On his first day in Iraq, Maurice Decaul realized that despite being a member of the U.S. Marine Corps — an organization that, in his own words, “relentlessly trains for war” — he only had an intellectual understanding of war. That feeling was displaced quickly as artillery fire sounded around him. And in the eerie silence between booms that all but confirmed loss of life, Decaul says that he became a writer.
His transformation from soldier to poet and playwright didn’t happen overnight in a foreign land. Years later, in a veterans’ writing workshop, he recorded memories of that day — an attempt to understand what happened and how he felt about it. Finding words to express his emotions made Decaul realize that the experience completely numbed him. “But writing helped me excavate the why of why I went numb,” he explains, going on to say that the process got him “back to being in a place where I could feel again.” See Decaul share this story of resurrection and recite his poem “And The War Was In Its Infancy Then” at the recent Got Your 6 Storyteller event, a campaign that honors and celebrates the talents, skills and leadership of our veterans, in the video above.
In this exclusive interview with NationSwell, Decaul discusses what inspires his service as a veteran and his work as a poet.
What does it mean to be a veteran?
Beyond the technical definition, for me it means being of service to other veterans, especially younger people. A few months ago, I was speaking with a friend who is a veteran of the Army, and we are both writers and we both served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I mentioned to him, for me, because I have been fortunate over the years to be offered great opportunities to write and to create, I now see it as my duty to help those coming after by sharing what I know and contacts and being a mentor.
What inspired you to serve your country?
My family and I are emigrants and one of my earliest memories is seeing a Marine Embassy Guard. After relocating to the United States, I found myself reading a lot about Marines. I remember hearing about the battle of Khafji. I remember hearing about those Recon Marines on a roof calling fire onto occupying troops and the audacity of that…I was hooked, I wanted to be like them.
What 3 words describe your experience in the service?
I served in the Marine Corps and our core values are honor, courage and respect. For me, those words drove the way I tried to behave in and out of uniform. At the core of those words is the notion of integrity — doing what is right, not what is expedient or self-serving. Drill instructors ensure that recruits fortunate enough to graduate and become Marines leave training knowing the importance of our core values and integrity. This is key to maintaining discipline and esprit, and I’ve kept these values in the civilian world.
What is the quality you most admire in a comrade?
Enthusiasm for the work we are doing.
Who are your heroes in real life?
The people who I admire are those who are able to take an idea and go beyond having the idea to making something out of it. I guess, I’m thinking broadly about risk takers. People who aren’t afraid to challenge institutions, thought patterns and naysayers. Entrepreneurial people who are courageous enough to try.
Who was the most inspirational person you encountered while serving?
I served with a Marine named Sgt. Ali while in Iraq in 2003. He was my roommate over there and beyond his general excellence, he knew how to lead. He led by example, understood fairness and is one of the most honorable and courageous Marines I ever knew. I know there were times when he must’ve felt fear, but he was resolute in the face of it. I respected him. I still respect him. I felt honored to serve with him. I would still follow him.
If you could change one thing about your service, what would it be?
I wouldn’t. It’s made me the person I am.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
There isn’t one specific thing, but I know I would’ve regretted not joining the Marines. I’m glad I did, and I am glad I got to serve with great people like Sgt. Ali and many others.
Who is your favorite writer?
I have several writers that I go back to: Yusef Komunyakaa, Yehuda Amichai, Jack Gilbert, Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda. None of them are more important to me than the others. They inform my work, my thinking. Also, I’ve been fortunate to have exceptional writing teachers such as Edward Hirsch, Sharon Olds, Yusef Komunyakaa, Timothy Donnelly and Anne Carson. I love them all, deeply.
What is your favorite topic to write about?
I write about the people forced to make difficult and/or impossible decisions. Sometimes these people are participants in conflict, sometimes not. But I am interested in the ambiguity, the space between right and wrong.
What is your favorite poem?
Jack Gilbert’s “Married” is one of them.
How does your military service impact your writing?
Well, the wars are often the theme, but I am curious about how people in extremis make decisions and how the consequences of those decisions shape their lives.
What is your motto?
There is no right answer
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Homepage photo Courtesy of Got Your 6.