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The Price of a Life

By Melanie Graham

2011 - With veterans now accounting for one of every five suicides in the nation, the VA is under pressure from the courts and Congress to fix its mental health services in an attempt to curb the death toll. In April, 25 soldiers committed suicide, equal to about half the deaths in Afghanistan during the month.


She appears again, 2-year-old riding her hip,
grief so great he can see through her birkha, past Qualaday,

into the kitchen, his mother nurturing chicken
in popping grease. It gags him, the leg she brings-

her husband's - but that's better than the head, an empty-eyed
mask, so much of the skull left behind.

As they talk, he nods, amazed by their understanding, notices
dirt on her hem, she's been digging again, hands black,

blood rimming the nails. So much they share; even in Idaho
the earth is red. She wants to trade the leg,

asks, What will America give? The children must eat.
He shows the pictures again - what his soldiers have done -

the killing fun - says a leg is only a leg, no real proof
but thinks, at least its something,
when you think what fragmentation can do.


They walk toward the trestle, headphones block the mowing,
his father gone chore crazy, the cutting and collecting,

teeth pried from the mostly-dead, fingers squirreled away
in stiff flannel, grenades lined up like beer cans, or was it

the other way around? Every man has a beast
in the heart
- feed it Kandahar Province again, a day purpled

by poppies, this widow's man, civilian kill,
detonated by a mud wall, propped up with props to justify the sport -

an AK, some rubble of blame.


$11,300, he says, is what you get
for a murdered haji
. The train is close.

The children squat beside the rail, pressing coins
onto quivering metal. The price of a life, he thinks,

will take a long time, coin, to coin, to coin on the line.
But in the end, one step takes less than a second.

Added: Thursday, July 3, 2014  /  Used with permission.
Melanie Graham

Melanie Graham is completing her final year of Ph.D. through the University of Lancaster, UK, working on a creative dissertation of poetry concerning women and violence. Her poems have most recently appeared in The Harvard Summer Review, anderbo, sweet: a literary confection, and The Southern Quarterly. She was a finalist for the Stephen Dunn Prize for Poetry, as well as So To Speak's 2010 poetry contest. Her work is forthcoming in Palooka and as a finalist in Southeast Review's poetry competition. Her found-poem-as-art "Many Happy Returns: An After-War Reunification and Realities Guide" confronting PTSD, military homicides, and suicides resulting from service in Afghanistan and Iraq will debut at the University of South Florida's Centre Gallery in October 2011.

Other poems by this author