4. Writing to Process your Military Experience with Graham Barnhart

December 22, 2021

4. Writing to Process your Military Experience with Graham Barnhart
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In this episode, Tim and Brock talk with Graham Barnhart.

Graham spent 11 years in the Army and National Guard as a Special Forces Medic (18D). Having been deployed 3 times, Graham has leaned on many of his experiences as inspiration for his writing. We talk through why it's difficult to talk to non service members about your experiences, how the military forces you to compare yourself to others and how detrimental that is, and how mindfulness, reading, and writing can help you process past events.

Graham has an undergraduate degree in English and is working on a doctorate in creative writing. His poetry book, 'The War Makes Everyone Lonely', can be purchased here.

The Scuttlebutt Podcast - The podcast for service members and veterans building a life outside the military.

The Scuttlebutt Podcast features discussions on lifestyle, careers, business, and resources for service members. Show host, Brock Briggs, talks with a special guest from the community committed to helping military members build a successful life, inside and outside the service.

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Transcript

Brock Briggs  0:15  

Hello and welcome to the Scuttlebutt podcast with Tim and Brock. Today, our guest is Graham Barnhart. Graham spent 11 years in the Army as an 18 Delta or Special Forces Medic, across active duty and the National Guard. Graham's got an undergraduate in English and currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing. And is the author of a book on poetry. At least one book, right Graham? 

Graham Barnhart 

Yeah, just the one. 

Brock Briggs

Just the one. More to come. Hopefully.

Graham Barnhart  0:43

Maybe. We'll see. 

Brock Briggs  0:46  

Perfect. Well, love having you on the show. Thank you so much for coming on. So the way that we usually start this off is talking with people about what possessed them at one point in their life to want to join the military. What led you to take that leap?

Graham Barnhart  1:04  

Yeah, that's a good question. That's something I still think about pretty often. And I think it's the kind of thing where, you know, probably come up with different answers at different points. I joined right after undergrad in 2007. So I was 21. I sort of had plans to maybe try to go to grad school, but couldn't afford application fees. So join the army. 

Brock Briggs

That's a big barrier right there. 

Graham Barnhart

Right. Yeah. Well, I have heard somebody said that, describe the military as being a poor man's grad school, which I appreciate that resume.

Tim McCarthy  1:47  

I've never heard that before. That's actually, that's funny.

Graham Barnhart  1:52  

I mean, it's not entirely wrong. 

Tim McCarthy

No?

Graham Barnhart 

But yeah. So part of the reason I joined then was, you know, there were what I think of as sort of logistical reasons like, paying for college, I wanted that GI Bill. I thought that was a good way to do that. I wasn't really sure what I was gonna do with my life just yet. And what I had planned was on hold. So I thought I can do this, get those benefits. 

But of course, that's not the entirety of the answer. I think most of us could probably talk at length, about all the things that maybe went through our heads. But I think for, as far as personal reasons go, I had this idea that I could do it. I wanted to see if that was something I was capable of. And it was, like I said, in 2007 we were six years into that war. And I know, I was sort of politically or ideologically opposed. I thought I didn't agree with the war. But I also didn't know anything about it. Hadn't really think I had a lot of basis for those claims other than, you know, the general justifications didn't quite sit right with me. And so I thought I would go, maybe see what it was about and see, find out something about this, you know, sort of global historic event our country was involved in and maybe get some perspective on that. And so yeah, that I think that's what I was thinking back then. 

But like I said, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I look back now and think that I hadn't felt very challenged in my life. I hadn't felt like things were, oh they'd been, I don't want to say “hard enough” but that's the phrase I keep returning to. But I felt like I was capable of more than I had been motivated to pursue at that point. And so the military seemed like a challenge that I could benefit from. 

Tim McCarthy

You wanted the challenge of it? 

Graham Barnhart

Yeah, I think so. Sure.

Brock Briggs  4:06 

That's an interesting take, too, because I feel like a lot of people that maybe know that life isn't maybe as hard or they aren't pushing themselves to that like greater extent. Their first instinct isn't like, “Oh, maybe I should just go sign on the dotted line for something maybe I don't totally even believe in.” So that's, that's an interesting course of events that led you up to that. 

Graham Barnhart

Yeah, thanks! 

Tim McCarthy  4:37 

 You said that before you joined, obviously, you didn't totally agree with the war. When after you enlisted, did that mindset change once you started kind of doing it?

Graham Barnhart  4:52 

 Not really. 

Tim McCarthy

No?

Graham Barnhart

I think most of those assumptions were reinforced. 

Tim McCarthy

Okay.

Graham Barnhart

I thought that, you know, if I saw my participation, and so far as I could view it in a positive light as being contributing to maybe ending the war to helping things wrap up sooner rather than later. 

Tim McCarthy

That's a good way to look at it. 

Graham Barnhart

And you know, it's pretty arguable whether or not I contributed in that way. But I do think that even, you know, we could look at like the recent withdrawal, right? That chaos, that catastrophe was trying to get out of Afghanistan. 

Even back in 2000, oh, 2011, my first deployment, we were in Iraq. It was that war was also ending, we were, my team with some of the last folks around. And you know, officially as part of that war, of course, that dragged on. ISIS wasn't a thing yet. And we were also kind of thinking like, “Well, what was the point of this? Did we accomplish anything here?” And so yeah, I don't know. I think it's hard to say. It's hard to answer those questions. I think that's something folks struggle with a lot. 

I know. I've been having a lot of conversations with folks recently about coming to terms with that war in Afghanistan ending and trying to find meaning, and are leaving, especially, you know, for guys who have lost friends who have, you know, really made sacrifices for a sort of goal that isn't, was never really clearly articulated or conceptualized, I should say.

Brock Briggs  6:39  

I think that, that's a good way to put it. We were, thought that we had or like the clear decision, or maybe clear to the country. I don't know about everybody at the time, of like back in 2001. Like, “Hey, we're under attack. And so we need to do something about it.” But like you said, there certainly wasn't anything that outlined, “Hey, this is what we're going to do. Yeah, this is who we're finding. This is what we're doing. And this was how we will know when that's done.”

And there's a lot of interesting parallels there to like setting goals and whatnot, like knowing when you've reached that point. 

Graham Barnhart 

Right. 

Brock Briggs

But that's an interesting take. I have been hearing a lot of the same conversations about people that have served over the last 20 years and people battling with the same thing. And do you think that well, I guess, being an 18 Delta, the Special Forces Medic, did that mentally and physically meet the expectations or like, of the challenge that you were looking for, I guess, in life?

Graham Barnhart  7:49  

In a lot of ways, yeah. Definitely. Wasn't easy and never had the sense that I was, let's say, an exceptional candidate in any of those trainings. So I always felt like, you know, I couldn't be working harder, that success was never a guaranteed kind of outcome, the way you know, college felt like, if I keep showing up, I'm going to leave here with a degree, that's going to happen. 

And so definitely wasn't the case. Even my first time through selection, I was a 14 day non select, which means didn't quit, didn't get hurt, but wasn't selected. And so that was a big gut punch. I hadn't ever really fallen short on something that significant before in my life. And fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, I got the opportunity to go back to the very next selection class. So that time, had some more better idea of what to expect. And I knew I didn't want to fail. I knew that was a possibility. I learned that the hard way. And so, you know, I was able to put in the effort and perform the way I needed to perform to get selected that time. So yeah, it was definitely challenging. Yeah.

