Crosses and Graffiti

I am fortunate to have seen
the remnants of antiquity
to wander
among its columns and statuary

Sifting through the detritus
I have breathed
the sobering moulder of dead sages
of lost and layered-over ages;

on wind-scorched mountains
turned blocks of fallen
naves and apses

run chaffed fingers along
their crosses and graffiti
but often

because Someone Else’s pen
first piqued me
and planted a seed
in a good book’s pages

Ruins of a Byzantine chapel atop Hasan Dagh, Turkey (2002)


To these authors; Paul the Apostle (Epistles), Dame Agatha Christie (Murder in Mesopotamia), William Dalrymple (From The Holy Mountain), Herodotus (“The Histories”), Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air), John Julius Norwich (Byzantium), R.L. Stevenson (, Wilfred Thesiger (Arabian Sands), Alexis de Tocqueville (Journey to America), Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War), and still others — thank you for taking and sending me to so many places!

WT's Leica

Wilfried Thesiger’s Leica, taken with my Leica lens (cute, I know) — at Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, UAE


Eulogy for SSG Brian Prosser

Now a void where no new memory

SSG Brian Prosser

SSG Brian Prosser

Grows as we grow older

A place once warmed by camaraderie

Now cold, and each year colder

— Nelson Gibbs

December 5th marks the 10th anniversary of the US military’s first combat losses in Afghanistan. Three Special Forces soldiers from 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group (A) died alongside five anti-Taliban Afghan fighters when a 2000-lb bomb missed its target near Kandahar. One of those killed that day was my friend, Staff Sergeant Brian Cody Prosser.

Ten years ago, I was driving to work on a crisp December morning in Würzburg, Germany, listening to the news on my car radio. A familiar announcer somberly reported the “friendly fire” incident, and she read off the names of the three Americans killed the day before,

“Master Sergeant Jefferson Donald Davis, 39, of Watauga, Tennessee; Sergeant First Class Daniel Petithory of Cheshire, Massachusetts, and Staff Sergeant Brian Prosser, 28, of Frazier Park, California . . .”

“No,” I said, fumbling with the volume knob as the announcer clarified,

“… known to family as “Cody”. . .”

My heart sank into my stomach, “Dammit!” I shouted at the radio, pounding the steering wheel. “Not Brian, not Brian!”

It is a tragedy, I know, whenever and wherever we lose a service member. America suffers a great loss whenever we lose one, especially in their prime. But fratricide — “friendly fire” — that really hit me hard, and on top of it, I knew this one.

Ten years on, I still often think of Brian. He impressed all who knew him as an outstanding soldier, absolutely dedicated to the profession. I remember him as an intense, clear-eyed, square-jawed guy with “Sergeant Major” written all over him, but his serious demeanor in uniform also belied an easy-going nature and a wry sense of humor.

I try to remember the others, too. I pray for the bereaved and grieving. I also wonder about the five Afghan fighters — who mourned for them? Each was some mother’s hope, a father’s pride — did their families recover them? Did they know how brave they were? Do they think of them while standing in the voting line (the first one was reportedly a mile-and-a-half long) in Kandahar, near where the men died? Do they still think it was worth it? These are the things I think about.

I think about conversations Brian and I had; about the NCO Corps, our expectations and reservations about a military career; about the SpecOps community (he imagined he’d end up in a Ranger Bat and wanted to go to Ranger School); how we swapped stories from our experiences in different combat zones. We talked books and authors — he was a fan of the “Conan the Barbarian” graphic novels. We discussed Clancy and Ambrose, and Dick Marcinko. We discussed Audie Murphy and other heroes; what kind of guy throws himself on a grenade, and could I do that? Is it something you “just do” in the moment, or was it a quirk of exceptionally noble character that enables one to do that? Serious discussions about life, death and duty.

