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Post-traumatic stress disorder is a new name for "shell shock," a term once applied only to military veterans. Here the poet Marvin Bell describes a group of these emotionally damaged soldiers, gathered together for breakfast.

Ted Kooser, U.S. poet laureate, 2004-2006

His army jacket bore the white rectangle

of one who has torn off his name. He sat mute

at the round table where the trip-wire veterans

ate breakfast. They were foxhole buddies

who went stateside without leaving the war.

They had the look of men who held their breath

and now their tongues. What is to say

beyond that said by the fathers who bent lower

and lower as the war went on, spines curving

toward the ground on which sons sat sandbagged

with ammo belts enough to make fine lace

of enemy flesh and blood. Now these who survived,

who got back in cargo planes emptied at the front,

lived hiddenly in the woods behind fence wires

strung through tin cans. Better an alarm

than the constant nightmare of something moving

on its belly to make your skin crawl

with the sensory memory of foxhole living.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by the Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright 2007 by Marvin Bell, and reprinted from Mars Being Red, Copper Canyon Press, 2007, by permission of the author and publisher. The poem first appeared in Gettysburg Review, Summer 2007. Introduction copyright 2007 by the Poetry Foundation.