Brock Briggs  9:14  

Given that you didn't actually technically fail the first time, I guess, what was required of you differently to end up being selected? What changed, other than just like, “Hey, I don't want this to happen again.” What else did that take of you?

Graham Barnhart  9:31  

Well, a big part of selection is, you go through these events, that are, you're always with the other people going through. And a portion of it is sometimes called “Team week” where you're put on, you know, randomly organized into groups and given sort of obstacles and tasks to problem solve and then to come up with your strategy. Let's say, “Hey, you've got these telephone poles and you need to move them 15 clicks down the road. Here's some tires and some metal bars. Figure out how to move these things.” And so there were a lot of experiences like that where I, my default tendency in most group settings is to kind of step back, let folks propose ideas and then support what I think is good. And I didn't know that about myself. 

So I think my first time through it, I definitely came across as being like, maybe lacking Initiative, or you know, they're looking for your type, a “barrel chested freedom fighter type” of guys, which is not my type at all. And so recognizing that I had sort of that my default approach was not going to be effective. I was able to recognize that and then be a little more, maybe not assertive, but participatory, I could say. You know, I wasn't afraid to say, “Hey, guys! I just did this. And this thing you're doing didn't work. But this other thing.” So taking some initiative, learning to kind of step up a little bit was a big change.

Tim McCarthy  11:03  

And that works for you, that second time around. You got selected, you said?

Graham Barnhart  11:07  

Yes. 

Tim McCarthy

Nice!

Graham Barnhart

Yeah. Thanks. Yeah, I think there were a couple of factors. The other was that, usually if you go to selection and or the “make it or not”, usually get a pretty long rest period afterwards. You know, guys go back to their units and they get to know PT profile for a couple months or so. 

Tim McCarthy

Oh, wow!

Graham Barnhart 

And because it's hard on you, it's supposed to.

Tim McCarthy

Yeah, yeah. 

Graham Barnhart

And there had been this kind of snafu mix up, where I was doing through the prep course, it's called Stop, See. And it's sort of like for 18 x rays, for your fresh out of boot camp. Pretty much private, you don't know anything. It's kind of like to make sure you're good on some of the skills you're supposed to be able to do, you're going to be tested on, like land nav and rucking and stuff.

Brock Briggs  11:57  

All the stuff you already learned, but like just making sure.

Graham Barnhart  12:01  

Yeah, yeah. They don't want you to fail because you're like new to the army, right? 

Tim McCarthy

Sure. 

Graham Barnhart

The thinking was, if you can manage the physical and mental stress of this, you can learn military experience, like you can figure out how to be a soldier. But a couple weeks into that prep course, the sergeants came to the Academy and they said, “Hey, there's a selection class about to go but they're short on numbers. So does anyone want to go early?” And usually you get like one shot, especially if you quit, you're not allowed to come back. And so we all knew if we didn't make it, we're gonna go to regular units. So we're like, “No, I'm good. I'll do the prep. I'll keep training.” And they said, “Well, what if you go, if you don't make it, we'll keep you around. You get the time to recover, go through a full prep, and then you go again.” And we said, “Okay, that sounds like a pretty amazing deal, actually.”

Tim McCarthy  12:55  

And that's like, that's pretty unheard of that, kind of offer. 

Graham Barnhart  12:59 

Yeah. And so we're essentially told we could get a do over if we didn't make it. 

Tim McCarthy

Wow. 

Graham Barnhart

And so, you know, that may have influenced by not making it the first time too. But, so me and a few guys were in this boat afterwards, and kind of feeling sad. And knowing we were going to do this again, CADRE came around and they said, “Hey, so that thing we told you, Sergeant Major didn't approve it. So you're going to a regular unit.”

Brock Briggs

Oh, wow. 

Graham Barnhart

And so I was pretty bummed. I was filling out paperwork about what unit to go to and stuff like that. You know, they give you preference forms that I'm sure they just throw away, but yeah.

Tim McCarthy  13:40  

I call it shuffle. Yeah. Work the shredder is the shuffle. Anytime I put vacation time I say, “Hey, don't lose this in the shuffle as he puts it in the shredder.”

Graham Barnhart  13:53  

Exactly. Exactly. But we were doing that and then again, this first sergeant comes up and he goes, “Do you guys want to go to selection or like yes for Sergeant?” and he said, ”Do you want to go tomorrow?” And we're like, “No.” He's like, “I can get you into the next class. That's the deal.” So ran around, bought all the stuff I had to, you know, you're supposed to have so many socks and so many clean uniforms, all this stuff, did all that, went to selection the next day. And so going through it, the CADRE, we'd be walking along doing something miserable and they looked over to me and my roster number be like, “Hey, roster number..” I don't remember what, it was roster number, whatever. “Where the fuck do I know you from?” Sorry, is it okay?

Tim McCarthy  14:39 

Yeah, go let it fly!

Graham Barnhart  14:43 

“Where the fuck do I know you from?” And I'd be like, “Last election, Sergeant!” 

“What do you mean, which one and you know class?” You know, 1806 or whatever it was. “The fuck you doing here?” Like, well, this thing happened then. “Shit. Okay, continue to train.” But I feel like some of that recognition probably helped to.

Tim McCarthy  15:08  

Yeah. But when you said that, that's something that usually, if you're going to go twice, like if you don't quit, and they allow you to go twice, it sounds like there's usually a pretty wide gap between when you go and when you go again. So yeah, I mean, I would think that you, you going and then immediately going to the next class again, probably one I would think, kind of help your mind stay sharp in that instance. But it also, just, like you said, showed the initiative of like, “Oh, no, this is students like here to make it.”

Graham Barnhart  15:42  

Yeah. And there was one of the events you do not get too into, if they keep some of this relatively secretive. They want it to be, you know a test, not something you prepare for exactly. 

Tim McCarthy

Sure. 

Graham Barnhart

But they had this event where you would run around with a group of guys, and there's different stations there, like a half mile to a mile apart, and you get there. It was for lower enlisted guys to have some leadership demonstration exhibition during the training, because a lot of it's like, the captain, the officers, those folks are running the show. So they get there and they'd say, “Hey, we need to do this thing. Brief you guys, come up with a plan, execute the plan, like 10 minutes to do it, it's not really important.” If you complete this objective, it's more like, were you able to relay information? Were you able to come up with an effective strategy? And so even for that, like, we'd be running up to it. And I'd say, “Hey, I don't know who's going to be charged with this one. But I'm pretty sure this puzzle was, we had to do this thing.” 

And so even a few minutes of extra like, time, you can see that it was a big benefit. And there were times with the CADRE as we did it, “Okay, which one to use a recycle?” They say, “Good.” Because like, I think my expectation was that, like, we shouldn't let them know that this is supposed to be felt, like cheating a little bit. 

Tim McCarthy

Sure. 

Graham Barnhart

But they were all like, “Hey, if you've got a resource, you should be using it.” 

Tim McCarthy

Yeah, yeah. 

Graham Barnhart

That was, that taught me a lot about kind of, I think an SF military mentality as a whole. You know, they love that saying, “If you're not cheating, you're not trying.” But they would also, if you got caught cheating, hammer you and kick you. 

Tim McCarthy

Yeah, sure. 

Graham Barnhart

So that was a complicated sort of dynamic to parse through sometimes.

Brock Briggs  17:34  

Yeah, that's a very thin line to walk in the military. They want you to exceed expectations by any means necessary, but not truly any means necessary.

Tim McCarthy  17:47  

So you get there. You get to your main unit. And then you said you went to Iraq in 2011. So a couple months later? 

