Vietnam War veteran shares collection of combat poetry


Post-traumatic stress disorder can be a serious problem for former veterans trying to shift back to a civilian life. This problem can be seen in veterans from most wars, but the Vietnam War is an especially dark chapter in American history that has scarred many veterans.

“I am going to share the experiences of one of America’s children who loved their country enough to kill for it, to cut short their childhood,” said John Musgrave, Vietnam War veteran in the United States Marine Corps and poet. “When it came to my generation the poor and the working class shouldered the burden.”

On Monday night in the Hemisphere Room of Hale Library, Musgrave weaved a commentary emphasizing a gritty and unheroic view of war, amidst his poems on the gruesome nature of his experiences in Vietnam.

Some poems were longer than others, but many were short and shocked the audience.

“You don’t have to speak Vietnamese to know when somebody is begging you not to kill them,” Musgrave said.

Musgrave said he often did not name his poems because he did not want to go back just to make an appealing hook for readers. On some poems, he pointed out that a title would be as long as the poem itself.

Briana Nelson Goff, director of the Institute for the Health and Security of Military Families at K-State, warned the audience of the powerful nature of the subject.

“When we say this will be an evening of poetry, keep in mind it’s war poetry,” Goff said. “Now John is a Vietnam veteran, but his words cross generations.”

Musgrave discussed thoughts of suicide and his recovery process, and also talked about war as a whole.

“There is no glory in war,” Musgrave said. “That is the most obscene lie told to children that I know of. It’s a dirty, horrifying line of work that costs us our freedom.”

Although Musgrave said he detests war, he also emphasized the kinship and brotherly bonds built in the service. In fact, Musgrave said the reason he is alive today is because of his fellow soldiers.

“We loved each other enough to die for each other, and I don’t know if you can love anybody more than that,” Musgrave said. “In fact, the last time I was wounded, my life was purchased with the lives of two of my comrades.”

Later in the evening, Musgrave read a poem on that experience, entitled “Notes to the Man Who Shot Me,” which is also the title of the book he was selling at the event.

The poem was based on his account of getting shot by an enemy, and then being used as bait to kill other members of his unit who were trying to save his life.

“Would you know all this time I have felt like your accomplice in the killing of my friends,” he said, while reading his poem. “I’ve realized we have more in common than the men who sent us to kill each other.”

Afterwards, Musgrave talked about his guilt because he only knew his two rescuers by their nicknames.

Post-traumatic stress disorder was often mentioned throughout the program. Musgrave told the audience the disorder had to be dealt with by all soldiers who faced combat. Recovery is a choice, Musgrave said.

“I am not saying this is the way it has been for every veteran, but it has for me,” he said. “Everybody has wounds from serving in combat, not everybody has scars, but everybody has wounds.”

Poetry is Musgrave’s way to deal with his trauma, and all of the poems were intensely personal. He discussed how veterans had to find their own way to deal with their personal scars.

Despite the darkness of the poems, Musgrave’s work also had a hopeful note because he realized he was now living for all the men who had died in his unit.

“Sleep is a nightmare is it not?” Musgrave said. “How could it be otherwise? To live with my pain and horrors is still to live. I know many who if they could but speak could tell me how lucky I am.”

One of the most horrifying stories Musgrave told involved seeing a buddy walk off the trail only to get vaporized by an explosive device. Musgrave then recounted collecting the meager remains in a bag and sending it back to the man’s family.

“Putting this on paper has often been like sticking a finger down my throat and throwing up, or lancing a boil,” Musgrave said.

After Musgrave finished his presentation, the audience members gave him a standing ovation.

Anne Schmitz, senior in family studies and human services, said she enjoyed the topic.

“I loved it, I’m the intern for this – I kind of helped set this up,” Schmitz said. “I think it’s something everyone should hear. It’s very powerful.”