Vermont soldier pens war stories

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BURLINGTON -- When Thomas Middleton headed off to Iraq in mid-2005 with the Vermont National Guard, he thought of himself as a combat medic, a firefighter taking a break from his job -- not as an author.

Urged by his wife to write, however, he drew from his war journal and e-mails with people at home, to pen "Saber’s Edge, a Combat Medic in Ramadi, Iraq."

Middleton, without meaning to, has joined a long and distinguished line of authors who wrote of their war experiences -- some of whom, like Ernest Hemingway after World War I or Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut from World War II, became giants of American literature.

Almost eight years after the United States went to war in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, war memoirs like Middleton’s and books by reporters, diplomats and retired generals are filling store shelves.

Middleton’s book gives readers a glimpse into the world that few people outside the military know: The horrors of combat, the emotional struggles of trying to balance the need to kill with the Christian admonition of "thou shall not kill," and the emotional acceptance of the ultimate reality of war.

At the time, between mid-2005 and mid-2006, Ramadi, in the so-called Sunni Triangle, was one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. Most people back home only heard what happened to his battalion when a member was killed in combat -- and then it was only the barest outline.

"I just figured I was going to die there, but it wasn’t my job to give up the fight, it was my job to continue the mission, to take as many of those bad guys with me as I could before it happened," said Middleton, 41, of Essex, who is now promoting his book, published by the University Press of New England.

The National Endowment for the Arts in Washington is encouraging Iraq combat soldiers to write about their experiences. Jon Peede, who directs the "Operation Homecoming" writing project, says memorable work is being produced.

"That human story of service, sacrifice, of fear and the immediacy of that fear, that’s something that connects with everyone," said Peede. "The need to testify to their experiences seemed to be overwhelming."

Some of the best writings collected through Operation Homecoming have been included in an anthology first published in 2006 and updated last year.

While communication is almost instantaneous these days between folks at home and service members in Afghanistan and Iraq, the writings haven’t changed much from past wars, says a teacher of military literature at Norwich University, the nation’s oldest private military college, in Northfield, Vt.

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"They fall into this tradition that has been going on all the way back to Homer," said Lea Williams, an associate professor of English.

"The similarities of theme, wherever the writer seems to be coming from, they write about the same issues: The anticipation of going to war, seeing that as a way of proving one’s masculine identity then talking about the reality of warfare, the shock that despite training there’s no way to prepare for that reality," said Williams, who teaches military literature.

"I would add boredom, in almost all these stories there’s talk of the boredom of war," she said. "Then there are the difficulties of homecoming, of not being able to share the common experience and feeling alienated, even from one’s families and friends."

Middleton wrote unaware of the tradition he was joining. He said he had read some of the earlier works, but was unaware of Operation Homecoming. Still, he touched on many of the same themes.

He describes in detail a March 1, 2006, ambush in Ramadi that killed Vermont National Guard Spc. Christopher Merchant, of Hardwick, and critically injured Jose Pequeno, of Lisbon, N.H., who was serving as a staff sergeant with Task Force Saber. Middleton said he got the OK from the families of both men to recount the battle.

Merchant was killed and Pequeno wounded when insurgents threw a hand grenade into their vehicle. Middleton, serving as an armed medic, saved Pequeno’s life and helped quell the attack during the 45-minute firefight.

"I could see from my tracers that my rounds were going low," Middleton wrote. "As I walked my rounds onto target, with the barrel resting on the back of a Humvee, some of the enemy positions stopped firing."

Middleton, a lifelong Catholic, acknowledges he killed people in Iraq. He also talks about the spiritual journey he went on to reconcile the commandment against killing with warfare and protecting his country, his fellow soldiers and himself.

"I knew that our way of life was paid for with the blood of patriots. I was taught and I fully accepted that in the defense of lives and liberty, evil men must die," Middleton wrote.

Another unintended consequence of Middleton’s book was that it allowed him to work through his feelings in the aftermath of war. After psychological counseling, he returned to his job as a firefighter and his part-time civilian job as an emergency room nurse. He ends the book with a vignette of him helping deliver a baby.

He’s not quitting his job as a Burlington firefighter, but, like many of the war memoirists who came before him, Middleton is starting work on a piece of fiction.

"I do intend to finish it," Middleton said. "It’s easy, it’s fun. It’s an interesting pastime to write. I enjoy it."


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