Healing the Veteran: The Veteran Writer


– Good afternoon. My name is Dave Boocker. I’m the Dean of the College
of Arts and Sciences, here at UNO, and I wanna welcome you all to this session on The Veteran Writer. First thing I need to say is unfortunately, Bruce
Weigl, who is in Omaha now, apparently arrived
feeling under the weather and is under the weather, and so, he is, he is
unable to join us today. That’s okay ’cause we have
two tremendous panelists and I will be the
moderator for the session, and so I think we’ve agreed that they will introduce themselves. I wanna point out that they’re, you know, if you have questions,
please write your questions on a card and there are folks in the room who will collect them
and deliver them to me so that I can ask the questions. So if you would begin by
introducing yourselves and we will proceed. – This is odd introducing myself, so, Sharon Robino-West, I spent four years in the
United States Marine Corp working as a communicator
in an artillery unit. My family history has
lots of military tradition woven through it, all
the way down to my son who was in Iraq, and he’s
also a United States marine. As far as I know, I’m the
only female that ever served. I’ve served at, also as a program manager for Lutheran Family
Services At Ease Program partnering with the Douglas
County Department of Corrections and creating the Veteran’s
Program in the jail and also started the first
women veteran’s program in the state of Nebraska for the Women’s Center for Advancement. Currently I do work for the VA as a community employment
coordinate, coordinator. I am not representing the VA today and got involved in the veteran
writing workshops in 2014 through Humanities Nebraska. – Hi everybody, I’m Doug Bradley, some of you have met me already with regard to another
book that I’ve co-authored, which was non-fiction, The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, but I am also a writer of fiction and a writer constantly
because it’s been great therapy for me ever since I was in Vietnam and I got back from Vietnam, and one of the things I’m proudest of is that myself and several
other Vietnam Veterans in the Madison area. We formed a group called
The Deadly Writers Patrol, interesting name, and at
the basis of that is writing as a way for men and women who served to sort of process their experience and maybe to get back home. I mean the year, for
some of us it was a year, unfortunately, these latest conflicts, it’s a little longer, but your time at war is, is only a part of your life. It’s the rest of your life
you try and figure out what that all means and
how you deal with it and how you share it and that’s what writing’s about. So, we now have a number
of Afghan and Iraq vets in our midst and they’re doing, going through the same process that we did. – So this program was designed
to be focused on healing. How important is writing to
that whole process of healing? – I would have to say it’s huge only because of what I
have seen within myself. What I have seen within my son after coming back from Anbar Province and then what I’ve seen in the jail. It’s been a huge tool with
the veterans in the jails. So, and it’s funny we call ourselves
Nebraska Warrior Writers, so we all have to take on that, but I think it’s a huge piece because I think it has to
do with the storytelling. We have to find some way to get this out and it’s in the story telling. Whether it be through
music or through writing and a lot of us do it through writing. – Yeah, I think Sharon’s right, there’s a lot of ways to do this. Writing’s just one of them,
it’s memoirs, it’s poetry, it’s fiction, it’s non-fiction. You know, soldiers have been coming back from wars since forever, but the act of really
being home and healing can take weeks, or months, years, and sometimes it takes a lifetime, it takes forever and that’s where I think writing, storytelling, sharing, they’re getting feedback,
others, you know, having other people respond
to what you’re doing and talk about it, is
just one of the ways, it’s not the only way, but for me, it’s been
a way to get back home and I know for the men and women that have been a part of our circle, that’s been really, really important. – So Doug, how would, what do you write and how would you describe what you write, do you, are you prepared
to read something, or? – Yeah I can, which might be fun. I know we have other writers in the room and probably critics too,
so this will be good, I’ll get some, you know, direct feedback. You know, it was interesting to be, I was an English major in college, which was, you know, really, wasn’t gonna get me
most anywhere probably, but I liked it and what it did though was, it enabled me, I think
to be saved in Vietnam because I was due to be drafted in November or December of 1969 ’cause I had graduated from
college the previous May, lost my student deferment, and what happened was, they canceled, President Nixon wanted to show that his Vietnamization
Program was working, so he canceled November
and December draft calls and I made it to the lottery. I got a low number so I, not that I, that I didn’t make it, I didn’t
