hated God for a long time,” Collins says. “How can God allow a little child to be blown to pieces? It’s always the civilian element that suffers.”

.

[divider] From Gathering Leaves for War [/divider]

Deployment Haiku
Offering us tea
after destroying your door—
hospitality.

________

Meeting
At the table of warlords
we sat cross-legged
before a whole chicken
stuffed with rice, dried
apricots and berries.

Our bearded host commanded
Khwrem, and soldiers
shoveled their fingers
into the chicken’s ass
then to their mouth
and back for more.

The young private, eighteen,
part of the security’s detail
said, “Sir” as if apologizing
for his appetite’s loss, averted
his eyes, lowered his head.

Leaning close I whispered
Khwrem,
or we’ll die going home.”

________

Deployment Haiku
A child’s torso
like a speed bump only slows
the crowded market.

[Gathering Leaves for War can be purchased through Finishing Line Press.]

 

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Xavier Magazine

Alumni Profile: Maj. Mark Smydra

Maj. Mark Smydra
Bachelor of Arts in organizational communications, 1995
Master of Education in agency and community counseling, 1996
Strategy and Plans Officer, Department of Defense
Washington, D.C.

Walk On | Smydra walked onto Xavier’s campus in 1991 and, after a year, onto the basketball team. He played four seasons, including his last as a graduate student. “I had a year of eligibility left, so I asked Coach Prosser if I could play as a fifth year walk-on, and he said I was welcome.”

Spot On | “I remember Prosser took all the tryouts into a room and said, ‘If you want to be a walk-on, you can’t get hurt, you can’t get sick, you have to get good grades and if not, then don’t try out.’ I played in 15 games, including against Georgetown in the first half of the NCAA Tournament game in 1995. We ended up losing by three points. Prosser said I would get to play, but I had caught some bug and just felt horrible when I got into the game.”

Military Liaison | After graduation, Smydra completed the Marine’s Infantry Officer Course and Scout Sniper School, among others, before a colonel recommended him for deployment to Kosovo with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in 2000. From there he was sent to Bosnia to support military operations and then to Latvia to support Latvia’s desire to enter the European Union and NATO. “We spent our time scheduling experts to train and assist the Latvians.”

SOCOM | After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Smydra was assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., which helped provide information to special operations units in Afghanistan. “The office I was in was specifically set up to support special ops units engaged in the War on Terror.”

Moving On | Smydra was assigned as the Marine Attaché in Pristina, Kosovo, in 2003. His unique experiences in special operations and foreign affairs led to additional assignments as the U.S. liaison to Turkish Special Forces in Iraq and as the Marine Attaché to Ukraine.

Fired Upon | In 2006, he went with Turkish Special Forces into Iraq and was fired upon by Peshmerga snipers. Smydra stopped his Toyota Landcruiser when one of the convoy’s Kurdish soldiers fell out with a gunshot to the head. They picked him up and sped to a hospital. “I saw him a few weeks later and he’d made a full recovery.”

The Pentagon | Now assigned to the Pentagon, Smydra drafts policy and makes recommendations affecting Marines. In short, he writes a lot of briefs and executive summaries for military and civilian leaders. “You have to be articulate, brief and effective, so all the writing and speaking skills I developed at Xavier were fantastic.”

Promotion | Smydra has been selected for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel this year. He expects to continue sharing his unique experiences with other military members, while also spending more time with his wife, Karyn, and son, Max.

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Xavier Magazine

Alumni Profile: Lt. Gen. Charles G. “Chick” Cleveland

Lt. Gen. Charles G. “Chick” Cleveland
Master of Arts in history, 1966
Retired
Montgomery, Ala.

An Ace 50 Years in the Making | Before Top Gun, there was Lt. Gen. Charles G. “Chick” Cleveland. And unlike today’s era of unmanned predator drones, Cleveland was at the controls during the dawn of the jet age, engaged in aerial dogfights over the infamous “MIG Alley” during the Korean War. His designation of “ace” was not made official for more than 50 years, but thanks to a lifelong friend and a little help from the Soviet Union, Cleveland’s place among the flying stars was eventually assured. His biography, Once a Fighter Pilot, was published in 2012.

West Point | “When I graduated from West Point in 1949, there was no Air Force Academy, so 20 percent of the graduates went into the Air Force. And I was lucky enough to be in that group. I still remember my first jet flight. The instructor said, ‘On takeoff, keep your hands off the stick and just enjoy.’ We raced off into the Arizona afternoon and it was an exhilarating feeling.”

