Ryan Stovall’s poem “American Weddings” begins by asking readers why American weddings almost never get bombed?

In short, direct sentences, he explains that it’s partly because Americans don’t shoot AK-47s into the air in celebration. And most importantly, they don’t get married in Afghanistan. In a footnote below the poem, Stovall has a couple more questions for his readers: “Where was your wedding? When? Any airstrikes?”

The poem is one of more than two dozen that Stovall, a former Army Green Beret who was wounded twice in Afghanistan, has collected into his first book, “Black Snowflakes Smothering a Torch: Or How to Talk To Your Veteran – A Primer.” The book went on sale this month, and Stovall has several readings scheduled around Maine this week, leading up to Veteran’s Day, including Monday at 1 p.m. at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

Stovall, 41, began writing poetry to help his own understanding of what he had been through and how he could deal with civilian life, including the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. But as he wrote more, he decided he wanted to shape his poems into a primer, a text that might make it easier for civilians and veterans to talk and understand each other. One that makes people think about how someone else is thinking.

Ryan Stovall’s first book of poems came out Nov. 1. Photo by Christopher Madden

“I don’t think a lot of civilians and non-veterans have a good idea of the veteran experience, or how we see the the civilian world when we come back,” said Stovall, who lives in Phillips, near Farmington. “If someone frequently offers up a kind of unthought-out ‘Thank you for your service,’ I’d like to give them some inkling of how that does not resonate and how it might make a veteran feel. But if there’s context around it, if it’s part of a larger conversation, then ‘Thank you for your service’ feels like a genuine expression of gratitude.”

Since getting out of the Army in 2010 – after seven years on active duty – Stovall has pursued writing, first by finishing his degree in English at the University of Maine and then by enrolling in an MFA writing program at Fairfield University in Connecticut. There, one of his teachers was Baron Wormser, who was Maine’s poet laureate from 2000 to 2006.


Wormser said that while many poetry students are seeking self-expression, he thinks Stovall’s motivation is different because he approaches his writing with a mission in mind.

“He’s communicating his experience in ways that are honest and cut through a lot of the rhetoric and hypocrisy that surrounds us in the world today. I think one of the things he’s getting at is that we’re all complicit in wars and what happens to veterans, even if we think we’re not,” said Wormser. “Poetry is essential writing, it’s urgent writing, and he’s able to tap into that urgency with these poems.”

Stovall’s book has a forward that he labeled “Warning.” He cautions that the book, while filled with poems, is not meant to be a book of poetry, but instead a manual for “teaching those who have experienced war and those who have not how to converse.” He writes that some of the challenges veterans face are not just the result of what they’ve seen at war but because of qualities “inherent to the American way of life.”

The idea of winning and winners, for example, is a concept that’s clearly defined in American culture and history. But his poem “Winning,” with grisly images of battles and attacks, begins with the line, “I don’t want to win the old way any more.” It continues:

we used to kick doors down
or blow them in
no huffing or puffing though
by the hair on anyone’s chin
then we’d all come running in
and shoot anybody stupid enough
to still be holding a gun a knife a baby or
any other weapon
brutal yes
and mistakes were sometimes made
but clean simple and direct
and most definitely an end

While some of the footnotes after Stovall’s poems have questions, some explain terms or give locations and dates for the incident in the poem. Others give credit to another writer or written work Stovall might have been inspired by or is “riffing on.”  The footnote for “Winning” credits “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare.



Stovall grew up in the small, rural town of Troy, Montana, about three hours northwest of Missoula. He grew up outside – hunting, hiking, fishing and camping. After high school he enrolled at the University of Montana and was studying there when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened, setting the stages for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He felt like he wanted to “do my part” in the effort to defend the country and protect it from further attacks, but it took him some time to decide what. In 2002, he decided to enlist in the Army but finished out his year of college. In 2003, he joined the Army, just a few credits short of a degree. He was 21.