make it out of the military, but my point being, I think if I had gone
in the army in November, I’d have been made an infantryman because at being drafted,
I could’ve been anything and luckily for me, by the time I was in basic training in March and was in Vietnam the following November, they tried to align my
skillset with what they needed, so they made me an information
specialist, a writer, an army journalist, so it’s
kinda interesting to be writing about the war and seeing things that you can’t write and share because I was working
for the army newspaper, I can’t say we’re losing. I can’t say this, you
know, I mean we’re having, you know, this is going badly. No, but that was sort
of what I was observing, so I kept notebooks and then I came home and I always thought like a
lot of other English majors that I was gonna write
the great American novel, and I didn’t, but Vietnam kept
sort of nicking away at me, like there was something I needed to say or I should’ve said or I wanted to say, so it took me about 40 years to write what I called a unified
collection of short stories, it’s based on Ernest Hemingway, another great veteran writer. His collection called “In Our Time,” and what I did was I took experiences, that in some cases were real and I can tell you the
people and the names and what happened in the story, but that doesn’t necessarily
make it a good story. You know, Tim O’Brien
talks about story truth and real truth, sometimes
you need to make a story in order to get the point across for somebody to feel, you
know, the pain or the fear, or the anger, or the frustration, so Dave, that’s sort of
what I did for that 40 years and it was really the writing group and having the demands to have
something to read and share with my colleagues every week that helped me to get better ’cause I had to, I had
to produce something and then the reacted to it and responded and I had to rewrite
and that whole process got me finally into this notion of well, hey, there’s something here and I found a really
nice publishing company called Warriors Publishing,
not stealing your name, who it’s run by a Vietnam vet and his wife out in North Hills, California and they publish material like this so I didn’t go through a lot of rejections ’cause I wasn’t gonna go to the big pl– I just went to one place
and got it published. – Sharon, I assume you write
about your experiences in Iraq, is that– – I do write about my experiences, actually it’s my son’s experiences, but I also thought it was
important to tie in the women, the caregivers, the families at home and I wanted it to reach,
the piece that wrote that got published, I
wanted to reach Americans who may not have those family members and those experiences and to
help evoke feelings for them like we have. And I started the piece,
I went to Arlington and it was right about this time, it was right around Veteran’s Day and I started thinking
about the esprit de corp that you have as a marine, especially with your
son also being a marine, and so, I started thinking about that and thinking I was getting ready to do a Marine Corp marathon, my last one, and I thought, it would be really cool if he could come to this and he would enjoy being around this and at that time, I had
asked him once before when he was still deployed in Iraq and he was very quiet over the phone and at the time I had asked him, he had, I had realized, “I’m asking you to make a commitment “to run a marathon or come witness it “and you can’t even commit
to coming back home.” So there’s things like that that you realize as you’re writing that are very important pieces so that became a part of the story, so I kind of intertwined
Arlington and the esprit de corp and what my son went through, what we go through as families. – I am not a veteran, Vietnam veteran or veteran at all. I graduated from high school
in 1976, so the Vietnam War was over by 1976. I did have brothers who were Vietnam age. One of them was, in 1969, draft lottery came up, number 12, we know what that means, except that he went down to the navy and enlisted in the navy
and never went to Vietnam, so that was … but and my other brother’s
number was too high, but, you know, sometimes life brings you relationships and experiences that connect you to the war and I have my own life experiences, even though I’m not a veteran, I have a relationship to the Vietnam War that is, I think unique. It represents and it’s, and it’s a story that is and you mentioned 40 years, it’s taken me 39 years
to write this story. Effectively, there are two,
two parts to the story. When I was eight years old, we had a neighbor who, named Frank Brown, and I’m from Lafayette, Louisiana, who went to Vietnam in 1965,
in the first army infantries in the 1965 with Big Red One and I still have letters from Frank Brown to my family that I cherish very deeply. If you would like to see the letters, they’re in the library. They’re in one of the cases in the library and you can read them. When Frank Brown came back
from Vietnam in June of 1966, he gave me his, his helmet,
a South Vietnamese flag, and a bayonet, that some how
has been lost over the years, but the helmet and the