Korea | ”When I left Korea, I had four confirmed victories, two probables and four damaged. It took five confirmed victories to become an ace in the Korean War. But I didn’t get that fifth victory confirmed because my wingman had been killed, so he couldn’t give his statement.”

The Dogfight | “I hit him hard from close range, and he went into a vertical dive into the roll cloud of a towering thunderstorm. MiGs just didn’t do that. I couldn’t follow him and I didn’t see him bail out, explode or crash, which is necessary for a confirmed kill, but I know he never got out of that thing alive.”

Ace Delayed | “One of those two ‘probably destroyed’ was confirmed as a kill some 56 years later, with new evidence from Russian records. A friend of mine, Dolphin D. Overton, discovered the records in the National Archives. Of course they were in Russian and had to be translated.”

Xavier Connection | “When I came back stateside I was assigned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base and took classes, commuting to Xavier.”

Vietnam | “I was Gen. Westmorland’s executive assistant for a year. That was the toughest year I spent in the service. Vietnam was a different war. All wars are terrible, but if you want to survive, you’ve got to fight ‘em and win ‘em.”

The Pentagon | “I served in the Pentagon from 1975-1979. My last assignment was as commander of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., home for all professional education for the Air Force.”

Retirement | “We retired in Alabama, and I was the director of the Montgomery-area United Way. I did that for seven years, and think I did the community some good. I have three volunteer jobs now—one is the president of Say No, an anti-drug coalition, the second is the president of the American Fighter Aces Association and the third is the Alabama World Affairs Council.”

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Xavier Magazine

Center Stage

Nate Davis wasn’t even back to his seat when his phone started ringing. The former Marine sergeant, who’s now director of Xavier’s Center for Veterans Affairs, received an invitation to speak at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in September about how the Post 9/11 GI Bill impacted him.

Although hesitant at first, he agreed. And as soon as his two-minute speech was complete, the emails and calls started.

“There were a slew of them,” he says. “I got calls from vets thanking me for saying what I said. I got emails from older vets who were not going to school but just wanted to talk to me. That shocked me more than anything. I got a call from a Xavier student saying that I made him proud to be a Xavier student.”

Davis’ speech was in the heart of prime time, in front of 10,000 people in the arena and several million on TV. But it almost didn’t happen.

“When I got the call, I was actually watching the Republican convention on TV with my mother,” he says. “There was so much mud slinging that I thought I didn’t want to get in the middle of that. I thought if I got on stage for one side or the other it might divide veterans because that’s not what we’re about. We’re not Democrats or Republicans. We’re veterans. I kept thinking of all the bad things that could happen.

“But my mom said, ‘Don’t let things out of your control scare you away from doing what you’re supposed to do.’ I thought, ‘She’s right. This is not about you. God just gave you a stage to tell the story of veterans and you don’t know what effect your message might have.’ So I agreed. When I got there, it felt like I was supposed to be there at that moment. I felt I had a purpose.”

What kind of impact did it have? He may never know the total impact, but two veterans enrolled at Xavier as a result—so far.

[button link=”#” color=”Blue” size=”medium” target=”blank”]Watch Davis’ Speech[/button]

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Topgun on Wall Street

When Jeffery Lay, highly decorated Naval aviator turned entrepreneur and author, went looking for a new challenge, he found it at latitude 39.148476º North, 84.547505º East—otherwise known as 3800 Victory Parkway.

Of course, Lay’s real world experiences are anything but ordinary, evidence the first paragraph on the inside book cover of his combination memoir and manifesto: “Topgun on Wall Street chronicles one man’s extraordinary journey from the cornfields of Ohio, to the cockpit of an F-14, to the boardrooms on Wall Street … that brings a provocative, ground-breaking advice to the business landscape with a revolutionary answer for stabilizing corporate America: business—the military way.”

So how did the concept of business the military way dovetail with business the Jesuit way? To Lay’s surprise, quite neatly. He readily identifies with “original entrepreneurial spirit” of the founding Jesuits. And their enthusiasm. “I believe in the Jesuit mentality. The founders were shot out of a rifle.”

It’s not a stretch to imagine that a religious order occasionally referred to colloquially as both “God’s Marines” and “The Company” would resonant with a retired Navy lieutenant commander turned businessman. Plus the environment of open and free inquiry at Xavier also appealed to Lay, allowing him to express and put his Topgun business philosophy to the test.