Ryan Stovall sitting in an Army MRAP, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, vehicle in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Ryan Stovall

He signed up for the Army’s Special Forces, known as Green Berets, because he heard the training was rigorous and a lot of people wouldn’t make the cut. He says he liked the idea of being surrounded by people – potentially in battle – who were well-trained and considered elite soldiers. Plus, recruiters told him he could jump out of airplanes.

He trained as a medic – someone who can give soldiers medical attention in battle, or as Stovall describes it, like a physician’s assistant with a gun.

In July of 2009, Stovall and about a dozen others were ambushed outside of Kabul, Afghanistan, while on a foot patrol. Stovall was wounded in the gunfire, bullets creating rock and metal fragments that pierced his thigh, some deeply. Doug Vose, the team’s intelligence officer, was wounded far worse – a bullet ripped into his lower back and exited through his upper chest.

Stovall scrambled to his wounded team member’s side and sealed Vose’s wounds with plastic-adhesive medical pads. He had to make a slit in Vose’s skin to find a vein and insert a makeshift IV. He inserted a tube down Vose’s trachea, to help him breath and keep him from vomiting. While working on Vose, Stovall had to get up at times to shoot back at the enemy. The fight lasted an hour and a half. Vose was eventually taken to a helicopter and transported away from the battle site, but at some point, Stovall does not know when, he died.


That incident inspired the poem “Death on an ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha),” as well as parts of others, Stovall said. “Death on an ODA” is about Stovall and other soldiers attending a memorial service for Vose, at an Army camp later named for him. The poem closes with the lines:

I cannot recall who spoke that day
nor the names or faces even
of the men who shook our hands
but I remember my team
and how we stood together

“Some of the poems come out of me having medic guilt, having teammates die and having that feeling always stay with you,” said Stovall.

Being a medic in combat is a particularly difficult role for someone to understand who hasn’t done it. When Stovall was putting his book together, he reached out to Graham Barnhart, a fellow Army medic and published poet from Denton, Texas.

“It’s almost like there’s this pre-guilt. You’re expected to keep everyone alive in the worst possible situations you can imagine. You can’t pack enough stuff to treat everything, you can’t know enough,” said Barhart, 37. Barhart said he likes the way Stovall uses footnotes and questions to bring the focus “from the stark image in the poem back to them.”

Ryan Stovall said he’d like his book of poems to foster understanding between veterans and civilians. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Five weeks after he tried unsuccessfully to save his team member, Stovall was wounded again, when an explosion blew a chunk out of his leg. He limped over to wounded a soldier, and they bandaged each other. It was nighttime, so he did everything by feel. Eventually, he and the other wounded man ran to a helicopter and safety. Rock and dead tissue had to be cleaned out of his leg, and he need two more surgeries to stretch the skin and close the wound.


Not long after that injury, in late 2009, he decided he wouldn’t re-enlist. He said he felt like he and other highly-trained Special Forces weren’t being used to their full ability and for the best use, and he became “disgusted” with the mission in Afghanistan, after seeing the way the war was waged and dragging on.

He got out of the Army in 2010, went back to Montana and married his wife Kathy, whom he had met while stationed in Germany. They found they couldn’t afford a home in Montana and decided to come to Maine. Stovall had been here before, and the mountains and forests reminded him of where he grew up.

He started seeing a psychologist while still in the Army to deal with PTSD.  He found he couldn’t “slow my mind down and rest.” A psychologist suggested that writing about what he’d been through might help. So he started writing and found it helped a lot, so he “ran with it.”

After the Army, he worked for defense contractors for about five years, then finished his bachelor’s degree and went on to complete a master’s in fine arts. He found he had enough poems for a book, so he submitted them to a publisher, Woodhall Press in Connecticut, which accepted it.

One of Stovall’s goals with the book is to help readers understand there are a lot of nuances to the way veterans think and react and feel. He says a lot of people have a narrow image of PTSD, as someone who wakes up screaming, but that there’s a lot of variation in how it affects people.

“I want to help people have a more nuanced understanding of what a veteran’s experience can be like. It isn’t always the same,” he said.

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