I think we got on well because of how seriously we both took the service. We were “true believers” so to speak. We served and trained with many “non-believers” — even some dirt bags — those more interested in advancing themselves than learning to lead; those who cared only about the next promotion, or getting laid, or just skating by while others did the heavy lifting — the welfare soldiers (a term coined by retired Command Sergeant Major J.D. Pendry) for whom the question “What’s in it for me?” is always paramount — they were prevalent in the pre-9-11 ranks. In the end, Brian was where he belonged in Special Operations — a community which naturally tends to separate the “wheat from the chaff” when it comes to character and motivation. Consider that the highest percentage of casualties in the GWOT have been Special Operations personnel.

There are intersecting memories, too: Shortly after 9-11, my wife received a heartfelt letter from a dear German couple we’ve known some 20 years. In it, the wife expressed her appreciation for my wife as a military spouse, adding that she knew her own country’s prosperity was due in large part to the presence of U.S. Armed Forces “keeping the peace” and subsidizing defense on that Continent. Hardly three months after that letter — the weekend after Brian was killed — my wife and I were again guests in their Munich apartment. We’d been there many times over the years, sharing great conversation, great beer, and hearty laughs.

This particular evening, my host was preparing our customary quaff of Edelstoff (a favorite local brew) and I asked him for a third glass. He seemed puzzled, but obliged. We settled down at the small table in their dimly lit kitchen, safe in the heart of the Bavarian metropolis. I turned the third glass upside down on the table, and toasted, “Staff Sergeant Brian Prosser, rest in peace, cold soldier.” Mitch drew a quick breath and looked up at the ceiling, his glass still poised in toast. By the candle light I could see his eyes had welled up. “He’s here,” he said quietly, “I feel him with us.” And then, in German, he said a prayer. This gesture is a memory I will always cherish.

Brian represented the finest our nation had to offer. My prayers go to his widow and family.

I am ever thankful for your courage, commitment and ultimate sacrifice.  I feel an empty place where ten years of new memories should have been collecting, but never will — a place once warmed by camaraderie, now ten years cold.

Rest in Peace, Brian.

SFC Stan Lavery, USA, (Ret.)

View pictures of Brian’s Memorial at

Remembrance of a Rare Veteran, Veterans’ Day, 11-11-11, 11:11 am

George in "Retirement"

Today at 11:11 AM, I reflected on how rare that moment, 11:11, 11-11-11 is, and as it is also Veteran’s Day, I imagined all those 1’s lined up, like a full-dress column of those other rarities, our veterans.

How rare are our veterans? Well, the ranks of our “Greatest Generation” — the WWII veterans — diminish every day. As for current veterans, consider this: less than one-percent of US citizens serve in today’s armed forces. So even active-duty service members are, statistically speaking, rare.

Focused on the theme of rarity, I reflected on those few inimitable, one-of-a-kind individuals  — the truly rare — who have touched my life in a meaningful way. There are a handful, all of whom I could write about, and some who I could write a book about. But on this Rarest of Veterans’ Days, one particular individual — a veteran, entrepreneur and cherished friend stayed on my mind. His name was Yuri Mikhailevich Selizki, AKA George M. Selizki, M.D., AKA “George Michael of Madison Avenue”(TM).  I always called him Dr. Michael.

George was a living witness to history who… (pick any of the following for the screenplay — they’re all true)

…witnessed his family’s humiliation under the nascent Bolshevik movement’s purges.  A family of the old nobility in Saint Petersburg, Russia, they were singled out for persecution. His mother was a professional opera singer whose talents were of no use to the Proletariat. The very young Yuri saw his mother shorn of her gorgeous hair before she was taken from him.  Their properties were seized (the Selizki home is now a government admin building for Russian telecommunications) and his parents were never seen again. Fortunately, the boy was considered young enough for re-education;

…after graduating medical school at the University of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) was initially commissioned an officer of the Soviet Navy; was present when General Zhukov asked — on the eve of the battle of Stalingrad — the opinions of all attending officers on that city’s defenses. The young officer told the fearsome General the city could not withstand the German onslaught. “What General listens to a little-shit fresh from academy?” he reminisced years later;

