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English Grad Student Publishes War Essay in Top Literary Journal

April 7, 2015

Mike Kubista (web)

Las Vegas, N.M. – Deployed in the midst of the horror and death of combat in Iraq in 2003, a 19-year-old U.S. Marine machine gunner sits in the turret of a Humvee each night to write in a battered dust-covered journal.

“I had a gut feeling that I needed to record my experiences in Iraq,” said Mike Kubista, a decorated two-tour Iraq veteran and English graduate student at Highlands University. “Writing enlightened me and helped me process the complexity of my situation as well as my own terrors and inadequacies.”

The journal entries became the seeds of an essay called “Rapid Fire” that Kubista honed in a graduate creative nonfiction workshop led by Highlands English professor Jill Talbot. The essay will be published in The Rumpus, a leading online literary journal with a monthly readership of 800,000.

“In my essay I try to put the reader where I was in Iraq as a young machine gunner dealing with the carnage of war that was everywhere. ‘Rapid Fire’ is the introduction for a memoir I’m writing that’s tentatively called Dark-Bright. The theme of my memoir is growing through conflict. I need to write this book,” Kubista said.

In “Rapid Fire,” Kubista employs a matter-of-fact narrative style that portrays the bloody intensity of the war scenes while avoiding sentimentality. Like war itself, the scenes are brutal and jarring.

He opens the essay with his friend, a sergeant, sitting in a Humvee eating breakfast in a village a few miles south of Baghdad. An Iraqi civilian man shoots the sergeant point-blank in the face, but miraculously the shot ricochets off his sunglasses and he survives with only a graze wound and a muzzle burn the size of a quarter. The Iraqi man keeps shooting – with bullets bouncing off the sergeant’s flack vest ­–­ until other Marines riddle the man with bullets and he falls dead.

In 2003, Kubista rolled into Iraq in a Humvee with the first U.S. invasion forces. He stood vulnerable in the Humvee’s turret behind his mounted M240G midsize machine gun. At 6’3” and 210 pounds, he had a commanding physical presence. Yet guns and mortar are the great equalizer and size and physical strength don’t spare you from death.

“In the first few months in the Ramadi and Fallujah area, every day as I left camp to run security missions I would mentally prepare myself to die, saying, ‘just do your job,’’’ Kubista said. “You either buckle or do your job – there are no other options. Once the gunfire starts there’s crippling fear, and you want to run, but then intellectually you know you must stand your ground. You begin to think and act to protect your guys.”

Even though he earned military commendations for both valor in combat and uncommon professionalism, Kubista shies away from being labeled as brave.

“It goes back to doing your job, with duty pulling you in one direction, compassion in another. It’s a grittier definition of bravery without the noble ambitions that you see in war movies,” Kubista said.

Kubista cross-trained as a mortar man, military police officer, and scout, saying he grew from an inexperienced and unknown kid into someone his unit could depend upon. He shakes his head when describing how both his Marine units in 2003 and 2004 were remarkably lucky in their low death toll.

“We got ambushed several times and should have been crushed, but we mostly escaped unscathed with minor injuries. We should have lost more men. I was a perfect, easy target in the Humvee, exposed from the waist up. It just wasn’t my time to go. There’s no other way to explain it. My experience in Iraq was at times ugly and horrific, but also the greatest formative experience of my life,” Kubista said.

He said in the midst of war there was also beauty in Iraq.

“I remember a time when I was on the top of a building in a little city south of Baghdad providing extra cover and a set of eyes for guys on the street below. I scanned the landscape, seeing a beautiful bright-pink sunset over a grove of palm trees next to the slow-moving Saddam Canal. It was a serene and peaceful scene,” Kubista said.

While the memories of haunting bloodshed and human suffering in Iraq remain vivid, Kubista does not suffer from the post-traumatic stress disorder so common in returning soldiers. He credits his strong faith with helping him remain heart-whole and grounded.

After Iraq, Kubista served in a reserve infantry unit in Utah from 2005 – 2006. After an honorable discharge, he spent a number of years working jobs ranging from construction framer in Utah to windshield factory worker in Minnesota, his native state. Along the way, he spent a good deal of time volunteering in settings like rape crisis teams, soup kitchens, and Sunday school classes.

In 2011 at the age of 27 Kubista quit a job as a retail manager in Seattle, saying he followed his gut again and returned to writing.

“My decision to become a writer came out of my desire to add more value to the world. I feel like writing is part of my life mission, but I needed to learn more about crafting and storytelling,” Kubista said.

He earned a BFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University in 2013 before enrolling in the creative nonfiction graduate English program at Highlands in 2014.

“It’s been fantastic working with Jill Talbot, my creative nonfiction professor and mentor at Highlands. She’s a master of the genre, and that’s been extremely helpful to me. Being a graduate student at Highlands buys me more time to write and learn as much as I can,” said Kubista, who also teaches freshman composition at Highlands.

“What’s rare about Mike is his ability to identify what’s at the core of his writing – what he calls grit,” Talbot said. “He can take us into the most distressing – and sometimes beautiful – moments and we feel as though we’re there with him. His blatant portrayal of death and its aftermath is unapologetic. That’s what makes it so powerful and engaging.”

Talbot said Kubista is exceptionally responsive and open to feedback, demanding upfront criticism.

“Mike works very hard and his progress and development has been astounding in these last months. I predict that The Rumpus publication will be life changing for him, and that an agent or editor will pick him up for his memoir. Mike is determined to pursue a writing career, and I have no doubt he will succeed,” Talbot said.