May 26, 2011
Gerardo Mena still fights back emotions as he recalls the incident.
He was a Navy medic in his highly trained Marine reconnaissance outfit. The assignment was cut and dried: search an Iraqi neighborhood for a targeted individual, and report back. Another U.S. platoon had searched earlier and found nothing.
"Some idiot up in the battalion decided to make us go after him also," Mena says. "They put us on the same road the other platoon used. Obviously there's going to be IEDs."
The metal detectors didn't find the roadside bomb that was concealed under a pressure plate in the road. Mena watched as the mine took the life of Cpl. Jose Galvan and left Cpl. Kyle Powell severely injured but alive.
Mena rushed to apply the medical aid he was trained to give to save the life of his comrade. "He died right before we got to the hospital," Mena says, his jaw quivering.
"I had always done well in the training schools and was a highly trained medic," he says. "To not be able to save somebody — that part was really rough."
A month passed without casualties before another roadside bomb struck Mena's platoon. Lt. Nathan Krissoff died instantly in an explosion that engulfed a transport vehicle traveling in southern Iraq. Mena tended to his other injured comrades but was helpless to save Krissoff.
"In the movies, nobody's scared," Mena explains. "But me and my friends, we were scared shitless all the time. I'm not going to let that stop me from going out there and protecting them."
Mena's bravery was awarded with a Navy Achievement Medal with a "V" for Valor. His seven-month stint in Iraq ended in April 2007 and concluded his six-year service in the Special Operations with the Reconnaissance Marines as a special amphibious reconnaissance corpsman.
A more cynical Mena returned home and enrolled at MU in 2008, hoping to follow his military service with a career as a high school English teacher. The first few months were rough for him. He let his hair grow and proudly wore the tattoos covering both of his arms. "I was alone and awkward," Mena says. "The younger students, they weren't going to hang out with me."
At that time, Mizzou Student Veterans Association wasn't as popular a group to turn to. Mena sat alone in the back of classrooms, while bottling his feelings about the things he had witnessed during war.
Then everything changed. Mena enrolled in a poetry class and met John A. Nieves, an MU Ph.D. candidate teaching the class. Nieves saw the potential in his new student, and the two worked before, during and after class to hone Mena's work.
"He was not just good at taking constructive criticism; he was hungry to improve his craft," Nieves says. "He always had a clear vision of his project."
Poems such as "So I Was a Coffin" and "Phalanx" are Mena's war experiences in his own words. Inspired by war poet Brian Turner, Mena started submitting his work to contests and publications. The poems were met with rejection letters for two years straight.
"It makes you feel like your words don't matter, and what you went through doesn't matter," Mena says of the rejections. "They're very personal poems, war poems."
He prepared one last envelope bound for the Winningwriters 2010 War Poetry Contest. "I said that if I don't at least place, I'm just never going to write again."
"So I Was a Coffin" took first place at the contest. The doors to publication swung open, and Mena has since published poems and multimedia pieces in Burner Magazine, The Medulla Review, The New Mexico Poetry Review, Nashville Review and The Blue Lotus Review.
Mena expects to eventually publish his first full-length manuscript of poetry, "So I Was a Flag," which is currently being judged at contests. GerardoMena.com, his official website, houses samples of his work including songs he's written and performed.
"He is not waiting to become a published poet. He is one," Nieves says. "I have no doubt whatsoever that we will be reading his work for a long time to come."
A senior at MU, Mena plans to graduate in May 2012 and is currently working on a platoon memoir to further preserve the people and stories of his service.
"It's the experiences, the bad and good, so that people don't just think everything is like a Rambo movie," Mena says. "My friends that died aren't forgotten."