30 November 2011

Book Review: 'We Meant Well'

Department of State employee Peter Van Buren is reviled by some, celebrated by others. Earlier this autumn, he published what some angry diplomats consider a piss-and-tell book, a memoir of his time leading an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (an "e.P.R.T.") in Iraq, from 2009-2010.

The PRT mission is a familiar one to 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division soldiers. In 2004-2005, nearly 1,000 soldiers of the Iowa National Guard's Task Force 168 deployed across Afghanistan to provide security at PRT sites in that country. More recently, PRT soldiers worked alongside the Red Bull's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (2-34th B.C.T.) in Afghanistan's Parwan, Panjshir, and Laghman Provinces, as did as 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1-168 Inf.), operating in Paktia Province.

Despite his not-so-diplomatic detractors, "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" covers ground familiar to soldiers. It describes how nation-builders can fall into traps of their own making. How well-intended efforts can spiral into spending big money on crack-hits of short-term good feelings and publicity, without developing local and long-term ownership, consensus, or even understanding. As a bonus, the book also accurately captures Army life downrange: The boredom, the sex, the loneliness, the almost total lack of privacy. And how death makes appearances as unexpected as they are unwelcome.

In fact, one might argue that Van Buren has succeeded in writing a most accessible and plain-spoken book about America's efforts in Afghanistan. It just happens to be about Iraq.

Bottom line up front: If you've ever served in or alongside a PRT in Iraq or Afghanistan, or wanted to know more about the "build" part of "clear, hold, build" counterinsurgency ("COIN") strategy, Van Buren's your scribe. He's something of a jester, too. Particularly in the Speaking Truth to Power Department.

Van Buren has more than 23 years in foreign service, and multiple career experiences working shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers. The arm's length familiarity pays off. As an inside-outsider, he deconstructs, for example, how the military talks to itself and makes decisions, in word and deed and PowerPoint. Van Buren also observes that the war in Iraq is all about tribalism--not only in the world outside the wire, but within it. "A [Forward Operating Base] was a village," he writes, "populated by tribes who rarely intermingled except on business and who had little in common except for the fact that they were all at this same place at this same time ..." [p. 37]

A stereotypical diplomat hides behind meaningless words, but Van Buren's approach seems almost matter-of-fact and candid, like a soldier. Plain-spoken and pithy, profane and profound. While he often seemingly shoots off his mouth, he also chooses his shots carefully. During his deployment, he noted:
  • Projects favored new construction over sustainable change.
  • Projects were started without adequate analysis of local traditions, business practices, and inter-relationships.
  • Projects were often subverted by tribal leaders, who sought to take things and money off the top.
  • Progress was often measured only in hope.
All this leaves me wondering if Van Buren's critics are taking on the mantle of Casablanca's constabulary: "Shocked, shocked I am to find that gambling is going on here."

Playing parts in Van Buren's morality tale is a rogues' gallery of ne'er do wells, ranging from short-term deployers from the Dept. of State ("people aggressively devoted to mediocrity, and often achieving it," he quips) to a carousel of military leaders searching for quick fixes. "Had anyone bothered to read those Kilcullen and Nagl war-theory books, they would have learned that haphazard charity had nothing to do with counter-insurgency," Van Buren notes. "It worked pretty well-promotion, however, and if publicity were democracy, this place would have looked like ancient Athens." [p. 127]

Or, more philosophically: "One of the difficult parts about counterinsurgency was that it was hard to tell when you had won. You measured success more by what did not happen than what did, the silence that defined the music." [p. 130]

Van Buren sends up a list of well-intended projects that seem predestined to turn to dross. Some are jaw-dropping and punchline-grabbing, such as an effort to teach disadvantaged Iraqi women how to bake French pastries.

Does the once-Fertile Crescent really need a chain of croissant shops?

More telling, however, are the big-ticket projects that failed to account for local conditions and traditions. Take, for example, the construction of a collection center for cows' milk in Van Buren's province. It turns out that modernizing milk distribution not requires reliable electricity but refrigeration, but trucks and fuel to distribute the milk, as well as a market to buy and consume the milk. Iraq didn't have those things, didn't work that way. "The processing plants were expected to sell to the farmers' neighbors, who would surely be waiting around wondering what happened to the friendly farmer who used to bring fresh milk daily." [p. 81]

No use crying over spilt money, right?