“It allowed me to challenge myself through a frank and open dialogue that the Jesuit method is famous for. I liked being encouraged to have an intellectually challenging conversation.”

So while a priest may never graduate from Topgun, Lay sees numerous commonalities between the military and ministry in developing a total person.

“I’m a big servant-leadership fan. A lot of corporations are hiring veterans thinking they’ll be getting highly motivated and discipline employees. Which is true. But what’s even more important is that these people grew up in a military system that put service before self. A Jesuit education is very much the same. It’s centered on the idea you’re here to serve.”

 

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Xavier Magazine

Profile: Maj. Mark Smydra

Maj. Mark Smydra
Bachelor of Arts in organizational communications, 1995
Master of Education in agency and community counseling, 1996
Strategy and Plans Officer, Department of Defense
Washington, D.C.

Walk On | Smydra walked onto Xavier’s campus in 1991 and, after a year, onto the basketball team. He played four seasons, including his last as a graduate student. “I had a year of eligibility left, so I asked Coach Prosser if I could play as a fifth year walk-on, and he said I was welcome.”

Spot On | “I remember Prosser took all the tryouts into a room and said, ‘If you want to be a walk-on, you can’t get hurt, you can’t get sick, you have to get good grades and if not, then don’t try out.’ I played in 15 games, including against Georgetown in the first half of the NCAA Tournament game in 1995. We ended up losing by three points. Prosser said I would get to play, but I had caught some bug and just felt horrible when I got into the game.”

Military Liaison | After graduation, Smydra completed the Marine’s Infantry Officer Course and Scout Sniper School, among others, before a colonel recommended him for deployment to Kosovo with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit in 2000. From there he was sent to Bosnia to support military operations and then to Latvia to support Latvia’s desire to enter the European Union and NATO. “We spent our time scheduling experts to train and assist the Latvians.”

SOCOM | After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Smydra was assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., which helped provide information to special operations units in Afghanistan. “The office I was in was specifically set up to support special ops units engaged in the War on Terror.”

Moving On | Smydra was assigned as the Marine Attaché in Pristina, Kosovo, in 2003. His unique experiences in special operations and foreign affairs led to additional assignments as the U.S. liaison to Turkish Special Forces in Iraq and as the Marine Attaché to Ukraine.

Fired Upon | In 2006, he went with Turkish Special Forces into Iraq and was fired upon by Peshmerga snipers. Smydra stopped his Toyota Landcruiser when one of the convoy’s Kurdish soldiers fell out with a gunshot to the head. They picked him up and sped to a hospital. “I saw him a few weeks later and he’d made a full recovery.”

The Pentagon | Now assigned to the Pentagon, Smydra drafts policy and makes recommendations affecting Marines. In short, he writes a lot of briefs and executive summaries for military and civilian leaders. “You have to be articulate, brief and effective, so all the writing and speaking skills I developed at Xavier were fantastic.”

Promotion | Smydra has been selected for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel this year. He expects to continue sharing his unique experiences with other military members, while also spending more time with his wife, Karyn, and son, Max.

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Xavier Magazine

Profile: Col. Paul Fellinger Jr.

Col. Paul Fellinger Jr.
Bachelor of Arts in international affairs, 1990
Garrison Commander for the U.S. Army Garrison at Presidio
Monterey, Calif.

Army Brat | Paul Fellinger Jr., has been moving since before he had motor skills. His father, Paul Fellinger Sr. (see Paul Sr.’s profile on page 41), was an Army man. So they moved from base to base, house to house. “I was born in Cincinnati and probably within six months had moved for the first time. I’ve probably lived in 30-35 different houses throughout my lifetime. My favorite places growing up were Germany and Virginia.”

International Education | As a lover of both academics and athletics, Fellinger enjoyed high school. For his first three years, he studied at the International School of Hamburg, in what used to be West Germany. There, he befriended students of different backgrounds and was exposed to cultures from places as far away as the Middle East and Asia.

Going Back | Later in life, Fellinger returned to Germany, but this time, it was for his assignment—not his father’s. He spent two years there with his wife and two daughters. “We lived in southern Bavaria and spent a lot of time in town interacting with locals, buying their food and practicing their language. I’m glad that my girls spent some time living there and getting to know the lifestyle. I don’t know how much they appreciate it yet, but they will when they get older.”

