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Healing the Wounds of War

Navy Captain Fred foote uses poetry to soothe the battle-scarred

“I’m a pacifist who still honors warriors and soldiers,” says the Navy Captain. “If we send them over and they get hurt, it’s on us to do everything we can do heal them and make them better.”
Loader and gunner, brothers from boot camp days,
they came in one platoon to the shock of war;
daily they clung to each other for strength and grace —
each promised to bring the other home once more.
Now both return: two versions of amputee
–from “Bonded,” by Fred Foote


As a draftable teen in the heat of the Vietnam War in 1970, poet Fred Foote was far from the battlefront. No bullets or blood, but he was facing a war of his own.
    “I had an emotional breakdown at 19,” said Foote.
    During this breakdown, the St. John’s College dropout moved to Ireland, where he found work in a small bookshop. As a poet, he had a gift for transcribing the world through verse. But his talent scared him.
    “When I was a teenager, all I wanted to do was be a poet,” Foote told me after he’d returned to Annapolis for a summer 2015 poetry reading. “That was my thing. But then I had an identity crisis. I decided poetry was making me crazy. And I probably was crazy, but it wasn’t the poetry that did it.”
    Foote forced himself away from his dangerous passion and back to college after his year and a half of solitary soul-searching on the Irish coast. To pay for school, he followed his family’s tradition and joined the Navy as a medical corpsman. On the wane of his life as a poet, Foote’s shift was no arbitrary decision.
    “When I was 16, I spent three weeks in a naval hospital on a ward with 39 shot-to-pieces Vietnam marines,” said Foote, serious suddenly. “That was such a horrible hell. The wounds were terrible, the sufferings were terrible. So, when I decided to not be a poet, I thought, Well, maybe I can take care of the wounded-at-war.”
    In pursuit of his new vision, Foote finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago, then moved on to medical school at Georgetown University. He served as a doctor in the Navy, choosing to stay with the military long after his obligatory four years.
    With his life concentrated as a captain in the Navy, Foote’s passion for poetry reemerged.
    “Then in 1995, at 44, my poetry just came back to me, out of the blue. That late in the game, I came back and kicked the door in. It was overwhelming. I began by writing about what I was doing in my medical term.”
    During this time, Captain Foote wrote about his experiences with injured soldiers at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, which we now know as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
    “Ever since then, poetry’s been my second career.”
    It wasn’t easy balancing this unlikely life of Navy doctor and poet. “Because of my medical commitments, I had to write for about two hours right in the middle of the night,” he said.

on the Neuro ward.
Not a sigh
except the ventilators.
If my pulse
would only go down,
I’d sleep a little.

    Since his artistic rebirth, Foote has written two books and plans for a third. His most recent, Medic Against Bomb, details his experiences in 2003 when he volunteered to join the first wave of American troops in the invasion of Iraq. He was the doctor on a Navy hospital ship off the coast of Iraq, seeing both American and Iraqi casualties — many of them civilian women and children.
    As in Medic Against Bomb, he said his ship’s “big adventure was taking care of the Iraqis. That’s what made the biggest impression.”
    His poetry is haunting in its brutal honesty. Rather than worship war or praise the honor in fighting for one’s country, Foote focuses on what he knows best: caring for the wounded, for those who have no control over when or where to fight. Foote’s poetry speaks of the gruesome, the severed and the seemingly hopeless.
    “Hate the war; love the warrior,” he said. “I’m a pacifist who still honors warriors and soldiers. If we send them over and they get hurt, it’s on us to do everything we can do heal them and make them better.”

We shot him through his chest, and now we’re saving his life;
it seems absurd, but that’s what Americans do —
blow a place apart, then put it together again,
pretending it’s as good as new.

    During his tour in the War on Terror, Foote was called home to assist in a new project. With traditional therapy and medicine failing in treating the unseen wounds of war, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder demanded more. That’s what Foote had been preaching for over a decade as the U.S. military’s “holistic guy.”
    “I had been a proponent of the Hospital of the Future at Walter Reed for a while. That had just gotten some notice and some attention. So I was called back from the Gulf to be an advisor to build this new hospital from 2006 to 2015.”
    “Holistic medicine,” Foote explained, “is any kind of medicine that doesn’t treat one organ. So it’s not pills and surgery, it’s other stuff. It consists of healing buildings, family-centered care, integrational care, wellness — nutrition, exercise, meditation and alternative medicine — and, lastly, healing through nature, art and spirituality.”
    At Walter Reed, Foote has helped build state-of-the-art programs in each of these aspects of holistic care. Though he oversees the whole program, Foote’s specialty is poetry. He says he sometimes feels like Hippie Foote, as the guy reaching out to poetry, Eastern philosophy and the arts to help soldiers cope with the traumas of war.

I saw the things Prime Time would never see
caught by the cameraman beside the bed.
The child was just the age of my own son.

    Garnering attention with his book Medic Against Bomb — it has been celebrated by the Library of Congress and National Endowment For The Arts, it was a finalist in the USA Best Book Awards and won the Grayson Books’ Poetry Prize — Foote has had book releases and poetry readings across the nation, as well as in Annapolis, to raise funds and awareness for his projects.
    His newest work, nearing completion, is the Green Road Project, a holy place of healing. Foote is creating a path throughout the dense woods on the Walter Reed campus to connect two living communities. The path will be fit for wheelchairs, and it gently follows the lovely Stoney Creek where, Foote says, soldiers find peace.
    Foote’s plans continue beyond the Green Road Project. As he drove me around Walter Reed, he seemed to see an opportunity for healing in every corner of the campus. His face glowed with optimism and excitement at every new idea.

Learn more at Follow Frederick Foote on Facebook and Twitter. Schedule book fundraising events with Foote free of charge: 240-483-9676;