South Vietnamese flag are also in the library. Alright, the other part
of the story is that in, in May of 1977, after my, I like to say after my first undistinguished year of college, I took a job working
part-time at a 7-Eleven store in Lafayette, Louisiana and I, I worked the so called graveyard shift one night a week, typically Monday night except that, on the week of May 30th, which was a Monday, it
was actually Memorial Day, the fellow who worked the graveyard shift prior to, full-time, came to
me the week before and said, “I want to switch with you next week. “I need Wednesday night off “and I will work Monday night off”, so we, we switched, and
so, all I can say is, that I’m here today,
able to tell this story because he was tragically killed in that convenience store robbery. Now the connection to Vietnam is, is that Qua Bao Pham was his name and Qua Bao Pham was a
South Vietnamese refugee who got out with his
sisters and his mother. His father actually remained behind because they still had family that, that stayed behind, so he
stayed back with the family that remained behind, but Qua Bao Pham got
out with his sisters and mother, went to Lafayette, Louisiana, took a job working 7-Eleven
and was tragically killed after two years. This is a story that
I’ve, that I’ve lived with for 39 years, do I have, you know, people say, “do we have survivor’s guilt?” I haven’t figured that out yet, but it is, it is something
that I carried around. When I was, I used to tell my classes this story every semester because it was somehow, it’s
something that I felt like I had to tell and retell and retell and I also had the purpose of wanting to remember Qua Bao Pham. That somebody needed to
remember Qua Bao Pham because nobody’s gonna
remember Qua Bao Pham. There aren’t, nobody
remembers Qua Bao Pham ’cause he was only in
this country two years and had very limited
contact with Americans at that time. So, but I remember Qua Bao Pham. Now, the rest of the story is that, this, in May of this year, my wife
came to me and said, you know, “Have you thought about where you’re going “for your summer vacation?”, and I said, “Well, you know
what I thought about it. “I think I wanna go back to Louisiana.” And she said, “Why?” ’cause we don’t have any
family left in Louisiana, so she said, “Why?” And I said, “Because I think there’s some
unfinished business there,” and she said, “What is it?” And I said, “I don’t know, “but there’s some
unfinished business there.” When I started working on
this Vietnam War Symposium, all of the Vietnam stuff
rose to the surface again and the… the, I said, “Where is Frank Brown?” So I google, you know,
the great thing of Google, I googled Frank Brown, and sure
enough I found Frank Brown, called him on the phone,
he remembered who I was, and I said, “Frank,
I’m coming to see you,” 50 years, we’re celebrating
50-year commemoration here. 50 years later, I went back and
visited this Vietnam veteran and he was very grateful that I went back and visited him after 50 years, and he was very heart– It mean, it meant a lot to
him that I remembered him and that I took the time
to go back and revisit him. At the same time, I said, “I’ve never visited
the grave of Qua Bao Pham. “How do I find the grave of Qua Bao Pham?” I googled Vietnamese community,
Lafayette, Louisiana. I got the Vietnamese Diocese
of the Catholic Church was the first thing that came up. So I called the Vietnamese
Diocese of the Catholic Church and was immediately connected
to a Father Joseph Sai Tran and I said, “I’m from
Omaha, this is the story: “Qua Bao Pham tragicaly killed,” he said, “Oh yes, his
sister still lives here,” and I was shocked, that that
quickly I had made a contact, and the… I said, “Can you contact the sister, “ask her where the grave is, “and ask if I can meet with her?” He called back a half
an hour later and said, “Here’s where the grave is.” I knew exactly where it was. One of the great ironies
of the whole thing is that in order to get to the grave,
you have to drive by the store where this happened. It’s two minutes away to get
to that grave from that store. So, he set it up, we met at the grave. Here’s this woman, she got out of the car. I looked at her and I looked,
said, “Wow, she’s old.” And I, it occurred to me,
’cause I only had a picture of a 20 year old
Vietnamese boy in my head. That’s the only picture I had because I was not prepared for the fact, I wasn’t in the realization
that I’m also 39 years older than I was then, too, but that, that’s not the
picture I had in my head and we had this very powerful moment standing at his grave and she looked at me and she said, “Why are you here?” “Why did you come?” And I said, “I’m here because
I wanted to let you know “that I remember him.” For me, memory is the thing of, is the term of, immortality
is a product of memory. People have to remember who you are. It is, I remember him and I
wanted to pay my respects to you but I remember him, and she says, “I pray
everyday that someone “that he would come back and speak to me. “He doesn’t come.” And there I was, telling the last, the story of his last minutes
because I’m the only one. They didn’t know what happened
