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Mightier than the Sword 

Inspired by overwhelming emotion, local veterans turn to the healing power of poetry

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This was, perhaps, the most radical thing a Southern California boy had ever done in order to see a Bouncing Souls concert.

It's almost certain that at some later moment, Joe Hatcher looked back and thought to himself, "That was so punk rock!" But here, bundled in a sleeping bag under a pile of clutter in the trunk of his friend's car, a border guard clenching his shoe, Hatcher was not feeling so triumphant.

Thankfully, the guard was oblivious.

Garett Reppenhagen, Jeff Englehart and Ben Schrader, all feeling the rush that accompanies improbable luck, were freed to cross the border from Germany into the Czech Republic, with Hatcher safely snuggled in the back. There would be no arrests today. No charges of international body-smuggling.

A few miles down the road, Hatcher was freed from the trunk, and immediately told his Army buddies something to the effect of, "I've never been so terrified in my life."

Reppenhagen, Englehart and Schrader who, along with Hatcher, were stationed in Germany had actually met the members of the Bouncing Souls the night before. The band had invited them to the next night's gig in Prague. Hatcher wanted to go, but didn't have a passport. It seemed like an OK idea to shove him in the trunk and bring him along.

"We had nothing to lose," Englehart says. "We were going to Iraq."

The f-word

The guys, facing a yearlong deployment in 2004, were blissfully unaware that these two days would help launch a chain of events that would nearly land them in military prison not for body-smuggling, but for name-calling.

Here's the story: The guys really liked the band. So much so that, when they later were in Iraq, they decided to write to the band members. As the soldiers grew weary and began to react to the violence of their situation, the e-mails became more personal. Some began to include poetry.

"It just seemed like a necessity to do it," Reppenhagen says. Reppenhagen, a high school dropout, never imagined he'd be drawn to reading books, let alone writing.

"The stuff that I wanted to express," he says, "didn't come out any other way than poetry."

The Bouncing Souls were so impressed they began posting the e-mails on their Web page.

Then, in 2004, Hatcher set up a blog for the four friends, called "Fight to Survive," at ftssoldier.blogspot.com.

"We were opposed to the war before we went," Englehart says. "And we got together and said, "You know what we should do? We should write about this shit.'"

The posse of four began posting to the blog, using pen names. They wrote whatever they felt: the good, the bad and the "Bush is a fascist."

The latter got them into trouble.

"They threatened to court-martial us," Englehart says.

The Department of Defense doesn't allow soldiers to call Bush the f-word. Other words on the no-no list for presidential name-calling apparently include "Fight to Survive" favorites like "Nazi" and "gangster."

But the men got lucky (again). An investigation revealed they had not violated "operational security," and in a don't-rock-the-boat move, they were released from military service in 2005 without being charged.

More than talk

They dispersed across the country, but the blog kept going. Reppenhagen was quickly drawn into activism. He took a job in Washington, D.C., with Veterans for America. In his spare time, he volunteered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and for Iraq Veterans Against the War, a national support, advocacy and education organization.

In 2006, Reppenhagen was at the Vans Warped Tour with the Bouncing Souls, introducing the song "Letters from Iraq" one of Reppenhagen's poems, set to music.

Coincidentally, a young soldier named Jared Hood was in the audience that day. Hood later told Reppenhagen that the Warped speech helped him decide to go AWOL.

In 2007, Reppenhagen moved to Green Mountain Falls and started attending Pikes Peak Community College, studying to be a history teacher. Slowly, he began gathering his old friends. Schrader lives in the Fort Collins area. Hatcher lives in Cascade with his girlfriend and her 5-year-old son; they are expecting twins. Englehart moved to Denver at Reppenhagen's urging, bringing his wife.

The friends are all active in IVAW. And they've found others like them. Hood is now the Denver chapter president. Another friend, Mark Wilkerson, runs the Colorado Springs chapter. Wilkerson started writing in earnest while he was locked up for deserting.

"In prison, I really started to find myself," he says, "and this stuff just started to spew out of me."

Across the country, veterans are writing and blogging. IVAW has locked into the growing interest that veterans have in poetry, by launching the Warrior Writers Project. It has since hosted five workshops, where vets share ideas and write poetry, across the country. (There has yet to be a workshop in Colorado.)

Green Door Studio, in collaboration with People's Republic of Paper, has printed one compilation book, Warrior Writers: Move, Shoot and Communicate. L. Brown & Sons Printing, Inc., is putting out a new book, Re-making Sense, in January. Colorado Springs vets are featured in both.

The local veterans' writing community continues to grow, through open mics and advocacy groups. Here are some of the poems coming out of it, along with authors' introductions.

stanley@csindy.com

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