…by age 24, through a combination of merit and the Soviet Army’s desperation for live leaders, he became Russia’s youngest Colonel in command of an entire battalion, valiantly resisting Hitler’s forces along the Soviet Western front;

…was captured and languished two years in a German prisoner camp, where the officers took their uniforms, shaved the heads, and dressed them in denim (he often railed how the German officers took particular pleasure in shaving the women’s heads);  was freed by US troops, joined the US Army, and served on General Patton’s staff, staying on through the end of the war and into the occupation, serving as a Counter-Intelligence officer in Garmisch, Germany, ferreting out escaped Nazis;

…emigrated to the US in 1951, piloting a ship of Jewish refugees across the Atlantic to New Orleans; retired from the US Army as a Lieutenant Colonel, went to New York and practiced reconstructive plastic surgery at Mt. Sinai Hospital;

…during the nation’s “Red Scare” in the ’50’s, was refused renewal of his medical license, having lost his livelihood as a physician, he decided on a completely new career centered around an industry he could be passionate about — and the subject of his doctoral thesis — “Hair Growth and Nutrition” (the Red Scare apparently skipping the hair business). Friends and colleagues balked at the idea, told him he was too skilled, too educated to “do hair.” He said to them, “Show me the book that says, because I have a medical degree I cannot go to Hair Dressing School!” and he began a new path, specializing on the care and maintenance of women’s long hair. Starting with two rented chairs, he built an international hair-care system practiced in salons in 10 countries;

…became a consultant for companies such as Revlon and DuPont, a member of the US Presidential Advisory Committee, Honorary President of COSMA, and was by all standards a Renaissance Man — an aficionado of classical music, international cuisine, wines, travel, books, history and beautiful women.

These were the experiences and accomplishments of just one man; an American success story if ever there was one.

George was rare in other ways: he had an encyclopedic knowledge and a remarkable memory. He once gave me exact directions to a place he hadn’t been to in thirty years. From his home in Florida, he dictated over the phone — street-by-street with landmarks — the drive from my home near Würzburg, Germany, to the Church of St. George in Walldürn, some sixty-kilometers away.

Some thought George a braggart, but they misunderstood him: he was simply a man of calibre, worldliness and acumen and he knew it, and didn’t mind you knowing it.  But he was not conceited. His wife of more than forty years, Mercedes Abella Selizki once told me, “George was born without two things; innocence and modesty.” He was irascible, commanding, authoritative, opinionated, but eminently loveable, and always a very giving man. Giving of his time, hospitality, recipes, expertise, advice, money — the “shirt off of his back”, if you must.

George is gone now, his best stories yet untold. He passed in his home at age 90. Addressing mourners at his wake, Mercedes said, “George loved women,” and she explained how he truly cared for women — was an advocate for their issues, needs, and status in the modern world. I smiled as she spoke, remembering how each visit was practically a health consultation. How he would palpate my wife’s neck, examine her eyes, scalp, fingernails, and proceed to give advise on her diet, nutrition, habits, hygiene and anything else she did or did not wish to hear. And he was like that with everyone.  “I miss him,” she told  me just today, and she began to cry. This is the effect that George had on so many people, all over the world. We were privileged to know this rare gem of a man, and his equally fine wife who balanced and tempered him especially well in the later years.

So I honor the memory of Dr. George Michael Selizki as a veteran, and a singularly special individual. But I would be remiss where I not to mention another subject that was close to his heart — fellow veterans.

So to all of my fellow veterans,

Thank you for volunteering; whether you served in peace or in war, you knew the risks, weighed the costs and took the oath.

For those drafted to serve, thank you for answering the call of duty — you could have gone underground or to Canada as so many of your contemporaries did.

To the military spouses, thank you for your unsung sacrifices and support, it is its own service.

For you caretakers of our wounded and scarred, the war is ever before you — thank you.

And thank you — most of all — to those who paid the ultimate price, you heroes who lie cold.

On this rarest Veterans’ Day, 11-11-11, please remember those who rest beneath the long, neat rows of markers, and if you are awake at 11:11 PM, say a prayer for all who serve.