Brian Turner







“Excerpted from My Life As A Foreign Country by Brian Turner. Copyright © 2014 by Brian Turner. First American Edition 2014. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.”




“Here’s the situation,” Sergeant First Class Fredrickson said,
gesturing to the tiny plastic red and blue flags driven into
the ground on thin metal poles. There must have been thirty
or forty of them arrayed in the grass around us, in no discernible
pattern. It was September 2003, and, like some of
the others gathered around SFC Fredrickson on that clipped
green field outside our classroom, I’d been scanning the
scene to gauge what the flags might represent. On the bigscreen
television in the company dayroom, the war waited
for us. Fighters who shot at American soldiers in Baghdad
and Samarra and Tikrit were perfecting their trigger
squeeze for us.
“We are surrounded by the dead. And by parts of the dead,”
Fredrickson said, emphasizing the word parts. “Your unit has
come upon the scene of a possible ambush. Everybody’s dead.
This is not a mass casualty exercise. So. What’s the first thing
we should do?”
One of the students in the back said, “We better start
scrounging up a shitload of body bags.”
Fredrickson smiled.
“No. Like everything else, the first thing you do, the first
thing: set up security. Create a perimeter, and then you can
get to work.” He went on to explain that a certain number


of soldiers would be needed to deal with the task at hand,
especially if time was of the essence, as it always was in these
situations. “You’ll want to photograph the scene from several
angles, if you have a digital camera and if you have the time.
That’s why the flags are here. You have to place one flag at
the spot of each body, or body part, that you find. If you
don’t have a camera, do a field sketch.” We practice drawing
hasty field sketches in our pocket notebooks, creating small
legends in the margins, crossed lines with tiny arrowheads:
a rough guide to the cardinal directions.
He tells us to use a certain Department of Defense form
to label and keep track of the dead sealed up in their body
bags. “And remember, this is very important: never place two
separated parts into the same bag.” He pauses. “I’ll give you
an example.” He points to the nearest soldier and tells him to
lie down and act like he’s dead.
Sgt. Gordon kneels on the damp grass and then lies down
prostrate, with his right arm stretched out from his side, as if
pointing to something beyond us. His mouth is open and at
first he stares blankly at the few clouds above. Then, he closes
his eyes and assumes the role of the dead.
A few of us joke about Gordon and his ability to sham,
to loaf, no matter the circumstances as Fredrickson steps
closer to the body. “Imagine that this arm,” he says, gesturing
toward Gordon’s outstretched limb, “has been blown o°, here
at the armpit. And there’s no other body nearby, and you can


plainly see that it’s the same uniform and everything. Still,
you have to put his body in one bag and give it a number and
then you have to put this arm in another bag with a di°erent
number.” He looks across our faces. “Don’t assume anything.
They’ll figure it out back home. They’ll test for DNA and all
that jazz.” A pause, and then he continues: “Let me tell you
something—you don’t want to be the one who makes some
poor family bury their soldier with somebody else’s body part.
Roger that?”
As he carries on explaining the work at hand, my eyes wander
over the grassy field and the bright flags stationed in the
earth around us. It’s a rare day of sun in Fort Lewis, Washington
State, and the early morning light illuminates the translucent
nature of the grass in its subtle gesture toward infinity. The dead
assume their positions. Some of them lie on their sides, others
rest on their backs, their faces lifted toward the sky. Each with
a numbered flag beside him. Some turn their heads slowly toward
me, their eyes crossed over into the landscape of clouds as they
call out with hoarse voices, quietly, asking for a drink of water.
A small sip, they say. Just a sip of water.












Brian Turner’s latest book, My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir has been called “Achingly, disturbingly, shockingly beautiful” by Nick Flynn and “a humane, heartbreaking, and expertly crafted work of literature” by Tim O’Brien. My Life as a Foreign Country will be published by Jonathan Cape/Random House UK (June 2014) and by W.W. Norton & Co. (September 2014). His two collections of poetry: Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005; Bloodaxe Books, 2007) and Phantom Noise (Alice James Books, 2010; Bloodaxe Books in October of 2010) have also been published in Swedish by Oppenheim forlag. His poems have been published and translated in Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, and Swedish.

His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, National GeographicPoetry DailyThe Georgia ReviewVirginia Quarterly Review and other journals. Turner was featured in the documentary film Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which was nominated for an Academy Award. He received a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, a US-Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. His most recent book of poetry, Phantom Noise, was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in England. His work has appeared on National Public Radio, the BBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Here and Now, and on Weekend America, among others.

Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon before serving for seven years in the US Army. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Prior to that, he deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division (1999-2000).

As well as an infantryman, Brian has worked as a machinist, a locksmith’s assistant, a convenience store clerk, a pickler, a maker of circuit boards, a dishwasher, an EFL teacher in South Korea, a low voltage electrician, a radio DJ, a bass guitar instructor, and more. He’s lived and traveled to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Russia, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, UAE, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Morocco, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Ireland, and the U.K., among others.

He directs the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and serves as a contributing editor at The Normal School.

Brian is married to Ilyse Kusnetz (poet and author of the forthcoming collection, Small Hours, from Truman State University Press). They live in Orlando, Florida.

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