Graham Barnhart

Yeah.

Tim McCarthy

Nice. Wow! What was this? What was that like?

Graham Barnhart  18:00  

It was really surprising. I was up in Erbil, in the Kurdish region. This was 2011, things were very quiet. I think there hadn't been a US casualty up there since 2004 or five. It had been a minute who's here as far as things go. We're supposed to be training Peshmerga, the Kurdish military. But due to their relationship with Turkey, that was always kind of a stress point of stress. 

So we ended up not training those guys. And we did some liaison work for NGOs. So there are groups that were funding programs like they're fighting money for widows in small villages to raise, keep bees or chickens. And there were these well-digging programs that are called Caresses that were just like, you know, development project type stuff. And so we had free mobility, we could go wherever, you know, with a really one page cannot. And these NGOs couldn't really leave without military escort, so we can drive out to the village, talk to folks, see how the program was going. We ended up doing that kind of thing. So it was really it was civilian clothes, civilian vehicles, living in a townhouse near Beale. It didn't feel like a combat deployment by any stretch. 

Tim McCarthy  19:30  

Okay. Did you see any sort of combat while you were over there?

Graham Barnhart  19:35  

Not at all. Not on that trip. Which was difficult for me because I was the new guy on the team. Everyone else were these salty SF veteran guys who had been there during the invasion. Some of them like been doing this deployment of this region back when it had been a combat zone or felt like a combat zone. So I was really like, “Oh, is this it? That's what I did all that training for?”

Brock Briggs  20:04  

Yeah, was gonna ask what if you were, obviously prior to you finding out where you're going, you probably have some kind of expectations of maybe that. Did that meet your expectations? Or knowing that it was like, kind of a quieter area, was that something that kind of bummed you out? Because I feel like at least a lot of the general mantra if you're gonna go be a special forces anything, you're ready to jump right into the heat of it? Was that your mentality? And I guess, how did you feel about going to unknown kind of less action oriented area?

Graham Barnhart  20:43  

Yeah, you know, it was mixed. Definitely some feelings of expectations that weren't being met, like you know, I think if you train on anything long enough, you begin to want to do that thing. So definitely had some kind of feelings of like not being a real Green Beret yet or not being a real soldier yet. And so there was some of that, but it's also a really interesting place to be there, was a lot going on. It was, you know, well, yeah, it wasn't being shot at as still, as in Iraq, it was in this place, and learning about the country, learn about the area. And it was really surreal most of the time. I think, you know, as a poet, as a writer, I appreciated the really just surreal strangeness of us being there and what that meant. 

We would, you know, there were things like, there were agency guys who lived in the Consulate, or worked there, and they couldn't leave on their own. So we would go to the liquor store for him. Like they would buy art, and like, you know, that kind of thing. We're like, I don't know, I can't imagine that happening in another circumstance or ever getting that experience any other way. 

So, yeah, I mean, combat we I think we essentialize, is like a military experience, especially in combat MOS and you know, I imagine it's hard to say it escalates. But you can imagine it maybe being magnified in certain ways in a special ops kind of environment. But there's so much more. Deployment is such a complicated, strange experience. Whether you see combat or not, doesn't change that, I think.

Brock Briggs  22:41  

We’re going to talk about your book probably a little bit later, but going into the military already kind of being interested in like already a writer, were you writing throughout this whole time? Is that something that you were doing regularly to kind of mentally, I guess, document what you were kind of working through?

Graham Barnhart  23:03  

Some. Yeah, so when I finished my undergraduate degree, that was poetry focused. I had this idea I wanted to be a writer. But really, that meant I had taken two workshop classes and undergrad, that was like the primary training I had. I hadn't done that much writing. And it's, I definitely had that feeling of like, “Am I really a writer? Or am I just thinking maybe I'd like to be?” And definitely put it on the backburner going through training. And definitely had moments where I thought, well, probably poetry is not going to be the thing. 

But during that time, I did take a lot of notes. So like when something I thought was interesting, I'd write it down. I wish I'd kept a more like, thorough journal, even just a daily like, here's a couple of things we did today kind of thing, because those trips can pretty quickly turn into amorphous blocks of time with like a couple of highlights. Like I remember, you know, we used to drive to this other city. We go to cook all the time. We go to Slovenia. I have like vague memories. Like, yeah, we would do that every couple of weeks, but I can't recall necessarily specifics about that stuff. So yeah, I wish I'd taken better notes.

Tim McCarthy  24:23  

Well, it's one of those things I remember. I remember when I was joining, talking to any and every Navy veteran that I could to ask them, pick their brain, ask them questions about boot camp and, you know, deployments and stuff like that. And a lot of the times, you know, you'd be talking to somebody about boot camp, let's say, and they'd be like, you know, “I think that this is how it went. But I don't really know, you know. I don't really remember.” 

And I remember thinking to myself, like “How could you not remember something like that?” And now, you know, same thing you're going through boot camp and you have all these like memorable things happen but fast forward seven, eight years, seven years for me, and people now I have people hit me up that are you know, are joining or whatever and I'm now the veteran that's like, “I don't really remember man, like I don't. I don't know.” So no, I get that.

Brock Briggs  25:20  

Well learn your ranks and shut the fuck up.

Graham Barnhart  25:26

I mean, that's part of it too, right? Like, to a certain extent preparation isn't all that helpful, right? Yeah. You know, I can think of specific things in basic I wish I had not done, but sure, yeah. Part of it's like you just have to show up there, you know, do what you're told that kind of thing. But I'm gonna say it's also, you know, whether it's combat related or not that stuff, is a being in the military or specially bootcamp. That first introduction, it's a high pressure system. You know, I hesitate to say, traumatic, but it's, you know, you're going through some pretty high stress, and that makes it really hard to remember. Years later, especially individual kind of memories, right, everything. 

Tim McCarthy

Yeah.

Graham Barnhart

It's sublimated or suppressed, and you're kind of like, “Yeah, that was a shitty time. And yeah, I got out and I went and did this other stuff.”

Tim McCarthy  26:20  

Right, right. Yeah, absolutely. And I think everybody kind of has, like, has a fear of something. Like, everybody's different as far as like, oh, everybody seems to have one particular thing that they're afraid of in bootcamp. You know, like, I had a buddy of mine hit me up, and he was randomly talking to me about the gas chamber. Like, that's what was his, like, big fear. And for me, I had never even like considered it, you know. Going in until three days before where they told us, “Hey, you know, on Thursday, you're going in the chamber.” And I'm like, “Fuck is the chamber? You know and was like, “I don't know, dude. You go in this room. They pop tear gas. You inhale in and he fucking leave. Like, I don't know. So.

Graham Barnhart  27:02 

Yeah, yeah, definitely. I remember that first week doing that stuff carrying around a gas mask on your leg every day. I'm like, “This is, this. We really need to know how to do this?” 

Tim McCarthy

Yeah. 

Graham Barnhart

Like, I'm not excited to go in the chamber or anything. But I'm more concerned with like, the practicalities of this down the road?

Tim McCarthy  27:25  

Sure. Yeah.

Brock Briggs  27:26  

Like an everyday use case, you know?

Graham Barnhart  27:29 

Like, weak gas masks. I was like, “Oh, man, I don't know what I signed up for. This might have been a mistake.”

Brock Briggs  27:36 

So that was your moment. That was your “Oh shit!” moment for you. 

Graham Barnhart

Right. 