while he was still alive in that store. I knew what happened when
he was alive in that store. So it was a very powerful moment. I’ve written that story. I had, I went to a class,
John Price is here, he teaches creative non-fiction, you know, I went to his class, and they work-shopped
it for me the other day. It actually prepared me for this. So thank you John, but
it’s a very powerful story about healing and when people ask me, “Why did it take you so long to write it?” It’s because I don’t think
I could write it until I had that moment back
at that grave, again. It took that to understand
where the missing piece was. – And I think that speaks to moral injury, which goes a step further than the PTSD that you keep hearing about and I think that a lot of, when you look at Tim O’Brien’s work, a lot of what he’s
addressing is moral injury and today’s, to say what
we’ve learned from writing and the Vietnam experience,
today’s writer that I would equate with him would be Phil
Klay, who was also a marine and yeah, “Redeployment,” is a great book. If you haven’t read it and you’re writing and you’re trying to figure out, especially if you’re a veteran writer, take a look at that book. I took that into the jail as well and it blew a lot of people away, but that moral injury piece. – Do you want us to
read, or do you want us to respond? – I want you to read. – Okay, go ahead, Sharon, you wanna go? – I’m just gonna do a
couple little excerpts that I think are really important here and I’m leaving the word Iraq out because you’ll see it fits. Let’s see. My son returned from Iraq. Oops, my son returned. He seemed amazingly peaceful
and thankful at first glance. He appeared fine. When he came home from
his post-deployment leave, he didn’t seem easily
startled or lose his temper the way people say that
some returning veterans did. He was pleasant and polite and couldn’t do enough to help others. I enjoyed seeing his
smile, but all too soon, his leave time ended
and he returned to base. I spoke with him a few weeks later and the call seemed strained. Returning to his duty station, he had found a new girlfriend
who was in the army. He mentioned that day-to-day work just left him feeling bored. He didn’t wanna spend time in town or even in the post-exchange
because he didn’t wanna hear people complaining about
trivial little things. Loud noises made him jump. He seemed irritable and on edge. He just wasn’t himself. With all these changes in his behavior, I began to worry and
pray for him everyday, wondering when he would call us next. I was filled with a sense of foreboding. I had worried my way through this tour, thankful that he had come
home from it safe and sound. What had happened in his life
since we had seen him last? Now it felt like he was holding back. So I was building the
story from his return. Then I went to Arlington
and I started looking for the graves of his friends, and I talk a little bit about how I didn’t know whether I should
call him to get their names because he said “Yeah, that’d
be nice if you visit them, “but I’m not ready yet.” I went back and forth and I
finally said, “I’ll text him,” so I started texting him and
names started coming over and then finally he called me. So as I went into Section 60,
where all of his friends were, there were as many as 13. I knew a few mothers
and other family members who might appreciate a
picture of their loved ones, to see that they were
resting well, taken care of and not forgotten. Some of the names, we
had briefly discussed. I knew that he’d be
waiting to hear from me. Near the grave sites of
Eric’s brothers-in-arms, I saw a man sitting in a stadium seat, drinking a beer and looking
at a well-decorated grave. On top of the stone, lay pins representing the warrior’s unit, as well as, several
little rocks and mementos. I told the man that I
was sorry for his loss, he said he didn’t even know this soldier. He had met the man’s
family the week before and found it peaceful
visiting their son here, so he continued coming,
honoring the family in his way. I thanked him again and
moved on to search for others my son had named. I wandered through the grave
markers, adorned with flowers and keepsakes and wondered
why we leave these things when we lose a loved one to war. I know that the military
awards purple hearts, bronze stars, and other
devices and decorations, make us, as a society, feel better. Perhaps we are also
acknowledging that this loss is not at the end. That they have moved on to an afterlife, to their next level of responsibility and a place we have not yet seen. Leaving Section 60, I passed
a woman lying face down across a grave. She was alone, but two
glasses and a bottle of wine were placed there, one
glass with its contents flowing down to the ground. Perhaps it was their
anniversary or maybe this was just her way of reaching out to him. I had no words, my “I’m
sorry for your loss,” would never have been
enough to convey my feelings or soothe her pain. As I walked away from Section 60, I wondered how we best honor their legacy. How do we let them know
we will never forget? I know we owe a great deal