To his credit, Van Buren takes pains to admit that there were glimmers of success. At least, there was one:
After almost a year in Iraq for this ePRT, the 4-H club was still our most successful project, maybe our only genuinely successful one. We spent almost no money on it, empowered no local thugs, did not disrupt the local economy, turned it over as soon as possible, and got out of the way.
The kids' selection of officers for the club was their first experience of grassroots democracy. The powerful sheik's son went home crying because he lost the race for the presidency to a farmer's kid, and the sheik did not have anyone's throat slit in retaliation. The things the club had to look forward to, pen pals in Montana and more animals, were real and could be done without any money from the outside. There remained the tiniest possibility here, where in most everything else we had done there was none, that a year later there would still be a 4-H club in Iraq. [p. 228]
Believe it or not, there's a sort of clear-eyed optimism in Van Buren's work, a similar vibe to that which might be found at Rick's Café Americain. No matter how sharp-tongued and bushy-taled he gets, he doesn't hesitate to let his guard down, and to document the transcendent, disguised as the mundane.

"The next morning I awoke with a vicious headache," Van Buren writes about an evening back on the FOB, after he and his teammates smuggle a few brews back from the Embassy, "and the realization that someday I would come to miss being with those men as much as I now missed the smell of pillows on my bed at home or kissing my wife when we both tasted of coffee. It was already over 100 degrees, a Thursday." [p. 177]

See? Snarky, but true. And not without a heart.

We meant well. Maybe we still do.

In other words, "This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

(Editor's note: The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog was provided a review copy of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.")

28 November 2011

What's There to Say of Iraq, Afghan Wars?

"You don't want to know why I think we went," Warbuck tells me. It's late summer, he's back from Afghanistan for good, and we're meeting in a favorite burrito shop of mine. Most of the talk is about his swag and booty from a recent gaming convention held in Indiana, but there are pop-up targets of post-deployment politics, too. "I think it had something to do with keeping certain people in power. There ... and here."

"You know, I'd be OK with even that," I reply. "If only someone would man up and say that was the case."

Both in war and after war, there are few rules and even fewer answers. You get to make them both up as you go. Even when the game seems mostly played out, like it may now.

(To get a sense of this month's end-of-conflict vibe, check out this Nov. 27 retrospective from McClatchy Newspapers: "As U.S. troops leave Iraq, what is the legacy of eight years of war?" Or this Nov. 28 Associated Press article: "Drawdown wreaks havoc on Guardsmen's lives.")

On his "Best Defense" blog at Foreign Policy magazine last week, Tom Ricks presented this question: "'Just what did we fight and bleed for?' I think that as the United States leaves Iraq and shuffles toward the exit in Afghanistan, we need to think about how to answer that question when veterans of our wars there pose it."

I like Ricks' question, because it seems to put the proverbial boot onto the other foot: Rather than ask the soldiers of our grand republic to provide the meaning of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other 21st century military actions, it asks its citizens.

While I invite you to consider Ricks' first draft, as well as the many comments made to the post, here's an update of something I offered up to that particular online conversation:
We, through our elected leaders, asked you to do this: We asked you to leave your families and friends, and the comforts and freedoms of home. You did the missions you were assigned, and did them well. You and your families made sacrifices both large and small. We thank you for this. We honor your service. We welcome you home. Now, you may say we owe you nothing--that you were just doing your job, or your duty, or that you only did it to help pay for school, or just to pay the bills at home. Still, we would like to know: How can we help?
Like Ricks, I'm still playing with the language, but I think I'm on a right track: While it doesn't assume that everyone who comes back from deployment is somehow tragically damaged, it also doesn't shirk from recognizing that some may be permanently changed by the experience.

It avoids assigning glorious intentions in the contexts of grand historical schemes. It avoids using deflated labels such as "hero": Those words have more value when spent by peers and buddies--those who were actually there. Civilians tend to use the term too cheaply. Not every soldier is a hero, or wants to be one.

It also avoids diminishing the service of someone who might not have had cause to shoot or get shot at, but who still sacrificed a year or more of life to the deployment. Everyone has a different war.

It leaves open the questions about civilian employment, mental and physical health, and reintegration with family, friends, and society. Of course, it also leaves open the possibility that a returning soldier may just want to be left alone.

What do you think? What am I missing? What else should we be prepared to tell our soldiers?

24 November 2011

Post-Deployment Thanksgiving

Citizen-soldiers often report coming home with fresh perspectives and clear-eyed priorities. They might, for example, appreciate the stuff that other citizens of these United States (or developed countries, more generally) take for granted. Churches and shopping malls never looked so good.