Brock Briggs

One thing that you said about the writing and how everything kind of seems surreal while you're on deployment, really resonated with me. Because I spent, I did one deployment and spent seven months out on the boat with a few stops intermittently. And the day to day things, I couldn't tell you a single, like, kind of memorable thing about what was happening.

But the few like notes that I have written from that time, I like, look back on and I was like, “Oh, this is not good.” Like you're, like really going through some and like reading old messages that I was sending people and like, it's interesting to kind of like, look back and try and like process that and like maybe at the time, everything seemed normal. And it was like just another day. But like you mentioned earlier, the benefit of hindsight, you're trying to process like what you're going through and thinking about at that time. And maybe at the time, you weren't super privy to, I don't know, the mental duress you are under or whatever you want to call it.

Graham Barnhart  28:50  

Yeah. Definitely. I think about it a lot when I feel that urge in social settings to tell somebody an anecdote from the service. Because for me, if it's something I remember, I'm usually thinking because it's funny. And then but a lot of times, I don't know if you've had this experience, but you tell somebody who hasn't been in the service a funny story about it, and they don't laugh. They say, like, “Oh.”

Tim McCarthy  29:16  

Yeah, yeah. 

Graham Barnhart  29:20  

“Oh, shit. Was that messed up? I guess that was pretty.”

Brock Briggs  29:24  

Probably anybody that's prior service probably would laugh. But like anybody that's kind of like, unpretty to just like how wild of situations it seems like you can get into. It’s a real shock and awe for them. And it's interesting that you say that because I actually, again, we're gonna circle back to your book later, but that was one of the stories that I remember from reading your book is when you're talking. One of the poems you're talking to, I think it's your sister, or like a family member and you're like making a comment about some thing and it like, totally baffles them. And you're like, oh, and oh, maybe that wasn't the right thing to say. And right. That was interesting. That was one of the ones that was most memorable to me.

Graham Barnhart  30:13  

Cool. I'm glad. Yeah. And yeah, I think that's, that's a lot of the experience, or it's often the experience of, you know, post service is trying to sort out what's okay to talk about, with people. And, you know, I don't think I had much of a thermometer for that at first. When I transferred to the National Guard, I was also started going to grad school at Ohio State. 

So I was done two deployments, still doing military stuff, but I was also in poetry workshops with, you know, grad students. And so going to parties with these folks and chatting pretty pretty casually about what I would now hesitate to bring up. So, yeah, it takes a while, I think to recognize that that's a tendency. And I don't know, it's I think, you can easily develop the urge of the impulse to then sort of police what you tell people and to withhold things. And really, I guess this is a long, rambling ad for going to therapy, like therapy. You go, you tell the therapist, the stuff, you can't necessarily tell strangers. 

Tim McCarthy  31:28  

Well and I think probably way more so too in the Special Forces world, because there's really, I mean, obviously, anytime in the military, you do get that. Like, “I probably like should keep this to myself,” but I would think that that's way that happens a lot more in the Special Forces community. Whereas somebody like me who fix helicopters, like there's not a whole lot that I have to like, not tell somebody because it would freak them out. You know what I mean? 

Graham Barnhart

Sure. 

Tim McCarthy

But I'm sure that that's definitely escalated. Doing what you did.

Graham Barnhart  32:07  

Could be. Yeah, I don't know. I think context plays such a big role, where, like, kind of what we're saying is, you know, you get used to being in that context. You used to, you acclimate to that environment. And then when you're telling somebody who hasn't been there, who doesn't have that feeling that baseline, they're hearing this in the context of like, someone being in service and having this experience. 

Tim McCarthy

Yeah. 

Graham Barnhart

And that changes the way, you know, we process or access a story. But, yeah, something I think about all the time and writing is, you know, would this be an interesting narrative? Or perspective, if it wasn't set in this war context? 

Tim McCarthy

Yeah. 

Graham Barnhart 

Well, how would that change it? So there are definitely poems where I thought, “Oh,” or I have written drafts, or I thought, “Oh, if I just put this in a war zone, this is a much interesting, much more interesting poem,” which doesn't necessarily adhere to factual truth. Not that we have much obligation to that as poets, but it's definitely a factor. And it changes what could be a relatively benign story, and one that has all these additional sort of implications. 

I went to this Veterans retreat over the summer that PB Abbate runs, so plug for them, everybody should check them out. And so there were a lot of Marine infantry guys. And they're like, they would well, kind of sharing stories and experiences. And they would say something that sounded pretty intense to me. And then they'd be like, “But I'm sure it's nothing like what you got into.” And I'd be like, “No, that's, we had different things. We had different experiences. 

Tim McCarthy

Yeah. Yeah. 

Graham Barnhart

Yeah, you know, not to say that Sf guys don't and haven't gotten into real messes, but our job was targeting and trying to avoid getting into big fights. 

So in a lot of ways that experience that more, what I think of as traditional warfare, traditional infantry experience going out there and getting into it. That wasn't my experience at all. But guys, I think you hear Special Forces, your special ops and you make, you know, we make these assumptions, right? That much higher level of direct action for some guys totally, but it's not a universal thing, either. I didn't really get into a firefight until my third deployment, which is in 2016, and also Afghanistan. 

Tim McCarthy

Oh, I didn't realize you'd have a third one. 

Graham Barnhart

Oh, yeah. Three total. That was.

Brock Briggs  34:46  

You touched on something interesting there. That whole concept of comparison, and how I feel like very early on in the military, you're taught to compare maybe subconsciously, or I don't know if it's just something that you pick up along the way. But it's, for some reason, you are not, you're not this next level of whatever it is, or like, maybe something that you experienced wasn't as bad as somebody else's. Or like, you know, you didn't make rank and this person did or just, there's so many little things that drive into this, like comparison mindset. 

And I think that it leaves a lot of people questioning that fulfillment of like serving in the military. And that's something that I've mentioned on a couple of our previous recordings, but it's something I've thought a lot about, because you join thinking that you're going to have this, like, there's going to be this checkmark someday, like, “Oh, yeah, you know, I served my country and did this.” But a lot of times, you end up just getting out and you're like, “Well, I could have done this, but I didn't.” Or, “I could have experienced this, but it never happened.” And somehow, like, internally, you've made me feel worse for that. 

Graham Barnhart

Definitely.

Tim McCarthy  36:06  

You do that like right from, like joining. Like, I don't know, Brock. If you remember being in like it as soon as you get to boot camp, you're in these in the Navy, or in these blue sweatpants and a hoodie, because you don't have your NWUs yet. And you'd see guys walking around in their uniform. And so you're automatically like comparing, you know, “Oh, they're there like in week six,” you know, they're almost out of here and that just like kinda, that carries on for the whole time. And then you get to your schooling. And everyone's like, you all the instructors are talking about, “You guys haven't been to the fleet. You don't know, blah, blah.” You know and it just perpetuates, just keeps going.

Graham Barnhart  36:53  

I mean, even the author selection and the qualification course, the same stuff. And these are, you know, I was there as definitely inexperienced, but next to guys who are coming from Ranger bad or doing all this other stuff. And they're being told as well, like, “You haven't done shit yet.” I was like, “Man, they haven't done shit. I have done less than shit.” So yeah, it's a real thing. It's that kind of questioning one's authenticity, right? And even now, talking to guys who were in for a long time, who did all sorts of stuff, who did SF and then went on to do you know, all the stuff people do after that. You know, they're also like, “Yeah, you know, I always thought it was gonna go on to do something else, but never, never really got all the way into it.” And I don't know what all the way into it looks like. I can't even imagine that unless we're thinking about like movies.

