20 January 2011

DIY History: Write Yourself (or Us) a Letter

From Africa to Afghanistan, from Italy to Iraq, the roads traveled by the U.S. 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division are many. Infinitely more interesting than dusty records and faded ribbons, however, are the individual stories that make up Red Bull history.

You can help write that history. It's as easy as writing a letter to yourself, your wife or husband, or your kids. It's as easy as writing a church youth group, or a high-school English class.

You don't have to be a war hero. You don't have to be the biggest, baddest mother-f'er in the 'Stan, and you don't have to be the home front supermom who keeps it all together--job, house, kids, family--while also keeping a constant eye downrange. You don't have to wait until you're long retired or returned, but you also shouldn't worry that you've already forgotten too much for your words and thoughts to be of value.

All you have to do is write a letter. (And, if you don't like to write, consider making an audio recording, or at least sitting down with the grandkids and having a conversation.) Maybe it's a page or two, maybe it's 20. You don't even need to send it, or share it with anyone right away.

Instead, put it in a safe place, along with your mortgage documents, or your wedding photos, or your collection of prized military souvenirs. Trust me: When you, your family, or your friends encounter this letter in later years, you'll be blown away by who you were, and what you did.

Maybe then you'll even send the letter to a museum, or your now-grown-up kids.

Start off by putting a date at the top of the page. You'll want to remember when and where you started this project. Then, move on to introduce yourself: Where you're from, what you do for a living, where you went to school, where you go to church.

If you are or were a soldier, explain your military job in terms civilians might understand. Avoid using Army slang or acronyms without somehow defining them. How and why did you find yourself in military service? How long were in you uniform?

Describe what your unit's mission is or was, again in civilian-friendly terms.

If you're a spouse or child or friend who experienced a soldier's deployment from the homefront, you can address similar questions: How did you find yourself connected to someone in military service? What were your thoughts and reactions to it before--during and after? What events, large and small--floods and family baptisms--occurred while your soldier was away?

Don't set out to write the great American autobiography. You don't need to cover every detail. In fact, it might be easier--and potentially more educational or entertaining--to focus on specific stories.

Everybody has "war stories." Even the those who never heard a shot in anger.

Here are some starter questions to help get you writing. Any one of these might be sufficient to document a significant slice of your experience. Keep in mind, these seemingly informal questions are proven to work. I've successfully used similar tactics while conducting journalistic interviews and recording oral histories:
  • What was your proudest day during your/your soldier's deployment?
  • What was the funniest thing that happened during your/your soldier's deployment?
  • What was your happiest day during your/your soldier's deployment?
  • What was your saddest day during your/your soldier's deployment?


Here on the Red Bull Rising blog, I've recently created a channel through which Red Bull soldiers--past and present--might share their deployment stories. While most of my current effort focuses on the current deployment of the division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.) to Afghanistan, I am increasingly interested in stories from the the division's other units. Regardless of when, where, and how you served, I invite you to help tell the Red Bull story.

Click here for more details!


  1. Sherpa - Glad to see this open channel for Red Bulls! I look forward to following the action. I encourage RBR friends and family to participate.

    As you know, I "wrote a letter" throughout my deployment to Afghanistan in 2007. (A very long letter!) Like many soldiers, I started an online diary as an efficient way to communicate with family and friends.

    However, as my life on a remote FOB played out, my "diary" became more than that. It became a ritual that kept me grounded. It became a way to sort-out "on paper" things that concerned, confused or confounded me. It became a way to be sure I never forget some of the lessons I learned about myself and others.

    When I got home - with no job or professional prospects on my doorstep - I transformed that letter into a book - a 378-page project that helped me move on to the next chapter in my life. (It isn't as easy as it looks - but I would do it again in a heartbeat!)

    Along the way, I discovered how important writing had become to me - a guy who never had any intention of authoring anything. Now, writing is an integral part of my life.

    So - if anyone in the Red Bull circle is hesitant about telling their story, here's a raging endorsement from another Guardsman who's "been there, done that." Tell them Jeff Courter says "go for it." I promise anyone who takes up this challenge - you will not regret it.



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