“The word for love, habib, is written from right
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin.”

from “A Soldier’s Arabic,” by Brian Turner

Since I first encountered the poem, “A Soldier’s Arabic,” I’ve been ruminating on the lines in this single stanza. In fact, if these words weren’t so beautifully grounding to my humanity, the playback loop might verge on intrusive thoughts. In seriousness, though, the way this poem imprinted on my consciousness confirms a fundamental tenet of art: the most powerful art is the most memorable. Art, at its best, has the ability to transcend time and reveal essential truths.

The poem comes from the poet Brian Turner’s first collection of poetry, Here, Bullet. I first came to know Turner’s work during my deployment to Iraq in 2009. Fourteen years later, I feel Turner’s words are still relevant, considering the current state of affairs in Ukraine, the Middle East, Israel, and the seemingly endless capacity for groups of humans to engage in war. Because in every war, there are humans – soldiers and civilians, alike – faced with the reality of the violence and loss that comes with armed conflict, searching for meaning.

Meaning, for me, has a way of manifesting in both tangible and spiritual forms; although, I must admit that my search for meaning in the spiritual has not always come easily or naturally. As a visual artist, I find meaning in a tangible way during the artmaking process and strive to communicate meaning in my work through intentionality, often with regard to the media or materials I use. More recently, though, meaning has appeared in less tangible ways. As I reflect on my experiences and the many unexplained synchronicities that have occurred in my life, I feel a sense of connection within the universe that has grounded me and given me a better understanding of my life’s path. Interestingly, my introduction to Brian Turner’s work is one of the ultimate synchronicities in my life.

I enlisted in the Army in 2006, just a few years after the U.S. invaded Iraq. I was 24 years old and in need of some solid direction in my life. I’d been aimlessly participating in the college experience for the previous six years trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. But mostly, my time spent in school up to that point was a way for me to satisfy my parents’ expectations.

Early on, I’d considered the military as a way to pay for college. I come from a long line of wartime Veterans, and my family had always expressed a certain reverence toward people in uniform. But in retrospect, it’s not completely clear what initially inspired my reasons for enlisting in the Army. At the time, I had no direct connection to the military through family or friends, and no one in my family ever directly discussed the military as an option my sisters or I might consider. But after floundering for six years and racking up more than $20,000 in student loan debt for an Associate’s degree, it became clear that I needed focus.

I often say that enlisting was the first life decision I ever completely made for myself. So in 2006, armed with equal parts life experience, naïveté, and the need for stability, I “swore in” at the Baltimore MEPS at Fort Meade as a newly enlisted 88M, a Motor Transport Operator (Truck Driver), with the U.S. Army Reserve. It was the height of the Iraq War when I enlisted, so I knew my chances for being deployed to the Middle East, even as a Reservist, were high. The only question was when.

My time came in 2009 when the transportation unit I was attached to deployed to Mosul, Iraq. That year, I found myself assigned to a line haul mission, driving freight loaded tractor trailers all over the country. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, my husband, Noah, was home in Norfolk, Virginia, balancing his new role as a single parent to our one-year-old daughter with full time study toward his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Old Dominion University.

That fall, Brian Turner, who only 5 years earlier had also been deployed to Mosul as part of the earliest OIF combat missions, was invited to be the Writer in Residence for the MFA in Creative Writing program at ODU. As a student in the program, Noah was able to work one-on-one with Turner, and they shared experiences about their craft and the effects of war.

Soon after, Noah sent me a copy of Here, Bullet, and each night I would spend those lonely hours between dinner and sleep lying in bed, reading the lines, feeling linked through the language. In those moments, I felt connected to something beyond. I felt closer to home, to Noah, to the land, and my fellow soldiers. This feeling of connectedness helped ground me in a period of my life that was full of unknowns and provided the emotional energy I needed to sustain the rest of my deployment and difficult process of reintegration.

Service members and their families know the process of post-deployment reintegration can sometimes be harder than the deployment itself. This was true in my experience, and time and my art practice offered meaning and solace. My formal practice as a fiber artist and printmaker began shortly after I returned to Norfolk. During that time, when the number of days home post-deployment were roughly equal to the amount of time I had been gone, I found moments of mindfulness and meditation in the slow nature of traditional craft processes, like weaving and letterpress. And as time provided distance from my deployment, and my days home began to surpass my days gone, I found renewed meaning connecting with others through arts organizations like Frontline Arts, Warrior Writers, and Community Building Artworks (CBAW). In my first papermaking workshop with fellow Veterans, as we transformed the fiber of our uniforms into material that would help us tell our stories, I again felt linked through language.

Through my involvement in these organizations, I have learned the power that comes from reimagining our narrative and revealing the essential truths of our lived experiences. This Veterans Day, I am grateful for the sense of interconnectedness participating in community-based art practice has provided. As I continue to share in the creative process with my fellow Veterans, I feel grounded in the way art allows us to transcend the limits of our language and foster a sense of belonging.