Active Duty | Since 2004, Fellinger spent nearly three and a half years on assignment in the Middle East. While in Afghanistan, he assisted in establishing local military and police forces. He also assisted the Department of State to develop rural and war-torn areas, which included involvement in the construction of schools and roads.

Snapshot | “Many people in Afghanistan, at least where I was in 2010, lived in mud huts. They’re good at building these structures, but it’s a lifestyle that we as Americans don’t think is possible. Many people there don’t have electricity. They’ve got no sewage, no plumbing. Very different from the world that we live in. But that’s their life and that’s just how they live. It’s not bad or worse than ours, just different.”

A Good Sport | “I’m a huge fan of sports and have been my whole life. When I was deployed, Xavier basketball was my connection home. I would have a bad day in Afghanistan, and if I was lucky enough to have a cable TV, at the end of the day I could pull up a Xavier basketball game. It’s something that was and still is important to me.”

There’s No Place Like Home | “During one deployment I was the commander of a squadron of just under 1,000 soldiers. My school spirit must have rubbed off on them at some point, because many became fans of Xavier basketball. Whenever I visit Cincinnati, I pick up some Skyline Chili and buy Xavier garb for them. They love it.”

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Xavier Magazine

Profile: Lt. Col. Paul Fellinger Sr.

Lt. Col. Paul Fellinger Sr.
Bachelor of Arts in history, 1967
Retired
Cincinnati

Blue Bloods | Four generations of Fellinger freshmen have now passed through Xavier’s doors—Raymond Fellinger, an English student who went on to become Xavier’s registrar; Paul Sr., a history major; Paul Jr., an international communications graduate; and Hannah, a current theology student.

Xavier Roots | “I remember when I was little and would go to the basketball games in Schmidt Fieldhouse with my dad. The building only held like 3,000 people, but it was a fun place to be during a game. The students would line the floor on temporary benches, and we would stomp on it and drive the place crazy.”

Service | When Fellinger Sr. started college, Xavier was still a field-artillery school that required all incoming students to join the ROTC program for at least two years. For his junior and senior years, Fellinger decided to stay enrolled in the program. Upon graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the U.S. Army and soon after was sent to Vietnam. After returning from his tour in Vietnam, he accepted an assignment in Germany—where his wife and children joined him.

Found in Translation | “Coming back to Cincinnati after living in Germany, you gain an appreciation for traditions from other cultures. For example, people in Cincinnati often say ‘Please?’ instead of ‘I didn’t hear you.’ That’s a total German thing. When German-speakers can’t hear what you’ve said they respond by saying ‘Bitta?’ which is the German word for please.”

Military School | Fellinger Sr. moved to Philadelphia to earn his master’s degree while simultaneously teaching for Widener University’s ROTC program. “The course I taught was called Ethics in Military Environments, and most of what I taught had to do with leadership. The class showed the theory of leadership, and I actually made the students make decisions. It might be as simple as marching a group of people, but they figured out how to navigate a group of men by practicing.“

Boot Camp Advice | “Before they enlisted, I told my two sons that, one, the officers aren’t intentionally trying to kill you, and, two, if the person to your right can keep going, and if the person to your left can keep going, then you can keep going, too.”

Soldiering On | Fellinger Sr. retired this spring from his second career as an administrator at Shriver Co., a tax firm based in Cincinnati. “I’m enjoying retirement and staying busy. My wife and I still have friends in Germany, and my son (see Paul Jr.’s profile on page 43) just moved to California. So I’m sure we’ll be doing some traveling.”

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Xavier Magazine

Profile: Lt. Gen. Charles G. “Chick” Cleveland

Lt. Gen. Charles G. “Chick” Cleveland
Master of Arts in history, 1966
Retired
Montgomery, Ala.

An Ace 50 Years in the Making | Before Top Gun, there was Lt. Gen. Charles G. “Chick” Cleveland. And unlike today’s era of unmanned predator drones, Cleveland was at the controls during the dawn of the jet age, engaged in aerial dogfights over the infamous “MIG Alley” during the Korean War. His designation of “ace” was not made official for more than 50 years, but thanks to a lifelong friend and a little help from the Soviet Union, Cleveland’s place among the flying stars was eventually assured. His biography, Once a Fighter Pilot, was published in 2012.

