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070711-D-7203T-004Wounded War Veteran with wife at the Walter Reed Medical Center
Photo Credit: Cherie A. Thurlby / National Military Family Association


November 11 is Veterans Day. It’s an official American holiday to honor the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. The date marks the anniversary of the end of World War I on November 11, 1918.

To commemorate this day, my Poetry Corner November 2014 features the poem “Jungle Rot and Open Arms” by Janice Mirikitani, a sansei or third-generation Japanese American born in 1941 in Stockton, California.

Janice Mirikitani’s life was touched by two wars: World War II and the Vietnam War. As an infant during World War II, she was interned with her family and other Japanese American families in the Rohwer Relocation Center in Arkansas.

At the end of the war, to avoid the racism still prevailing on the West Coast, Mirikitani’s family moved to Chicago. Her parents’ marriage did not survive the tumult in their lives. Writing became a source of comfort for the fledgling poet.

When her mother remarried in 1948, they moved to rural Petaluma, California. In her new home, Mirikitani endured years of emotional isolation, poverty, and the trauma of sexual abuse by her stepfather, lasting almost a decade. Her poetry helped her to define herself and served as a means of expressing her stifled emotions.

In her poem “Jungle Rot and Open Arms” for a Vietnam Veteran brother and ex-prisoner, Mirikitani opens with her encounter with her brother during his treatment and recovery at the Leavenworth VA Medical Center.

Leavenworth / and jungle too / brought him / back to us / brimming with hate / and disbelief / in love or / sympathy.

Her Vietnam Veteran brother’s rage is greater than her anger at the Vietnamese leaders. He shares with her his love for a Vietnamese woman: “Her hair was long and dark – like yours.” He risks his life to spend nights with his beloved in her village. But the war dealt him a terrible blow. While they slept, she was taken from him during a raid.

“[I] woke / with her arm / still clasping mine / I could not find / the rest of her / so I buried her arm / and marked my grave.”

For me, this scene is the most poignant part of Mirikitani’s poem. During war, love between enemies is treacherous. War severs the bond between us, leaving our soul[s] buried in a shallow grave.

Mirikitani shares her pain: I stood amidst / his wreckage / and wept for myself.

Our veterans are brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. When they return from war zones, broken in mind and body like jungle rot, their families greet them with open arms and share their pain.

Across America, an estimated twenty-two veterans will end their lives today. We can help our veterans to combat suicide.

You can learn more about Janice Mirikitani and read her poem, “Jungle Rot and Open Arms,” at my Poetry Corner November 2014.