to my son and his friends and that they are just a few
of so many who have served. I live with the changes in my son and the changes that
have come to my family through his experiences and I
live with the changes in me. I don’t think that I will ever sleep through the night, peacefully, not wondering where
someone’s loved one is, patrolling an area of
the world for our safety. I know that when a person goes off to war, they will never be the same. There’s a certain innocence
that can never be regained. How could they not be changed,
if they are truly human? Some return to us tired, but relieved and able to lead companies
or undertake advanced degrees or technical schooling. Others make it back, a bit
battered, a bit broken, learning to work with their new normal. There are so many veterans
who fall into the gray area between black and white. I see how determined,
intelligent and amazing these veterans are, and they give me hope. I feel sure that other
veterans and their families assisting each other
and accessing the help that is available to them, will lead the lives they were mean to. I learned about esprit de corp at 17 and that will be with me always, as I pay it forward into the world. I still see it in the
eyes of brand new marines and it is present when I
visit places like Arlington. (audience applause) – Before you read Doug,
I’ve, throw a question if we have a question from the audience. It would seem the process
of writing in a group, which both of you have
described participating in, would invite, would involve
becoming vulnerable. Is this vulnerability
an issue with veterans and if so, how do you overcome it? – Well you know, I think
that is a great question. I think the thing is,
who, who do veterans trust more than other veterans? So the fact that we’re a
veteran’s writing group, I think that’s where you
can and maybe the only place you feel you can be vulnerable. We’d like to make it the fact
that there are more places that we were open and more accepting and understanding, listening. So, and, you know, Craig Werner, the guy I co-wrote the book with, is in our group and Craig is
almost like an honorary veteran and people, I think,
trust Craig, and depend and respect his opinion, but I do think that vulnerability
is in an environment where others are vulnerable too and you can be open, honest and let down. So does anybody, any
Hemingway readers in here? Anybody read any Hemingway or anybody read “In Our Time,” at all? I mean the old guys
raised their hand, right? But I don’t know about the youngsters. If you remember anything
about “In Our Time,” the structure was, he
would have a short story, and some of the, yeah,
the Nick Adams stories, and he had the, you know,
the battlers in there, and then, of course soldiers’
homes, wonderful stories, and he would have these
little inner chapters, inner linears that were
almost like snapshots of what was happening in
the war, on the quiet Smyrna and a few others. So of course, I thought I
could be Hemingway-esque and do the same kind of
thing, it failed miserably, but it did set up the
structure for my book so if you’ll indulge me,
I’ll make this quick. I’ll read you one of the inner linears and they’re, they are
matched with another, yeah, there’s, there’s a reason
that they’re connected, but I’m not gonna give
you the connected ones. I’m gonna read a little inner linear and then I’m gonna read a quick story, ’cause it has to do with healing. The short piece is called, “The Revolution Isn’t Being Televised.” None of us knew much about him, except that his last name was Jackson, and he always wore
sunglasses, even at night. Somebody said it was because
he was high all the time and his pupils were dilated. Nobody knew for sure. Jackson would show up at
our office, out of nowhere. He’d hang out and work on
his company’s newsletter. What he was really good
at, was getting us high on the kick-ass dope he smoked. Most days, we were screwed up on the job. It was Jackson’s doing. He was also our main source for what was happening state-side. Reading Stars and Stripes, and the sanitized versions
of Time and Newsweek, left us clueless about what was going on, so we depended on Jackson’s insights. The night before the ship went down, he told us how happy he was with the way things were going back home. America was owning up to
it’s responsibilities. Before ‘Nam, he’d been
everywhere from San Francisco to the Big Apple. He hitch-hiked from Upper
Michigan to Key West, Florida. Everywhere, he was struck
by the same good vibes. People were getting high
and flashing the peace sign. He talked a couple of
us into going with him to check out “Woodstock,” at
the Bien Hoa base theater. Before the movie, we went
out to the bunker line with some other rebs and got wasted. “Brothers, was Woodstock
the greatest thing “that ever happened to America or what?”, Jackson asked rhetorically. “How’s the movement going here?” “Lousy”, someone volunteered. “It’ll get better”, he smiled, “You’ve got everything
that you need at long bid, “this content, quadraphonic sound systems, “lots of soul brothers and great dope. “Things will go well here.” None of us said anything. Jackson pretended to be our drill sergeant and marched us into the theater. We sang cadence about