Tim McCarthy  37:49  

You're not in a movie until movies

Graham Barnhart  37:51  

Never saved the president, I thought I was gonna save the president. And I was never at the White House when I got taken over by terrorists. But, maybe next.

Brock Briggs  38:00  

There'd be some, you're an NCO or somebody there to come through and be like, “Well, you weren't the time you weren't there the time we had to save two presidents.” Like still not measure up, like yeah, I don't know, that's such an uncomfortable feeling. And so that's interesting to hear you talk about that.

Tim McCarthy  38:24  

So your third deployment was 2016. 

Graham Barnhart

That's right. 

Tim McCarthy

And then that was Afghanistan, as well. 

Graham Barnhart

Yes. 

Tim McCarthy

A little bit more action oriented? 

Graham Barnhart

A little bit.

Tim McCarthy

Yeah. What was that? I know, you said that, that was your first firefight. So at this point, now, you've been in for a long time. What I guess like to your best, to the best of your abilities, what kind of emotion and thought process is going on? Obviously, you've been training for it for like, a super long time. And now it's actually happening. I mean, what's that, like?

Graham Barnhart  39:01  

I remember, the mission itself was we were training and advising this unit, and they hadn't really done any. They would initially been kind of a policing unit. So they kind of like a SWAT, sort of. 

Tim McCarthy

Yeah. 

Graham Barnhart

And they were getting repurposed, or we wanted to repurpose them to do strategic, more strategic level, you know, village clearing that kind of stuff rather than vehicle stops and house rates. So we were trying to, our intent was to take them on this mission in this village where we expected there not to be any resistance. This is just practice. And so most of the day, that's how it went. We were kind of you know, whatever, we regulated distance away from them behind them, was kind of hanging out just you know, observing them, making sure they're seeing how they do stuff. 

But then at the end of the day, as well, ended the what should have been the end of it. It's about lunchtime, noonish. We started hearing gunfire up ahead, they came back and like, “Hey, we got shot at.” “All right. Okay. What do you do about it?” And like, “We came back here.” And so we came up with a plan. It's okay, you're gonna do this. We'll do this. And we went back up, and got into it. And I remember thinking at the time, I was like, “Oh, well, this is really happening now.” And I was like, “Huh, noise is really the characterizes it.” For me, is kind of what I now would call depersonalizing of like, sort of shutting down, not like the ability to function, but the ability to feel things about it. 

So at one point, I remember there were, we had to move a casualty and there were guys start shooting at us. And I remember bullets were kicking up in the dirt. And I was like, “Oh, wow. That's it. That's like, I should probably get down.” Yeah, did that. And the other guy that was with me is like, “Should we do that three to five second rush?” And I was like, “Yeah, this was four.” So we started doing that a PCS neat, um, down thing. And I was like, “Wow, this is really happened!”

Tim McCarthy  41:20  

Yeah. Yeah. Almost, like, in disbelief. And it sounds like, not really, like nervous, but just more like, “Okay, well, we're doing this thing. So let's start implementing some training, kind of thing.” 

Graham Barnhart 

Exactly. 

Tim McCarthy

Gotcha. Cool.

Brock Briggs  41:38  

Well and that's how I feel like what the military wants as a whole, you know. You go through all this training and do all these things. So that, so much of it is just preparation and readiness, and then waiting for that time when you really need to do something. And then it's like, “Hey, I need to shut off what my front brain is thinking, the scared part of me or this.” And turn on, “Hey, you've done this before and couldn't get through this.” So yeah.

Tim McCarthy  42:11  

That seems to be the common response whenever I talk to somebody about getting into a firefight, or that kind of thing I was telling you, before we were recording, I have a good buddy of mine. That was an 18 Delta. And he got out before I had ever even joined. But I remember talking to him, after he got back from a deployment in, I think it was Afghanistan. And I had asked him this, you know, “Where did you get shot at? You know, what was that like?” And him just being like, and “It's just boring, you know.” And I'm like, “What?! Like, how can that be boring?” And he's like, and he I think he was in daily firefights. Because this was like, earlier 2000. And yeah, he was like, “I mean, once you've been in one or two, you're just kind of, it's just boring. You know, it's, it's not what you think it is.” And I remember just being so blown away by that, that you can think it's boring, or just kind of like it, it happened. You know, but it seems to be a very common responses. 

Graham Barnhart

Yeah

Tim McCarthy

The long winded way of saying that.

Graham Barnhart  43:22  

Yeah, I think it's you know, I'm not a psychologist. And so I hesitate to throw around some of that terminology, but I think it's, to me at least, I think I'm certified as a poet to say whatever I want about anything. 

Brock Briggs

Even if you are. 

Graham Barnhart

I think it's you know, it's a coping mechanism source, the way we like respond to that kind of experience is like to say, either that was scary as hell, and I should react to it that way. Or I can, you know, shut down that feeling down. Yeah. And  continue to do my job and function. And you're right, I think, in saying that, that is what the military wants, right? That's why we train, wrote actions over and over and over again, so that when, and while we try to simulate high stress environments for that, whether that's, you know, the drill sergeant, scaring the hell out of you, or actual combat, it's so that your sort of automatic functions, the things you've been trained to do take over. 

Part of the medical training involves working with live tissue with animals, so they're anesthetized, wounded, and then we treat them and so you get the experience of, you know, going through all these procedures, right? Putting on tourniquets, putting on bandages, doing all this stuff, but you're also used to get used to there being an injured living thing, right? There's, it helps sort of create an emotional distance between what you're seeing and what you have to be doing. And then when you see an actual person get hurt, it doesn't shock you. You don't shut down, you think, “Oh, this is the wound pattern.”

Tim McCarthy  45:04  

Yeah, yeah, dehumanizes it.

Graham Barnhart  45:07  

Yeah. And which is complicated because you're also a caregiver trying to give medical care to somebody. You don't want to think of them as not human. 

Tim McCarthy

Right. 

Brock Briggs  45:18  

Just that pig, we put a tourniquet on, no big deal.

Graham Barnhart  45:23 

Done this with pigs 100 times. You're gonna be fine.

Brock Briggs  45:27  

Yeah, that should give anybody a lot of reassurance. Do you think that there's any kind of spillover or like, do you personally or maybe not even you personally, but do you think generally there is spillover of that, like dehumanization or the separation of those two things with people who have been in the military? And then once they get out, do you think that that is something that people still deal with? What are your thoughts on that?

Graham Barnhart  46:03  

Yeah, I think so. I would guess so. I think, you know, the great paradox to me in a lot of military training is, it's especially thinking about being at the range or doing CQB, all that kind of stuff. We're shooting at targets that are shaped like people, and you're imagining where you want to hit a human being and all that kind of stuff. You're constantly training yourself to, or being trained to dehumanize that target, right? 

So not to think about them as a person, not to think about their life and family and what led them to this moment, but they're a threat. This is what you do with that. And it's maybe, I think, hard to do that without also maybe getting some reflection back at yourself, because you are also a combatant. And you're also like, if you're training yourself not to value human life, I don't think you can say I can value some human lives and not others. I don't think that's a like, I don't think there's a clean separation that happens for us. 

So, you know, this is why we dehumanize the enemy, right? We need to see them as monsters or as less than human, so we don't feel emotionally that we're committing a murder. But I think part of that process, then is we end up internalizing some of that, to maybe lose a sense of your own body, lose connection with yourself. Of course, we also may be talking to circles, now we form and end up forming really strong bonds with others, with our teammates, with our friends, with the people on our side, that may be reinforced or resist that idea. But I do think that depersonalization and dehumanization goes both ways. So that's something then you had to deal with when you're out and not.