They might lump everything into one of two categories. Things are either "A potential threat to life, limb, or eyesight" or "Not important in the big scheme of things."

The trouble is, daily routine and distraction can chip away at that blissful post-deployment Nirvana. The indiscretions, inconveniences, and even the unthinkable bits of war fade in memory, but so does the good stuff. Unless you keep reminding yourself.

Offered on this (U.S.) Thanksgiving Day, here's an attempt to recapture some of my personal post-deployment clarity, delivered in machine-gun bullet-form:
  • I am thankful for my family. Everything else can go to Heck.
  • I am thankful for my daily bread and potable tap water.
  • I am thankful for clean latrines and flushing toilets.
  • I am thankful for building codes and cement sidewalks.
  • I am thankful for clear skies and secure perimeters.
  • I am thankful for the gift, the freedom, the rights and the responsibilities of speech.
  • I am thankful for those who serve in uniform, those who have served, and those who will serve.
  • I am thankful for plenty, and for my newly acquired awareness of scarcity in the world.
  • I am blessed. You are, too.

18 November 2011

Capt. America vs. The Red Bull

No, not "the Red Skull". Believe it or not, I said, "the Red Bull"!

Household-6 and I watched "Captain America: The First Avenger" for the first time last weekend. Most of the movie's storyline takes place during World War II. During some battle scenes, I half-recognized a background character fighting alongside the star-spangled superhero. He was depicted as a British or American soldier, and wore sergeant's stripes on his bowler hat.

For some reason, that got my old Spidey sense tingling. The next morning, with a little super-Google-boost, I managed to figure out why my long-dormant comic-book memory banks had sparked at the sight of a silly battle-hat.

Turns out, the character was Timothy Aloysius Cadwallader "Dum Dum" Dugan, a long-named character originally featured in an equally long-named Marvel comic: "Sgt. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos"!

The story goes that Marvel Comics president Stan Lee came up with the ungainly phrase on a bet, gambling that any comic written by Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby would sell, regardless of a purposefully ungainly and silly title. Here's how Stan Lee described the title's origin:
First of all, it was too long for a title—we didn't have any that were six words. And "Howling" was a long word, and "Commandos"was a long word. I got the name "Howling Commandos" because in the Army there was a group called the Screaming Eagles. And I loved the sound of that. So I figured we'd have the Howling Commandos.
Are you ready to play the Red Bull Division version of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"?

Here goes:
  1. In the recent movie, Captain America fought alongside "Dum Dum" Dugan, Jacques Dernier, James Montgomery Falsworth, Gabriel Jones, Jim Morita.
  2. In the Marvel Universe, Dugan, Falsworth, Jones, Morita were part of Sgt. Nick Fury's "Howling Commandos."
  3. In reality, the "Howling Commandos" were named after the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" Division.
  4. During its deployment to Afghanistan in 2010-2011, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division was attached to the 101st Airborne Div.
There you have it, True Believers: From Captain America to the Red Bull in four easy steps!


16 November 2011

Photog Depicts Red Bulls and Golden Light

For two months in early 2011, Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald photographer Alyssa Schukar embedded with Nebraska and Iowa National Guard troops deployed to Afghanistan, including those of Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" division. In a recent Veterans Day editorial package, the 27-year-old Lincoln, Neb. native reflected upon her experiences downrange:
I met dedicated soldiers who worked relentlessly to improve Afghans’ lives. The soldiers often told me that their efforts were aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the people. It wasn’t like war video games. Rather, their mission was humanitarian.

People often ask if I feared for my life during that time. Though my heart pounded hard a time or two, I never felt more safe than in the company of those soldiers.
As may have been mentioned previously in the Red Bull Rising blog, Schukar shoots with almost fine-art sensibility: Her big-sky landscapes, golden illuminations, and character-infused portraits often evoke something of the American middle west, as much as they depict life and death and waiting in a strange land. For Veterans Day 2011, she presented an online gallery of her Afghan work. Much of it is museum-worthy.

Just as notable, however, are Schukar's behind-the-scenes descriptions of some self-selected favorites. Be sure to check it out here on the still-active Omaha World-Herald "At War, At Home" blog.

14 November 2011

Sounding Off and Listening Up

Think of it as a mix between "Why We Fight" and "Why We Write": Veterans Day 2011 proved not only a time to reflect upon military service, but to consider sharing memories and experiences with others.