Jody and his girlfriends, adding a couple choruses
from Coming Into Los Angeles. Later at the theater,
they stopped the film, just as Sly and the Family Stone were cranking up the volume on Higher. The lights came on and a
voice told us that the VC were nearing the perimeter
and we had to get to a bunker. With the movie soundtrack off, we could hear motors
exploding and sirens sounding. Most of us started moving
dutifully toward the exits. Jackson refused to leave. He was standing on his seat, arms raised, singing at the top of his lungs. “Feelings gettin’ stronger,”
he yelled at the screen. Sly shouted back, telling
Jackson he was going to take him higher and higher. The rest of us had
already left the theater. The last we saw of Jackson, he was wearing his shades
and giving the peace sign, as the MP’s led him away. None of us did anything to help him. That’s the short piece, by the way that, it’s called “DEROS Vietnam,” so you guys can, Dispatches
from the Air Conditioned Jungle, I think of those of you who were there, you know what DEROS meant. Let me get into this other piece. I’ll try and make it quick,
but I struggled with what, with female characters. I, you know, I know a lot of women. I’ve got a wife and a daughter. I knew a lot of women before,
and after, and during Vietnam, but I felt like I
couldn’t write their story about what they were
feeling and experiencing, just because I wasn’t, you
know, good writers can do that, but I was struggling to be a good writer, and I felt like I couldn’t do it, and then finally, it hit me about what I wanted to say about it, so almost my favorite
song, story in the book, is the thing called “The
Girls They Left Behind.” Lieutenant Brian Miller
left behind Carla Bennet, his grade school, middle school
and high school sweetheart, the cutest girl at Most Bla– Blessed Sacrament. Carla played Mary to Brian’s Joseph in the first Nativity play, at which point, they decreed
that divine intervention had brought them together
and nothing, not even a war, would tear them apart. Sergeant Arthur Poole left
behind his fiancé, Martha Brown. “The finest piece in Kansas City,” as his good buddy, Willie
Brown, once described her. Arthur knocked out Willie’s
two front teeth for saying that and Willie never talked any
trash about Martha again. Corporal Joe Hudak left
behind Sally McBride, even though he didn’t know it. Spirited, strong, independent girls like Sally always found him. Sally was out there, somewhere in the USA and once he got back to the
world, Joe would find her. Petty Officer, Hector Colón,
left behind his wife Pilar and her six brothers and sisters, two dozen aunts and uncles and 37 cousins. Hector would have to get
Pilar out of El Campo, Texas if he ever wanted to talk with her without some family member
interrupting or commenting. Private First Class, Billy Donovan, didn’t leave anybody behind, so he pretended that his sister, Linda, was his girl back home. A confirmed fox, according to
the guys in basic training, who’d seen her picture. “Man, if the game ends in a tie “and you have to kiss your
sister, then life is good”, his bunkmate, Tommy DeFelice, told him, on more than one occasion. The girls that they left
behind wrote letters and sent care packages and
longed to visit their men on R&R in Hawai’i. They watched the nightly six o’clock news, but covered their ears when the reporter started to talk about the
number of casualties in Vietnam. They worked at low-paying
jobs and went to movies with their girlfriends, and spent lots of time
with their families. They gave dirty looks to the
guys who came hanging around. They went to bed every
night with the prayer for their man’s safety on their lips. They waited. The men who came home
were not the same men the girls had given such tender goodbyes. Brian Miller had left parts
of himself in Phu Bai, where he’d stepped on a
C40 Anti-Personnel Mine and lost both his legs. Arthur Poole complained
about the treatment of black soldiers who were
still second-class citizens after they got back to the States. Joe Hudak threw his
medals at the White House and convinced himself
he was a war criminal. Hector Colón was mad all the time because he couldn’t land a decent job. Billy Donovan never really came back. The girls they left behind
had to pick up the pieces. Carla Bennet became Mrs. Brian Miller and tried to get Brian to
sing along to the songs on the radio, just like
he did before he left. She spent six days a week
working at the local Safeway and when she wasn’t at work,
she was taking care of Brian. She wondered if she’d married Brian because she felt sorry for him. Martha Poole tried
helping Arthur find a job and made an honest effort
to like the Vietnam vets he brought home all the time. She twisted the shiny
bracelet on her left arm, a lucky charm, her mother
had given her years ago, and with every twist, she told herself that Arthur would get
back home from Vietnam. Sally McBride eventually found Joe Hudak, but she lost him pretty soon after that. He seemed like the perfect guy, at first, but when he got back from a DC protest, Joe stopped sleeping with
