No, I’m not referring to the film, Saving Private Ryan, but to Ryan Smithson, the young author of Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI. This book, written by a young man just a little older than my son Alex, was passed on to me by a friend. She told me it was so engrossing that she sat down and read it from cover to cover. As a writer, that kind of fervor always piques my interest. My friend was right on target: I learned more about Iraq from Ryan than from hours of TV coverage.
I hope that Ryan Smithson keeps writing, because he certainly delivers a moving, well-told story. His use of imagery and irony — and his ability to evoke a sense of place are powerful gifts in such a young author:
“This sudden chill: it’s like the Grim Reaper tracing your spine with his fingernail….The explosion, it’s like the first snowball of an avalanche. It sets off reactions in my body I didn’t know existed. The adrenaline pumping through my veins could power a city. It could melt steel. Stop bullets.”
At one point in his story, Ryan talks about the escape he found in books during his time in Iraq. The red glow of his flashlight turned the white pages pink and made the shadowy words jump off the page: “I wasn’t in the godforsaken Middle East fighting a war. I was in my own country: a country of the mind. I wasn’t a soldier, a GI Joe Schmo. I was the words on the page.”
It wasn’t until a year after he returned, struggled with PTSD, and finally entered college that Ryan began writing down his experiences. Slowly, he began to feel more comfortable talking about what happened in Iraq. And, the more he talked, the more he understood that “it’s the words that save me.” And so we too, can begin to understand, he shaped those words into a book. It was the healing power of words, says Ryan, that set him free.