You don't have to think about, you know, potential threats to your life all the time. You might recognize that there are threats, but you may still feel that way. And that's still going to then affect the way you see other people and or just see interactions any given interaction, right? I don't know if that makes sense. 

Brock Briggs  48:19  

Oh, it does. I'm tracking. If you don't mind sharing, is there something that if you've kind of experienced that, to some extent, how you have overcome that? What is something that obviously you put a decent amount of thought into it? And so I would assume probably implemented some form or coping or whatever we want to call it into your own life? What is a way that you've maybe successfully or unsuccessfully, I guess, tried to do that? 

Graham Barnhart  48:49  

Yeah, good question. I think that one way, I thought I was coping with it or addressing was thinking about it, identifying it, even when I was in and writing has a lot to do with that. But, you know, recognizing something, it's easy to think now, that doesn't apply to me. And so, it's been kind of recently now the last couple years, I've been dealing with PTSD, with types of depression from that and just beginning to recognize that is something that affects me, has been a big kind of eye opener. And so I've been having success with meditation. I like mindfulness a lot. And that helps me sort of recognize that I have feelings. That I'm you know, having an internal life, etc, all the things you get out of that. But I think reading and writing help a lot. 

You know, lots of studies have shown reading helps us sort of develop and train our empathy. And so being able to imagine in other perspectives, other lives and experiences that may differ from your own, I think is a tremendous benefit or has been for me. It's why I get kind of resistance sometimes talking with other veteran writers or when folks ask like, “Hey, who are some? What are some good books on war I should read?” And I want to say, “Well, you know, I think reading perspectives that are your own is maybe just as or more important than reading another memoir.” 

Now, memoirs, specifically, I mean, like other veteran memoirs, which is not to say that those are valuable. I think it's invaluable to see other veteran experiences as well, because you get to hear some of the stuff that maybe is going to resonate with you. And it's going to reflect some of what you're feeling that you didn't maybe have a name for, or didn't recognize, super important. But I think it's also important to read books by people from experience that have nothing to do with your own. The more different, the better, potentially because you're able to sort of begin to develop those systems of awareness that there are other perspectives. And we know that, right? We can conceptualize, we can intellectually, kind of logically understand that without too much trouble. 

But what reading does, especially reading good work is, it helps you feel that, right? You embody that knowledge in a way that sticks with you, that actually affects the way you function. Again, my own theories, not a lot of research to back up these claims, but I think they sound pretty good.

Tim McCarthy  51:42  

I want to kind of move on to, after the military, you wrote this poetry book. The war makes everyone lonely. How long after you got out before you started kind of piecing the book together and what led you to writing the book?

Graham Barnhart  52:06  

So, like I said, I transferred over to the guard in 2013 or so. And started grad school, I started an MFA program, that's a Master's in Fine Arts, and doing creative writing. So these programs are two to three years long. You typically, you're going there for creative writing workshops. So to sit there with some other folks, share your work, get feedback, and give them feedback. And so I started writing these poems, then. Just, you know, a lot of those most semesters is turning in a poem a week or so. So you got to write. And one of the big benefits of those programs is there's a lot of sort of external framework for you to do a lot of writing. And so, yeah, I wrote most of them, or at least started, most of them there. 

Continued revising them, but I was sending some of them out at that time to for publication. So I was kind of in the process. I didn't know if it was going to be what the book was going to look like. But I knew I had to write a thesis for the MFA. And it was going to be a collection of poems. And so I knew, pretty much anything I wrote that had some relation to military service or military experience was going to end up in the book or in that thesis. So finished all that up in 2017. 

So that was, I took a year off of that third deployment. I took leave from school, went did that came back and finished up and had, you know, the bulk of the manuscript from that. And then a year later, I think, 2018, I started trying to put it together as a book to send out the way poetry publishing works. Sorry, this is like a tangent or not super interesting. 

Tim McCarthy

No, no. This is good. 

Graham Barnhart

There's lots of ways it works. But the traditional sort of mainstream publishing route is you have your manuscript, and you either send it to book contests or to open reading periods that publishers post. And so there's a handful of, like pretty significant first book prizes for poetry. There's like, the Yale series of younger poets is, you know, a widely recognized one. The Walt Whitman award is a good one. And but there's tons of these things. And so I sent out to three or four those my first year and didn't win any of them. 

And, but I was also after grad school, I got it. I got a fellowship. It's called the Wallace Stegner fellowship that runs out of Stanford. And it's a two year kind of paid writing time, fellowship. You go workshop once a week with the other folks. But mostly, it's just supposed to be financial support while you do some writing. It's a great, great fellowship originally started for veterans, actually. But so I was still workshopping stuff there and getting a chance to share the manuscript with some folks who knew what they're doing. So I was kind of reworking it.

And then, the second year, I went to send it out. I had met this writer, his name's Alan Shapiro, great poet. I'd met him at a conference, and he had said, “Hey, if you ever get a book together, if you want someone to look at the manuscript, I could look at it.” And so I took him up on that. And he was, he had connections with the University of Chicago Press, who, they weren't taking open submissions at the time, they were just soliciting folks. And he kind of sent it on to them, and they were interested. 

And that's kind of how that happened. It was a surprise to me. I thought I was just gonna get some notes back. And instead, he was like, “Hey, Chicago, wants to publish the book.” 

Tim McCarthy

Wow!

Graham Barnhart

Was, you know, amazing, and can't complain. But also, it's just wasn't the way I was expecting things to go.

Brock Briggs  56:29  

I know nothing about publishing. So I'm gonna embarrass myself here. But I'm guessing that that's a good thing when somebody wants to publish your book, right?

Graham Barnhart  56:37  

Yeah, that's good. Yeah, it's not bad. It's definitely a good thing. It's publishing is one of those things where like, you can always imagine there being a better option. Did that makes sense? Like, oh, would it be better to publish with this press right now? Or should I wait and try and win one of these big prizes? You know? 

Tim McCarthy

Sure. Yeah. 

Graham Barnhart

There's no answer to that. Not both are great options. You know, however, the book gets out, the book gets out, that's the right answer. But when you're in it, you can be like, “I don't know, maybe, maybe I should have done something different.” But the outcome is the same.

Tim McCarthy  57:19  

Well, I think that that's true with any form of content creation, right? Whether that's writing a book, or photography, or, YouTube videos, or whatever the case may be Brock and I were just having this conversation of, you know, I have a YouTube channel that I kind of do these videos for. And I was talking to Brock about how I, you know, I've got halfway through this video and just trashed it. I was like, “This sucks, like, this is not,” you know. And Brock was like, “Getting it out is more important than it being perfect.” Otherwise, you're never gonna release it, because it will never be perfect. 

Graham Barnhart

Right. 

Tim McCarthy

So no, that's, that rings true with, like I said, really any form of creation, or writing videography, whatever. So? 

Graham Barnhart

Absolutely. 

Tim McCarthy

And that's hard to, like, move past that, you know. Whether you want to start doing something or you're doing it, the idea of waiting for it to be perfect is if you're doing that you'll never release it.

