05 December 2018

Red Bull Veterans & Others to Share Stories on Stage

Five Iowa military veterans—four of them alumni of 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division—will share stories of their respective military experiences in the last installment of the Des Moines Register's "Storytellers Project" 2018 season. Stage performances are 5:30 and 8 p.m., Thurs., Dec. 6. 2018 at The Tea Room, 713 Walnut St. No. 600, Des Moines, Iowa.

Ticket information is here.

Previous 2018 performances in the series have included themes on rural life, siblings, and everyday miracles. Included in the line-up of "War Stories" cast members are:
  • Brian Lenz, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who became an environmental scientist. 
  • Sara Maniscalco Robinson, a senior non-commissioned officer in the Iowa Army National Guard, and founder of Iowa Veterans' Perspective, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that documents veterans' stories. Maniscalco Robinson served with Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Battalion during a 2003 deployment to Egypt. 
  • Jodi Marti, an Iowa Army National Guard officer who served as commander of Echo Company, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Battalion during the unit's 2010-2011 deployment to Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan. 
  • Miranda Pleggenkuhle, an Iowa Army National Guard officer who served as part of Task Force Archer in Bagram, Afghanistan, during the 2010-2011 deployment of Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. 
  • James Suong, a non-commissioned officer in the Iowa Army National Guard, who once served in Iowa's 1st Squadron, 113th Cavalry while on a 2003 deployment to Kosovo. Before immigrating to America, he spent some of his youth in a Cambodian child-labor camp.

01 November 2018

P.O.W. Book-turned-Opera Comes to Des Moines Area

When military reporter Tom Philpott first encountered the tragic story of an Army family that lost its way during the wartime captivity of its patriarch, Floyd James "Jim" Thompson, he could hardly have predicted the journey would include more than a decade of reporting; publishing his work not as journalism, but as oral history; and soon to be an English-language opera to be performed Nov. 16-18 2018 on the campus of the Iowa National Guard's Camp Dodge, located in Johnston, Iowa.

Performances of "Glory Denied" are:

  • 7:30 p.m. Fri., Nov. 16
  • 7:30 p.m. Sat., Nov. 17
  • 2 p.m. Sun., Nov. 18

Tickets are $45, and may be purchased via the Des Moines Metro Opera at 515.961.6221 or www.desmoinesmetroopera.org. On Fri., Nov. 16, there will be a 5:30 p.m. reception featuring the opera's composer, Tom Cipullo.

A FREE preview will be presented to veterans, currently service members, and their guests 7 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 15. Contact the Des Moines Metro Opera for registration.

According to press materials:
America’s longest held prisoner of war returns to a country he no longer recognizes and a family who barely recognizes him. "Glory Denied" speaks to the plight of so many of our veterans who nobly fight for their country but face huge challenges when it comes to repatriation—and their longed-for civilian lives—after service. This true story of Vietnam veteran Colonel Jim Thompson explores the unimaginable bravery asked of soldiers and even the nature of hope itself.
Following each performance, cast members and Iowa National Guard veterans and soldiers will participate in a curated talk-back session with audience members.

This is Des Moines Metro Opera's second collaboration with the Iowa National Guard. In January 2017, a production of David T. Little's rock-infused "Soldier Songs" was also conducted at Camp Dodge. See the Red Bull Rising coverage here.

The story behind "Glory Denied" was previously covered on the Red Bull Rising blog in a Jan. 11, 2013 post.

Thompson, the longest-held U.S. Prisoner of War (P.O.W.) in American history, spent 9 years in North Vietnamese captivity. The first five were in solitary confinement. He attempted to escape five times. He came home in 1973.

"He dreamed in his mind of building this dream house when he got home. It turns out that his wife was living for eight or nine years with another man, who was posing as the father of the children," says Philpott, in the 2017 Red Bull Rising interview. "The boy, who was the only boy of four children, born the day after he was shot down, was called in at 9-years-old and told, 'This is not your dad. Here's a picture of your dad. He's coming home.'"

Then a reporter for the Army Times, Philpott first wrote a magazine-length article about Thompson in 1986. Thompson had suffered a stroke in 1980, and was living alone in Key West, Fla. To get past his expressive aphasia, Thompson played for Philpott a tape recording of a local media interview he'd given after his return.

