The following contribution is from Jacquelyn M. Howard, who co-authored Wounded Warriors: A Soldier’s Story of Healing through Birds (Potomac Books 2014), with Robert C. Vallieres. Vallieres is a Persian Gulf War veteran. Vallieres received a BA in Fine Arts from Notre Dame College in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Spirit of New Hampshire Volunteer of the Year award in 2009. Howard is an environmental management specialist, naturalist, avian field biologist, and writer. Wounded Warriors is a soldier’s story about the healing and recuperative power of birds and bird watching.
I met Robert Vallieres, a disabled vet, in the winter of 2010. Some might say it was serendipity, others say that our meeting was destiny and others agree it was Heaven bending close to the earth and whispering in our ears that it was time for a change—a change in both our lives that only a chance encounter could evoke. I am fortunate to have met Robert. He has added a grace and a dignity to my life, a depth of purpose through suffering, a story of pragmatic survival in a cold, northern clime where nature rules and there is ample room to roam at will into wild and untamed places.
We agreed to write his memoir together and Potomac Books was gracious enough to believe in the book and in us. Three-quarters of the way to finishing, Robert suffered a second aortic aneurysm and Potomac Books was acquired by the University of Nebraska Press, a press we were not previously working with. Robert went cold for almost six weeks while I frenetically tried to make final edits and decisions that I believed were best for the manuscript, trying my best to honor his voice. Robert pulled through again against all odds, the book was published with UNP under the new Potomac Books imprint, and we are happy that Wounded Warriors: A Soldier’s Story of Healing through Birds is in print.
The following excerpt showcases Robert’s prose and poetry. Also included are displays some of his sketches not included in the final book—all wrought from a place of deep brokenness and longing, expressed through his insightful view of nature, birds and his own vulnerability.
From Chapter 27: Self-Authentication
“Self-Authentication is the act of proving that something is genuine or true without the use of extrinsic evidence.” —Anonymous
Prominent Like a Jousting Spear
They sit around the truth
like martyred saints
the strong ship tilting
the mast snaps under
the unbearable weight
of the wind
still afloat battered and torn
military veteran separated
handicapped disabled veteran
rolled into one
health complaint mortality study
environmental hazards related disorder
epidemiology, neuro-behavioral, neuro-endocrinology,
neuro-toxicology, dermatology and
expected after exposure,
melting liquid drips, drips;
its sounds I hear like ringing in my ear;
something happened to me over there—
now, to stand in the society of nowhere.
The dew turns to ice
The colors of green,
Triggered by cool breezes,
Turn into many colors that
Give this season its name—
Fall, autumn, third quarter equinox.
Life’s a game as I reach to catch
A leaf in my hand before it falls
To earth, I witness—
And, in the fall I learn
To fall gracefully.
The problem with people is they all think they know better. Do they know better, or do they just need to be hit in the head like me to see how they function? I didn’t ask to be this way. So is everybody else perfect and am I not? Am I to blame for my improper function or am I the fault of another? Was I simply in the wrong place at the right time, or vice versa? An Army Lieutenant caused this problem and he has the education and training not to have caused it. As for me, I have to deal with it. Who can make it okay? Is there a title for somebody who has this problem–of cause and effect outside one’s control? If so, what is it? There’s a VCR tape of the way this thing occurred with me and now there’s a written observation and now all this documentation is getting in the way of my proper function, they say. But who is the “they?” Reality is ugly for me and I’m hostile and upset. I could really hurt somebody or something. I feel like killing peregrine falcons! If I had a gun I’d go right now and kill the banded ones in the nest and bring the dead baby birds to them, the “they” just to make my point. I feel so small and I feel like I’ve been pissed on and dragged through the mud. How can I help myself? I feel so low. I wish I was a yellow-spotted salamander. Nobody needs to see me, hidden and hard to find, a lowly serpent slithering underneath creation.
Nation’s Symbol on my arm inside the rehabilitation cage
Its strength surpasses mine,
My arm shivers in awe,
Feeding, it engulfs each mouse,
Eight in all.
Raptor encounter, calls Aw, Aw, Aw, Aw.
First day it perched on me
As if I were the tree,
Medal of Honor, then its heart beat in me;
A true gift, a blessing from above;
Nation’s symbol to cherish and to love.
Up on the Hill
There I’ll go
To watch a show
Way up where the hawks fly by
Man, so glad I didn’t die.
Up on the hill today
Bald Eagle, Cooper’s hawk
And, Sharp-shinned too.
All up on the hill
So far away from Desert’s kill.
Where fliers without props fly by
And, me, so glad to be alive!
From Chapter 39: Recap
I am Robert Vallieres, and I wanted to be a career soldier even since I can remember. But that did not happen; my career was cut short by an injury sustained in wartime but not on the battlefield, not outside the wire, but by “friendly fire,” material handling gone awry, and my head paid the price, as well as my heart and health. [But] I have found my new walk, and writing this story is another chapter in my becoming Robert “Abled,” not Robert “Disabled.”As Robert Frost challenges us—dare to take the road less traveled and truly experience making a difference—in your own world and in the world outside of you. Utilize what you have and caretake with dignity and grace those parts that are less than whole or that no longer function, respond to, or grasp things the way they once did. Let yourself experience a new outlook, a new hobby, a renewal of self in nature, a healing connection with birds, soaring above the critical mass… and experience your own self-healing and recovery on the wing!