West Point | “When I graduated from West Point in 1949, there was no Air Force Academy, so 20 percent of the graduates went into the Air Force. And I was lucky enough to be in that group. I still remember my first jet flight. The instructor said, ‘On takeoff, keep your hands off the stick and just enjoy.’ We raced off into the Arizona afternoon and it was an exhilarating feeling.”

Korea | ”When I left Korea, I had four confirmed victories, two probables and four damaged. It took five confirmed victories to become an ace in the Korean War. But I didn’t get that fifth victory confirmed because my wingman had been killed, so he couldn’t give his statement.”

The Dogfight | “I hit him hard from close range, and he went into a vertical dive into the roll cloud of a towering thunderstorm. MiGs just didn’t do that. I couldn’t follow him and I didn’t see him bail out, explode or crash, which is necessary for a confirmed kill, but I know he never got out of that thing alive.”

Ace Delayed | “One of those two ‘probably destroyed’ was confirmed as a kill some 56 years later, with new evidence from Russian records. A friend of mine, Dolphin D. Overton, discovered the records in the National Archives. Of course they were in Russian and had to be translated.”

Xavier Connection | “When I came back stateside I was assigned to Wright Patterson Air Force Base and took classes, commuting to Xavier.”

Vietnam | “I was Gen. Westmorland’s executive assistant for a year. That was the toughest year I spent in the service. Vietnam was a different war. All wars are terrible, but if you want to survive, you’ve got to fight ‘em and win ‘em.”

The Pentagon | “I served in the Pentagon from 1975-1979. My last assignment was as commander of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., home for all professional education for the Air Force.”

Retirement | “We retired in Alabama, and I was the director of the Montgomery-area United Way. I did that for seven years, and think I did the community some good. I have three volunteer jobs now—one is the president of Say No, an anti-drug coalition, the second is the president of the American Fighter Aces Association and the third is the Alabama World Affairs Council.”

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Xavier Magazine

Profile: M. Stephanie Martin

M. Stephanie Martin

Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts, 2008

Human resources assistant,

Military Science, Xavier Cincinnati

Flying the coop | During high school, M. Stephanie Martin spent a summer in New Jersey with her uncle, a command sergeant major in the Army. “I loved the PX and the commissary,” she says. “And I liked the uniform.” She also wanted to travel. When she graduated, she moved up to Detroit, enlisted in the Army and got a uniform of her own.

Traveling wings | Martin served her first two assignments at Fort Jackson, S.C. Then she went to Fort Bragg, N.C., where she saw her first maroon berets—members of the 82nd Airborne Division. “There was something different about them,” Martin says. “They walked with their chests out.”

Leap of faith | Martin married a paratrooper in 1982 and enlisted in the 82nd in 1983. She trained, endured fortitude tests and took one final physical to be cleared for jump status. That’s when she learned she was pregnant. Two kids later, she tried again. “My first jump was the easiest,” she says. “You just jumped. The second was harder. You’re like, Hmm, I survived that one. Do I really want to do this again?”

Jump status | Martin jumped 52 times in all. How does one fall safely from the sky? “Keep everything tucked and tight, feet and knees together,” she says. As you fall, count to four. If your chute hasn’t opened by then, pull your secondary. Yield to the lower jumper, and land in a roll with five points of contact—feet, calf, thigh, butt and back. (Although usually it’s more like “feet, knees, face, or feet, butt, back-of-the-head,” she says. “It all happens really fast.”)

Around the world | Women paratroopers don’t enter combat. “I was doing HR,” she says. “But, because I was a paratrooper, I got to hang out with some really cool people.” She also got to travel to Korea twice and was a courier to Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War. (Often she didn’t know her cargo. She got stuck in Spain once because she was carrying Class B explosives.) In 2002, she served in a Joint Special Operations Command force in Uzbekistan.

Boots on the ground | Today, Martin manages the paperwork of student cadets as the human resources assistant for Xavier’s ROTC program. “Sometimes I put my mama hat on, sometimes I put my sergeant’s hat on,” she says. She gives some students their first salute when they become commissioned officers. For that, she pulls on her uniform once again.

Continuing service | In 2011, Martin received the Army’s regional Civilian of the Year award for community service. A mentor for at-risk youth, she is also a caregiver for disabled people and a signer in her church. She stays busy, even with a bad back and knee from jumping out of planes. “There’s a saying: Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” she says. “I haven’t had anything boring in my life. Even now, I’m still having the adventures of a lifetime.”

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