Graham Barnhart  58:24  

Yeah, definitely. Absolutely. And it's something I've noticed through this sort of academic pipeline of creative writing, that I went on workshops. And the way we think of mainstream publishing working, really enforces those ideas, right? So if the book doesn't get accepted, it's because it wasn't good enough and need to work on it more. But that's not really how it works. I mean, yeah, if it's amazing and someone recognizes it, you get published. But it's rarely a question of like, oh, I need to make a bunch of, I need to completely rearrange this project, or I need to trash it and start something else. 

There's a lot of complicated factors that go into how anybody decides to publish a book. And you know, they don't know either. At the end of the day, they don't have some magical sort of screening process that only when they only discover the best books, right? It's a matter of taste. It's a matter of what time of day that person reads your thing. If they've had coffee yet or not. 

We can go through workshops, especially Brock going into this memoir workshop. It's good to remember that they don't necessarily, workshop isn't necessarily going to teach you how to write but it's going to teach you how to recognize what you like in your own writing. That should be the goal, like how to get a sense of your own voice, your authentic sort of how you want to sound what you want your work to do. It's easy for workshops to turn into like a conversation about, well, this part’s working and this part isn't, and this is good, and this is bad. And that can be helpful. But it can also really quickly become something you internalize and then you start self editing and you get halfway through your thing like, “Now this is trash. I hate it.” 

Tim McCarthy

Yeah. 

Graham Barnhart

And you don't really, when you're generating new work, you're not doing it. It's not those workshops sort of values aren't useful, right? What's useful is finishing it, getting all the stuff out, being willing to experiment, try something you're excited about. You can always go back and revise and figure that stuff out. But yeah, it's that mindset, is really, like you said, it's hard to get out of, hard to avoid. 

Tim McCarthy

It is. It is.

Brock Briggs  1:00:51  

What do you think that you've learned about your voice? Or like your individual storytelling or the narrative that you're writing, at least when it comes to this book? What did you learn? And what do you now know, because of like going through that process?

Graham Barnhart  1:01:09  

It's a good question.

Brock Briggs  1:01:11  

Coming out with the heavy hitters. Yeah.

Graham Barnhart  1:01:16  

I think a couple of things come to mind. One, I write fairly narrative poems, at least in this book. Narrative meaning, not necessarily that there's a story the most of them have a kind of anecdote kind of perspective. And just recognizing that was my tendency, was helpful. And I had sent my manuscript to an instructor of mine, this woman Yvan Boland is a phenomenal poet. She was the writing director at the Stegner fellowship and just passed away a couple years ago. She's an amazing poet, also very frightening. She's kind of an older Irish lady. She should just tell you, like, “Cut this much of the poem. This is all you need.”

Tim McCarthy  1:02:07  

Sounds like my grandma. 

Graham Barnhart  1:02:12  

And so she read it. And she said something to me. I can't remember the exact words. But she, were talking about how to order the poems. And she said, “You need to think about how you're constructing an idea of the speaker, or the sort of point of view for these poems, like who's telling these stories. Because depending on the way the poems were organized, you get a sense of that perspective. 

And the clearer or more articulated sense of that the reader has, then better able they are to interpret other poems that are less clear, which is important when you're writing about something as sort of morally kind of complicated as war especially, you know, as a soldier writing about these experiences, conveying to the reader who it is, what the values, what the perspective is, who that's coming from, is really important to how they then interpret things were a little more hesitant to give a clear, you know, kind of moral to the story or take a moral stance. If that's ambiguous, you need to somehow give the reader some common ground, somewhere to start from or to share that perspective, rather than if you don't do that, then you're giving what you're doing is telling them about war. And they're then trying to decide if they agree with you or not, rather than setting up a similar kind of viewpoint for them to share. If that makes sense. 

Brock Briggs  1:03:42 

It does. I'm curious. I'm curious how much that, do you think that alienates potential audience in a certain way? Because you're kind of like, like you said, you're trying to get the reader on a certain viewpoint right at the beginning. Maybe that's not for them? Or like, maybe they have different thoughts, or like, maybe they just don't understand at all. Like and I think that a lot of maybe, books like this may not appeal to people that haven't been in the military before? 

Graham Barnhart

Definitely. 

Brock Briggs

What do you think about that, like audience selection part of what you're saying?

Graham Barnhart  1:04:18  

Yeah. I think if you're trying to get the reader to agree with you, then you're already kind of in trouble. I think. Rather than agreement, I think you want them, I want them to have a sense of the perspective I'm bringing to the poem. So I kind of want them to see where I'm coming from. So because ultimately, the takeaway from the poems isn't an opinion about, or an argument about war or about any of this material. I'm trying to convey what the experience was like, for me, trying to recreate some sense of like how these moments felt. And that's hard to do with, let's say, a civilian reader who hasn't been through basic training, who hasn't been, you know, who hasn't had to carry an 84 around for weeks, and, or whatever. That might not even be relevant to any particular poem, but it definitely informed the experience for me.

Tim McCarthy  1:05:23  

So you're saying like how could the reader disagree with me? This is my viewpoint, like, you can't disagree with it. I see what you're saying.

Graham Barnhart  1:05:32 

Yeah. I mean, if there is no claim, then it's not a yes or no. Or do you think this is right or wrong? It's, you know, can you imagine this experience? Does this resonate with you somehow? Does this make you feel something? The poet, Robin Kosta Lewis, she said in an interview once. See, if I remember correctly, it's not a direct quote. This is a paraphrase. She said, all of my poems ask you to feel something. They say feel this, feel this, feel this. But there's no name for that feeling. The name of the feeling is the poem. And that really crystallized a lot of what I think poetry can do, especially war poetry is, you know, it's a complex, deeply fraught, layered pressurized experience. 

And it's hard to say how any given moment felt or how you felt in a given moment. Because, you know, emotions, we rarely feel one thing at a time. So I think when poems or writing hit one note, where it's like, this is happy, or this is sad, then it can feel flat, and it can feel sentimental journey. But trying to layer those emotions to get that complexity that we don't really have a name for, that's when things start to resonate. And you say, “Oh, yeah, I felt like that before. I might not have known it. I might not have a name for it, but that thing. I feel that now.

Brock Briggs  1:07:11 

And I think that that's the mark of like a truly good author. And maybe poet, author, whatever type of writing you do, is taking those super complex emotions and like those vivid images and putting them in a way where people instantly know. And you have some very, very vivid descriptions of things. I'm like, “Oh, I know exactly what he's talking about.” And so I think that you delivered on a few of those very, very well. Do you have a specific poem that was your favorite from the book? We're gonna like, link to the book and stuff in the show notes. And hopefully, everybody should go buy it. I will vouch for that. 

Graham Barnhart  1:07:57  

I said, buy a couple.

Brock Briggs  1:07:59 

Oh, yeah. Do you have a favorite one or a specific one that kind of was notable for some reason?

Graham Barnhart  1:08:07

I mean, they're all so good. No, it's hard to say. There are poems that feel more central. But there's some that like, maybe took more work. And then there are others that kind of came out kind of holy form with these little like gifts. And I think some of that tells students a lot. What I believe is, the more writing you do, especially in poetry, the more hard work you put into revision, the more like time you put into a draft, even if that draft ends up being trashed. That's all work that goes into the next poem, and the next and the next. 

And so you grind on this one for a while, and then sometimes something sparks and you write a whole poem, and you're like, “Oh, that's done. That's what it's gonna be.” So it's hard to say which forms I like more. It's nice to get those gift poems. But then they also don't feel like they took like they were something you made. They feel more like, they just came out. Got lucky with that one.

Brock Briggs  1:09:12  

That, what they call inspiration, right?