her or even touching her for fear of contaminating Sally with his Vietnam transgressions. She was angry about Joe’s avoidance and she was mad about the
war, and the government, and the VA, and everything else. She was debating when exactly to split. Pilar Colón spent most
of her time on the phone, talking to her family back in Texas. She and Hector, who had
moved north to Kansas City, were having a hard time adjusting. Her mother and sisters gave
her daily, long distance advice and propped her up. Hector was unhappy about
their big phone bills. Linda Donovan gave up in
connecting with her brother, Billy, so she dated a lot of Vietnam vets and volunteered at the
Kansas City Vet Center. Always a good listener, Linda had a knack for saying the right
thing, at the right time, and making people feel comfortable, which was probably why
she became a group leader at the center. The men who came home gave up just, gave up on just about everything, including the girls they left behind. They quit their dead-end jobs and stopped going to the
state employment servers, who were by the rules, VFW types, scolded them with their
eyes about their appearance and their attitudes. They gave the VA the finger and coughed up the crap they
inhaled from Vietnam jungles. They joined the VVAW,
but watched their backs during raucous meetings, where guys conspired to kill
Nixon and blow up the Pentagon. They missed the three hots and a cot, the army had delivered them daily, where they missed the adrenaline rush and the opium highs, they
missed their buddies, they cursed their lives. The girls they left behind
joined the same therapy group, but they didn’t call it that. Their rap group met every
Wednesday night for two hours. Inside a tiny room with dirty beige walls, caste-off furniture and one lone light, they, light bulb, they shared their souls and cried, and swore,
and hugged, and hollered. The Rap Group Girls, as
they called themselves, smoked cigarettes and drank Mountain Dew. They broke the ice with bean bag tosses and swapped stories about their men. They laughed when they wanted to cry and cried when they
thought they would laugh. Linda Donovan ended up needing the group more than the group needed her. Her brother Billy died in
a high-speed car accident and his death left a hole in her heart. The other women gave her
the time and the space to bandage that wound. Martha Poole and Sally
McBride almost came to blows, but they dropped their
guards and forged a bond. They both like Goetz
beer and rummage sales. Carla Pilar– helped Pilar Colón shop at their Safeway on double coupon days. Pilar made quesadillas for
Carla and the rest of the group. The girls they left behind
begged the men who came home to talk to them about
how the were feeling, to hold them tight in bed at night, to join them in their Wednesday Rap Group. The men who came home
didn’t know what to say. They were still fighting the war. The girls they left behind
grew strong and at ease. They sang Aretha Franklin
songs and harmonized on “Neither One Of Us” by
Gladys Knight and the Pips. They cooked and the
cleaned, and they worked, and they believed. They held their men’s hands
and they prayed to their God. The only people they told
about their own pain, were one another, and they only did that on Wednesday nights. The girls they left behind
were no longer girls. They were women. They were pillars of strength
and rivers of wisdom. They were the North Star
and the true compass and slowly, eventually, they brought their men back home to stay. (audience applause) – Thank you, Doug. Somebody must’ve known
you were gonna read that when they wrote this question. So I’m gonna give you this question. It says, “Writing can
be healing for veterans. “Can you talk about the challenges “potential healing involved when writing “for those who haven’t experienced war?” You’re talking about these women, who haven’t experienced war. So … What, what’s the potential healing for writing for those who
haven’t experienced war? – Well I think part of it
goes to, you know, I mean, stories don’t get told
just to hear ’em, yourself. They get told to be shared and there’s, there’s a part of listening that’s involved in
storytelling and story-sharing and I think that is a part
of the healing process. If nobody hears your story, nobody feels what you’re feeling, then maybe it’s not working,
and it’s not working for you, so I think, I think even
those that haven’t been there, can, I think, understand our pain or can understand our fear. I think that’s part of the human process, so writing’s one way to do that. I think it’s not the only
way, but it’s one way, and I think, I think it’s
a, it’s a two-way engagement between somebody who
wants to listen and share and who cares, and maybe
the person who’s been there and is doing the telling. – I was talking with someone
once before I published and I thanked her for all of the support she had given me and she sa– I said “thank you for giving me a voice”, and she said something really important. She said, “You’ve always had a voice. “I just gave you the microphone.” I thought that was really cool. I think we all have a voice within us and when we’re ready to stand up and say, “I have something to say,” we will do that in some way, and that’s what writing gives you. – We’re here at this symposium,
