By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsDecember 13, 2018
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Dec. 13, 2018) -- Poetry has long served as a medium for capturing military history and the raw emotions of those who have experienced it.
"It may seem strange to some, but in reality there is a deep tradition and connection between poetry and military history," said Sepp Scanlin, 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum director. "One of the earliest canons of western literature is an epic poem called 'The Iliad,' that talks about war. Since that time, warriors and poetry have been inseparable."
That was the theme for this year's final meeting of the Maj. Gen. Fox Conner Professional Reading Group, held Dec. 11 at LeRay Mansion.
"Poetry has served to motivate, to console and to process war and conflict for both Soldiers and civilians," Scanlin said. "Although history may be imperfect within the poetry or shrouded in the literary language, the poems themselves can delve deep into the motivations and impacts of war and conflict in much broader ways than simple history."
Scanlin said that poetry is equally part of the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum story, and he introduced two veterans - one retired and one active - who are published poets.
Paul David Adkins, a career counselor at Fort Drum Soldier for Life-Transition Assistance Program and a retired senior noncommissioned officer from the 10th Mountain Division (LI), served as guest speaker and read from his recently published anthology "Dispatches from the FOB."
Adkins received a master's degree in fine arts and poetry from Washington University before enlisting in the U.S. Army. He served tours in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan during his 21-year career.
"It was only after returning from Afghanistan that he began writing poetry again after a 12-year hiatus, specifically to process his experiences there and in Iraq," Scanlin said. "Like all Soldiers who have chosen to serve, he experienced strange and wonderful lands, endured family separations and other hardships."
Between each reading, Adkins provided context for each poem and insight on his thought process of writing. He said that while the media covers "big news stories" about overseas operations, everyday life that occurs in between those major events is often overlooked.
"Those were the stories that compelled me to write," he said. "What I had to do, and what I had hoped these poems would do was to help me cycle through my experiences."
Adkins said that a military map has the ability to condense things down to symbols - friendly forces, a blue rectangle or a red diamond for enemy forces.
"When you look at the map, you see these symbols and know there was an IED (improvised explosive device) here or maybe small arms fire there, but the stories behind them are very compelling," he said.
Following Adkins, Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, read a selection of his published and unpublished works. His first publication, "She Came to the Door to Wave Good-bye," is a collection of poems he wrote to his wife Cynthia during his first deployment from Fort Drum. Later, he published "Paktika," named for an Afghan province where he served as commander of the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment.
"I tried to tell the Soldiers' story, but for me poetry writing is very therapeutic," he said. "I wrote it as a way to talk to someone. I could talk to a piece of paper or a computer, but I couldn't talk to many folks, especially as a commander."
Piatt commended Adkins on capturing the subtleties experienced by Soldiers on deployments - random occurrences that happened and are forgotten, but can only be experienced from time spent living in a tent city or on a desolate forward operating base.
"I think some poets really live in the moment and just capture all the little things that often fly by us in life that you don't realize," Piatt said.
Also in attendance were Jefferson Community College students enrolled in History 261: Dialogues of Honor and Sacrifice. Funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, the course was designed for veterans to explore the concept of honor and sacrifice through the prism of combat and conflict.
Students were invited to step forward and read their own poems, written as a capstone project for the course. After several silent moments passed, the first of several students approached the podium - each one encouraged and supported by one another with applause and praise.
"Prior to the evening, they were unanimous in agreement that they did not feel comfortable, and they would not be willing to read their poems publicly," said Craig McNamara, educational coordinator for veterans services at Jefferson Community College. "However, after (Maj.) Gen. Piatt shared his writings and Mr. Scanlin's kindness and warmth was all it took to bring their courage out."
McNamara said that the students felt proud and accomplished about participating in the poetry reading.
"Their joy and pride were palpable and evident," he said. "Our student-veterans are amazing and, for these veterans, this singular moment was transformative and empowering. I cannot express how proud I was of them, and how grateful I am to (Maj.) Gen. Piatt for his willingness to read his works. He set a strong example to these men and women and they willingly faced their fears and followed his courage."
Scanlin also was appreciative of the students for making this year-end event a memorable one.
"I know how difficult sharing those experiences can be," he said. "I'm honored to have been here and very thankful for you honoring us by sharing your poetry. I think Maj. Gen. Fox Conner would rest easy tonight knowing that his legacy lives on with what you are doing with sharing and processing your own experiences through the art of poetry."
The professional reading group was established this year as a forum to discuss the profession of arms, through a selection of reading materials each month.
The group is named after a general officer who had several ties to New York. A U.S. Military Academy Class of 1898 graduate, Conner culminated his career as commanding general of First U.S. Army and was replaced by Maj. Gen. Hugh Drum. After his retirement, Conner visited Pine Camp in 1941 to observe one of the first exercises hosted there for armored units. He famously quipped afterward that there was "too much blitz and not enough krieg."
"His role as a professional mentor and an active user of military history in educating the force of today, and his personal connection to New York, is why we chose him as our namesake," Scanlin said.
To learn more about the professional reading group when it returns next year, visit https://www.facebook.com/FortDrumMuseum/.