Syracuse Veterans' Writing Group Celebrates Two-Year Anniversary
—story by Ivy Kleinbart
Each month, veterans from Syracuse and surrounding areas gather at the Writing Center at Syracuse University to share stories about their military and life experiences. The Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group was founded by Eileen Schell, professor and chair of the Writing Program, in March, 2010, in order to provide a space for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan—and for veterans of previous wars—to process and write through their memories of war, and to exchange their stories in a supportive environment. Since then, Eileen and I have been working together to organize and carry out monthly meetings, and to maintain a web presence and a Facebook page for the group.
From left, Lee Savidge, Roland Van Deusen, Frank Hobitz, Eileen Schell, Dawson Brown, Ralph Willsey, David Vercelloni, Bob Marcuson, Pete McShane
The format of the group is primarily creative nonfiction writing, although members are encouraged to write in any genre, and occasionally someone will share a poem, a fictional narrative, or an editorial piece. The group is open to veterans of all ages, genders, and political views, and we attract quite a range of participants, including a few S.U. students. Meetings are structured around members reading the writing they’ve done during the past month and receiving group feedback. We also distribute at least two writing prompts at each meeting, in an attempt to inspire new writing and experimentation with subject matter, form, and style.
In the two years since its inception, the group has grown from 3 members to approximately 8-10 monthly participants. Bob Marcuson, an infantryman with the Mobile Riverrine Forces in Vietnam, remembers our first meeting just over two years ago. He’s been with the group ever since and remains committed to working on memoir material which he hopes to eventually compile into a book. He also maintains his own web site, http://gruntseyeview.com, featuring letters exchanged with family and friends during his time in Vietnam.
Ginger Gunnip reads from her work at the recent Nonfiction Reading Series event.
Ginger Gunnip, an Iraq War veteran, mother, and full-time student at SU, is another long-time member of the group. She joined in the fall of 2010 and has stayed with the group as she continues to work on her Engineering degree (with a Writing minor), because, she says, “Its refreshing to meet with other veterans who are enthusiastic about writing and share our war stories.” Ginger recently presented an essay she wrote about the psychological impact of military experience on Iraq veterans at the spring Nonfiction Reading Series event on April 18. She is also planning to give a talk on cuts in educational funding for veterans at the CARR conference on May 5.
Asked what keeps them coming back each month, members speak of their passion for writing and their connection to others in the group. Dawson Brown, a naval electronics warfare technician in the 1970s, says that he’s drawn to the group because he values “the insights of other people who share not only what they’ve seen but also what they feel about it. By the end of each session,” he says, “a common humanity is reached. We all share a common service experience.” Peter McShane, a Special Forces Medic who was wounded in Vietnam, agrees that hearing other veterans’ stories—and sharing one’s own—are the most important elements of the group dynamic, and he’s keenly aware of the ways in which veterans benefit from such an exchange. “Listening to someone else’s story helps to validate their experiences,” he explains. “I’ve thought deeply about memories that many people cannot bring themselves to share, and sometimes putting those memories out there encourages others to confront similar experiences.” McShane is currently putting the finishing touches on his memoirs, entitled Save a Life, Take a Life, chronicling his experiences in Vietnam and beyond. Excerpts of his work recently appeared in Intertext, along with two short pieces by Derek Davey, a Marine Corps Flight Officer and Gold Star father.
Reflecting back on her reasons for establishing the group, Schell recalls that “With all the Iraq and Afghanistan vets coming back—and previous generations of vets out there—I wondered, what are they coming back to? What are the spaces available for them to talk about their experiences? A common experience of vets is that everyone wants you to either shut up or only tell the hero narrative… My thought was to create a space for vets to tell whatever stories they wanted to tell.”
From left, Peter McShane, Bob Marcuson, Dawson Brown, and Frank Hobitz
For Ralph Willsey, one of the newest members of the group, a six-year Army veteran who has served two tours in Iraq, finding a safe space where he can connect with other vets and speak freely about his experiences hasn’t been easy. “I just don’t have that many other veterans around me,” he says. “I don’t always get to keep up with the people I was in Iraq with.” This kind of connection is particularly important for Willsey, who has been home from Iraq for only a year and a half; that’s less time than his total service in Iraq. “There’s a whole different line of communication that opens up between vets,” he explains. “There’s a general understanding—especially with combat veterans. We speak a similar lingo. There’s a certain look in the eyes—Pete has it—it’s a look that means I know and I know you know and I’m there for you if you need me.”
For Eileen and me, the group has been an incredible learning experience, as well as an opportunity to bear witness to veterans’ experiences of both combat and non-combat situations. When she first put out a call for volunteers to assist in starting an intergenerational writing group for veterans in the community, I responded with interest, but also with some uncertainty. I wrote and told her that I was worried about how I might react to the stories I would hear. Can I reserve judgment? I wondered. Am I compassionate enough? These were some of the doubts I struggled with. Eileen wrote back, and told me how much she had learned over the years from her extensive work helping veterans to document their stories. At the end of her letter, she talked about her uncle who had fought in Vietnam and come home with medical and psychological injuries that were never addressed, and which ultimately led to his premature death. “Given that,” she wrote, “I feel a responsibility for the horror these wars have caused for civilians and soldiers.” She concluded that “we, as a society, bear collective responsibility for listening to those who were sent to war in the name of our state. I’ve found writing to be a good way to do that.”
|Copyright © 2012 Syracuse University. All rights reserved.|