Philpott ended up interviewing more than 150 people to further flesh out the story. "I didn't want to just tell his story," he says. "I wanted to tell about the impact of his captivity was on his whole family." The book-length oral history was published in 2001, with each friend's and family-member's recollections presented in their own words. Inspired in format by a 1982 book titled "Edie: American Girl," which relates from multiple perspectives the story of one of Andy Warhol's constellation of personalities, Philpott's book reads much like the script of a play. Or, as it turns out, a libretto.

"I had tape-recorded everything," says Philpott. "When I was writing the book, I found that the voices were so powerful and poignant and truthful—and the story was so unbelievable—I thought that if I wrote it as a single-narrator, people just wouldn't believe it. It would lose the poignancy of what they were telling me."

Following the publication of "Glory Denied: The Vietnam Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War" as a book, composer Tom Cipullo contacted the author regarding the possibility of presenting the narrative as an opera.

While in development, portions of the 2006 work were presented by the New York City Opera at an annual festival. The Brooklyn College Opera Theater put it on. Then, the Chelsea Opera Company "got some really beautiful talent behind it," says Philpott. "That attracted review in the New York Times." The work was subsequently performed in May 2007 by the Brooklyn College Opera Theater.

Presented in two acts, the 78-minute opera is written for two sopranos, a tenor, a baritone, and a small orchestra. The males respectively play the younger and older versions of Jim Thompson, while the females depict the younger and older incarnations of his wife, Alyce. Past reviewers note the opera's interwoven narratives, brute-force emotions, and a modernist angularity that isn't afraid to occasionally carry a tune.

"It was only in the Arlington performance that I heard the entire libretto—the instrumentation didn't overwhelm it for the first time," says Philpott. "I could understand everything that was said. [Cipullo's] choices were all from the book—he had used all these oral histories, the words from these people, who had said them to each other. It was masterful."

Philpott credits the opera with reawakening interest in his book, which was re-released as a trade paperback in 2012. He is currently a syndicated newspaper columnist on military topics.

Thompson died of a heart attack in 2002. He was 69.

28 September 2018

Notes from a War, Literature & the Arts Conference

Author, actor, and former U.S. Marine Benjamin Busch signs a copy of his 2012 memoir "Dust to Dust" at the 2018 War, Literature & the Arts conference conducted September 20 and 21 at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Photo: Jesse Goolsby
Editor's note: This blog post has been cross-posted from The Aiming Circle, where we cover news and tips regarding military-themed writing.

More than 600 academics, students, creators, and others attended the 2018 War, Literature & the Arts conference September 20 and 21 on the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo. This year's event coincided with the 30th anniversary of the War, Literature & the Arts Journal, an annual multidisciplinary publication curated by the institution's English faculty, students, and alumni.

While an annual lecture series regularly brings literary talent to campus, the full conference tends to appear with the regularity of Brigadoon. The last such conference, for example, was apparently conducted in 2010.

The schedule was jam-packed, with three keynote speakers, and four seminar and performance blocks each day. (Two in the morning, and two in the afternoon.) Hosted in the over-21 cadet lounge, a social hour with cash bar was conducted Thursday afternoon. Lunches were "on the economy"—the cadet student union features a small food court, with sandwich, salad, and pizza options.

While it was impossible to do and see everything and everyone, I hope to illustrate the depth and breadth of the event by re-posting here some observations from my notebook and Twitter account:


Julie Saffel, presenting on “Milblogs & Blooks”: “The first wave of war writing is often the most glutinous ...” (Also: author Colby Buzzell is “the Blogfather.”) Later told her my Red Bull Rising blog was probably a “Third Wave” mil-blog. Not a first-adopter, but not one of the last, either.


Melissa Parrish, presenting on the work of Sebastian Junger (including "War"): “Junger usefully blurs the line between participant & spectator [slipping between “we” & “I”]—combatant & non-combatant—to usefully interrogate civil-military interactions.”


One personal highlight of the conference: Getting a chance to use Q&A time to thank USAF Vietnam War veteran Dr. Dean F. Echenberg for including the works of 21st century soldier-poets (including my own) in his collection, which he recently donated to Harry Ransom Center! Here's a list of such 21st century war poetry.