Graham Barnhart  1:09:15  

Yeah. There's something like inspiration and both like, I think inspiration for me a lot is. I think that, that was like the idea for a thing, like the thing that makes you want to write a poem. You're like, “Oh, I should write this down.” Sometimes that coincides with some sort of other thing related to the craft of the poem. Like you not only have the idea, but you feel how it's how it needs to come out. 

But to answer the question, finally, I think it's one of those poems I just came out with, it's called “How to stop the bleeding.” And it's sort of about tourniquets, and the sort of understanding, I think that medics come to especially or have to come to terms with is that you can do everything right, according to treatment guidelines according to the scenario. And that still doesn't necessarily mean the patient is going to survive, right? It depends on the injuries. It depends on them, how much water they had that day, whatever. 

So you practice and practice and practice. Learn all this information and try and get as good as possible. And it may have made no difference at all in the patient outcome. And so there's a sort of inevitable risk in that. And so, yeah, that was a poem that just sort of. I had this phrase in my head. I said, first line is like, a tourniquet will work unless it doesn't. And I wrote that down, and then just immediately wrote the rest of the poem, made a couple changes before winning the book. But that one, just like came out. And so felt really lucky to have that.

Brock Briggs  1:11:02  

Okay, cool. Need to go back and revisit that one. And we'll make a note of that one for people to check out. I guess, to kind of start wrapping up here, what is next for you? You mentioned a comment earlier in the recording that I wrote down, because it just resonated. But you said when you train on something for long enough, like you want to do that thing? And it's clear that you've been training on writing and are kind of pursuing that. What's next for you going down that path? If that is your path, you think.

Graham Barnhart  1:11:42  

Right. Yeah, not sure. I'm really on the fence about it right now. I got a few more years left on the PhD. But my first couple years, I wasn't very happy with it. And still, right now I'm thinking kind of that same mindset like, “Well, if I go down there and put in the time, I'll come out with a degree, it's not a it's not a matter of like, is that something I can accomplish?” And so it's more of a question. It's like, because that time I want to put into it, what do I think I'm going to get from it. And most of the reason to get a PhD in creative writing is to be marketable for Professor type jobs, tenure track jobs. 

So trying to decide if that's what I want to be doing, might be, but more and more starting to look into how to take some of that knowledge and apply it maybe outside of an academic setting, in a setting that has maybe more veteran, sort of community focus. So workshops, like dead reckoning collective things like that, like, “Oh, I could be putting some of all this training to use, in another situation that I maybe find more fulfilling.” Not that teaching students, civilian students, undergraduate students, whatever isn't fulfilling, but working in an academic environment. You know, any professor will tell you, the teaching is great, but that's like maybe a third of what you actually have to do. And the rest of it's not very fun. 

So, yeah, kind of making those decisions right now, but writing for sure. Working on a, I'm thinking of it as a second book of poems. But it's still very much in the works. I have a concept which sometimes seems really helpful. Sometimes having a firm concept in mind is a huge obstruction. Trying to write towards a specific thing rather than discover your material is, it's a harder way to do it sometimes.

Brock Briggs  1:13:49 

If somebody listening was interested in maybe just starting writing, writing a book or writing a poem, a book of poetry, any type of writing, or maybe even interested in a career in writing, what would your advice or two cents be, to somebody in that position?

Graham Barnhart  1:14:07 

Sure. Definitely start writing.

Brock Briggs  1:14:12  

You’rel telling me you actually have to write to

Graham Barnhart  1:14:15  

Because that's what I hear. Yeah. I think, too, yeah. Right, every day. That doesn't have to be you know, four hours a day. I'm talking 10 minute free writes every day, something to just start putting pen to paper. Read a lot. You need to read at least as much as you write. Sometimes folks that just start out are worried about, “I don't want to read too much. I don't want to be influenced or I don't want to be. I don't want to imitate anybody.” And imitation is not really shouldn't be that big of a concern. You're going to figure out how you sound and the way you write and other people's style. One subject is going to inform that, that's a good thing.

So find the stuff you like, find the work you like reading, think about what you like about it, try to incorporate that into your own work or try to accomplish the same thing. Find like minded individuals. So folks like dead reckoning collective that are running workshops, folks like the PD bought a book club, where people are just getting together to talk about books, all of those are great, great places to start. They can, you know, having a support system, people who are also doing it can be really helpful. 

If you're thinking about going the academic route, it's a great way to do it. MFAs are really helpful. You don't necessarily need to have an undergraduate degree in English to go to one. A lot of them are funded. So you would do some teaching, and they don't have to pay your tuition. So it's free. You have to get accepted, of course. But there's lots of ways to do that to get workshop experience. And I think, ultimately, workshop experience is really helpful. Lots of folks, though, succeed just fine without ever having been a part of that. It's not a requirement. But if you're interested in developing your craft, learning to revise your work, that's a great place to start. 

Brock Briggs  1:16:21

Okay, yeah, that's awesome. And any two cents of advice that you'd give to somebody thinking about joining is currently in or thinking about exiting the military? What would you pass along, what words of wisdom from your 11 years?

Graham Barnhart  1:16:37 

Yeah. Well, for folks joining, I think, you know, think about what you want to get out of it. That seems obvious. But you know, I wasn't really thinking too much about what I wanted to get out of the service. So you know, it's going to be have a choice to decide what you're going to be doing job wise, branch wise, all that stuff. Think about not just what it's going to be like, but what your goals are. Remember, when I was first getting first, before I left for basic, my neighbor said to me something like, “Oh,” he said, “Don't volunteer for anything.” That was his advice. 

Tim McCarthy

And I've heard that, a time or two. 

Graham Barnhart

Yeah. And, you know, I don't know if I support that entirely. I remember being in basic, and there was like, you know, duty squad assigned to go, you know, do whatever random stuff that came up. And my experience is, if you're on Duty squad, life was way easier. Because like, when everyone else was getting smoked, Duty squad had to go set up the pins or whatever the next task was. So you always kind of got out of stuff. It seemed like, yeah, you had to do manual work. But I mean, like its basic training. So I don't know about not volunteer for stuff. But I think there's definitely a time and place. 

I think for folks getting out, I would say, you know, start thinking about it in advance. Again, seems obvious, but I feel like general vibes from guys I knew or they were either going to stay in indefinitely, or when they were going to get out, it was kind of sudden. And so having some idea of what you want to do besides something vague, like “Oh, I want to be you know, I have a friend, or I've heard it's pretty easy to get into defense contracting, and they make a ton of money. So I'm just going to do that.” 

“Okay, if that's your goal.” Find these companies, figure out what you actually need, what your chances are, what that looks like, rather than getting out and then starting to do that. But, yeah, just I guess planning ahead is the nutshell of most of this advice.

Brock Briggs  1:19:08  

If I had a nickel for every time I heard the words, “have a plan.” 

Tim McCarthy

I wouldn't need a plan.

Graham Barnhart  1:19:14  

Well, yeah. If I had a nickel for every plan I had made, I would have no nickels.

Brock Briggs  1:19:21  

It's also very true. Well, awesome, Graham. This has been really fantastic. I really enjoyed our conversation. Tim, I'm guessing you feel similar.

Tim McCarthy  1:19:34  

Yes. Yeah. No, it was. It was really good, man. I appreciate you coming on. It was awesome.

Graham Barnhart  1:19:39  

Awesome. Well, thanks for having me, guys. There's a lot of fun. Yeah, so much. It's been great!

Brock Briggs  1:19:44  

Hope to have you on again soon. Thanks so much.