talking about writing. This is a symposium called The Lessons and Legacies
of the Vietnam War, and we’re talking about
writing that you’ve read. We’ve gone to other
sessions where we’ve had politicians, generals … People, I’m sure they write,
but they’re not writing this. How does the message of
the writer differ from that of a politician? – How much time do we have? (laughter) You know I think writers are, I mean, I think writers are
the truth-tellers in many ways and, you know, the crazy
thing about Vietnam is that it spawned, I mean, you could fill a bunch of libraries, probably
your library over here with the books that have
been written about Vietnam, fiction and non-fiction,
personal narratives, histories and a lot of it is really good, and when you think of
people like Karl Marlantes and Tim O’Brien, David Rabe, a playwright, Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl, you know, extraordinary poets. Historians like Gloria Emerson,
and Francis FitzGerald, Marilyn Young, I mean, in a strange way, it was a enormous boon because it was such great material and I think it was,
unfortunately, in some ways, it was the only way we
could talk to each other, was to write about it and politicians have to deal with, frankly, I think language that sometimes doesn’t mean
anything, or it’s obsequious. I, you know, I don’t know
if you guys are as tired of the last two years
of the campaign as I am, but I mean, when you look at, what is the substance of
what people are saying, other when they’re blaming one another, or hollering at somebody, and I, you know, but I think
politicians have to deal, the real politicians like the Chuck Hagels and Bob Currys of the world, you know, they have to
deal with, you know, decisions, budgets, money. You know, it’s a different,
it’s not only a different kind of thing, it’s a
different kind of language. And we’ve got the freedom,
I think, to do something that’s a little more liberating, and hopefully, a little more honest. – I’m pretty cut and dry. I’d say that writing is courageous. It’s a whole lot more courageous than people give it credit for. It takes a lot of courage
to get raw and do that. (clock chimes) – Sharon, and you’ve talked
about your experiences, but Sharon … You’ve been involved in a local project sponsored by Humanities of Nebraska, called The Warrior Writer, could you talk about that a little bit. – We are still meeting, we’ve been meeting for two years now. We meet and currently
we’re meeting in Omaha, every other Saturday at the 90th and, 90th and Fort, The Abrahams
Library, out there. We meet at 9:00 a.m., everyone is welcome. We do have some family
members that also come, that like to write. We are also meeting for
the first time this year, in Grand Island, also at the library and that has been doing really well. In the spring, we will, the Omaha group will switch over to Lincoln. We go back and forth
in the spring and fall, but we find there are people like me, who just love to write and I go to as many of
all of the different ones as I can. So, it’s going strong. We have a Facebook page, we have all kinds of things going on, so we welcome you. – Doug, would you like to talk about — – Yeah I, what I’ll just do is I’ll, I’ll, maybe I’ll read you
guys, this is our latest, we do put out, you know,
part of what we’re doing is, I mean, you know, it’s not only sharing, but it’s sort of getting better at this, and we, at our own expense, we put out our own little
publication, the magazine, about once a year, and I just wanna read you the statement of The
Deadly Writers Patrol. The Deadly Writers Patrol
began with a mission to quote, “encourage greater understanding “of the Vietnam era, the
war’s effect on individuals “in our nation, and had
a particular interest “in writing by Vietnam vets. “Our mission evolved, as subsequent wars “created new generations of veterans “and renewed challenges of understanding, “witnessing, and homecoming. “Deadly Writers Patrol
continues to seek writing “by Vietnam vets, but
we are also interesting “in engaging veterans and others affected “by the wars in the Persian
Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “Their inclusion reaffirms
the core beliefs of DWP, “that writing can be a mirror, “reflecting the deepest corners “of our spirits and psyches, “express the reality of suffering, “explore the possibility of healing, “help us resolve problems, “and achieve a deeper understanding “of our common humanity. “It can also bring us face-to-face “with the parts of life that
will always remain a mystery.” – Thank you very much. I hope we’ve managed to convince
you of the power of writing as a healer and I hope you, many of you veterans who
have great stories to tell, will avail yourself the opportunity to write those stories down because we wanna to hear those stories. Those stories are very, your
stories are very powerful, so thank you very much. (audience applause)

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

Related Post