Much to my shock, Echenberg's fellow panelist, Lisa Silvestri of Gonzaga University's "Telling War" project, then reflected some love back, telling the audience her students really enjoyed my book! ("Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Stories from Inside the Wire.") That exemplified the vibe at the conference–lots of inspiring, affirming energy!


More quotes from the WLA conference: Oliver Jones on “Weaponized Poetics: The Avant-Gardes of the Revolution in Military Affairs": “Design Thinking has become so indoctrinated [in mil-planning], it seems now to be doing the very things that it was intended to disrupt.”


Not going to share all the WLA18 barroom hilarity & wisdom, but I still think this quote from Colin D. Halloran deserves its own T-shirt: “Whenever I feel down, I read ‘Ozymandias.’” Buy his books here and here.


Lightning-bolt insight that came to me via Toby Herzog’s WLA18 talk, “The Thing He Carried & the Story He Told”: Tim O’Brien was an Radio-Telephone Operator "R.T.O.")—a battalion radio guy, who helped maintain commo logs. A privileged position of blended participation/observation within an organization!


Speaking of Tim O’Brien at WLA18, Rolf Yngve took us on wonderfully nuanced journey, connecting the Magical Realism of O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato” with the presenter’s real-world work of helping homeless veterans write resum├ęs.


Elsewhere, in the same presentation regarding “Maps, Charts, Cartography, and Memory in the Battlespace of Fiction, Poetry & Memoir” WLA18 , Elizabeth T. Gray Jr. and Mark D. Larabee each explored how graphical & textual descriptions of terrain both affect & effect memory ...

... which led me to remember: In U.S. Army operations orders, we brief weather and terrain under “Situation, Enemy.” At some level, that almost suggests that we grant the terrain agency. That “even the ground is out to get us.”


Bonus from Mark D. Larabee’s talk: World War I was a “Golden Age of Cartography,” with many technologies coming together: trigonometric survey, multicolor lithography, etc. British teams produced 34+ million maps—365,000 per (linear?) battlefront mile!


Bonus from poet Elizabeth T. Gray Jr.: A quadranted taxonomy of terrain as either “real”/“imaginary” (think “Ypres” vs. “Mordor”) and “background”/“agented” (bet the latter includes Fangom Forest?). She also mentioned how some Tibetan Buddhists believe that evil spirits can inhabit the ground. Based on that, I later shared with her this poem: "leaving empty."


More Sherpa notes and personal high points from WLA18. Discovering a mutual interest in serious regard for military humor apparent in Lydia Wilkes‘ “Laughing about War with [David Abrams'] ‘Fobbit’”!


Lydia Wilkes quoted U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley in her WLA18 presentation on military humor: “It's not ‘Forever War.’ It’s ‘Forever Train-and-Advise.’” I was reminded of Sherpatude No. 26: "Humor is a combat multiplier …"


Sherpa’s takeaway from Lt. Gen. (USAF, Ret.) Christopher Miller’s (U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 1980) WLA18 talk “Yesterday at War with Tomorrow: Language as a Strategic Variable”: As a military (and society?), we need to reconcile with “strategic value” as greater or equal to “battlefield valor.”


Sherpa’s takeaway from David Eisler's WLA18 talk “Influence of the Shift to an All-Volunteer Force on American War Fiction”: As quantifiably compared to Vietnam War novels, OIF/OEF novels may be increasingly generated by non-veterans!


Sherpa’s takeaway from Caleb Cage‘s WLA18 talk “The All-Volunteer Force and the Civil-Military Divide”: There are 4 binary “master narratives” at play in every OIF/OEF story/debate:
1. “War of Choice”
2. “The Prez is a Cowboy”
3. “What’s Phase 4?”/“No Plan”
4. “The Surge”

Sherpa’s takeaway from combat medic (& future physician assistant) John Howell Jr.’s WLA18 talk “Building Resilience through a [pre-deployment!] Literature-based Discussion Program”: Try talking about movies, rather than books! Also: “Logan” (2017) may resonate with troops.


A full conference schedule is available as a PDF here.

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