Alex Horton, a U.S. Army veteran and now a blogger for the Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote "Oh, the (War) Stories You'll Hear" for Time magazine's "Battleland" blog, cheekily evoking the title of a Dr. Suess book before telling a story about when he and his Army buddies literally found themselves in the s---.
I can't quite place why I'm willing to share so many of my war stories with civilians. Some of my friends keep their service hidden and move on, like the Army and the war were scenes from a long forgotten movie. Not me, though. Perhaps I'd rather think of myself in a moment in time where I didn't quite know how those stories would shape my life after the war. Or why I stumble madly in the dead of night to double check the locks that keep out enemies without form or figure.

In a fractured existence of countless stories, I still watch the Stryker labor in the muck under its own weight; I see gunships in the distance burp heavy fire and hear the delayed chatter of the guns; I feel the savage fury overtake me as a friend is stuffed into a body bag. I can't escape the grinding machinery of the present, no matter how bafflingly unpredictable and scary and bizarre it is compared to war. But each story I tell puts those moments to rest. If we come home in fragments, it's the stories that make us whole again.
Reporter Carl Prine is a former Marine and Army National Guard soldier, and a Kaybar-sharp analyst of current events at home and downrange. In a Veterans Day post titled "Fathers and Sons," he writes:
Perhaps because the war in Iraq is coming to an end, many of our most conscientiously bright and articulate combat veterans have been mulling what their service there meant. [...] They’re campaigns deep into the soul nevertheless, and I suspect Few and West shall keep marching behind the caissons of regret and pride, courage and pain for decades, with no flag to capture or hill to hold, but that really doesn’t matter, does it?

It’s the march that counts.
And later: "[...] I know a truth, a truth you also know, even if most civilians don’t. Time makes our memories, and changes them, and we don’t know yet what they shall mean."

In his essay, Prine mentions the Nov. 4 reflections of Phillip Carter in the Washington Post, regarding the latter's struggle and reconciliation with the drive-by sentiment, "Thank you for your service." Here are Carter's words:
[...] I began to understand the sincerity underlying most gestures of gratitude toward the troops. I also began to empathize with those who had no personal connection to the military, but who still wanted to say something or do something to support those who served on their behalf. There is genuine respect behind those thank yous, and after a while, I came to accept that.

I also believe that this collective gratitude may serve a deeper purpose. Whether civilians fully realize it or not, the simple message of thanks sends a powerful message to veterans—that the nation will take responsibility for our actions in her service. In some small way, this collective acceptance of responsibility helps veterans to transfer some of the psychological burdens of wartime service to society. Such gratitude will not eradicate combat stress nor address every veteran’s experience. However, these small gestures do make a difference.
Psychologist Paula J. Caplan, author of "When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans", wrote an opinion article urging members of the public to consider actively—and non-judgmentally—listening to veterans' stories:
Civilians tend not to ask veterans if they want to talk, because they fear that they won’t know what to do. In our profoundly psychiatrized society, many people mistakenly believe that only therapists know how to heal those veterans who are experiencing grief, fear, shame, anxiety, loss of innocence or moral anguish. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mere act of listening is often deeply healing.

There are three reasons that veterans don’t offer up their tales from the front lines: They don’t want to upset civilians by telling us what they have seen and done; they are afraid we will think they are mentally ill; and they fear that if they tell us, we might not understand—and that the chasm between them and the rest of the community will become even greater. [...]

The veterans said that just being given a chance to tell their stories and be listened to intently made it possible for them to speak, to feel respected and sometimes to say things they had never told anyone. Such listening makes the environment safe: Veterans know they will not be criticized or grilled–and the listener’s silence gives them permission to tell their stories in the way they choose.

For the civilians, the experience was transformative. Whether it was bonding over the sadness of losing a loved one, a sense of powerlessness in not being able to help someone in danger, or a shared understanding of the fragility of life, civilians who had thought they’d have nothing in common with veterans were surprised by how easily they could relate to their experiences. [...]

As veterans open up in these listening sessions, they can more easily give voice to what else they need — from practical help finding jobs, shelter or medical care, to grappling with moral and existential crises, to turning from a culture of defense, attack and destruction to one of connection, creativity and care.

09 November 2011

2 TV Docs Focus on Guard Soldiers Nov. 10

A 28-minute documentary featuring citizen-soldiers deployed with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division premieres on public television stations statewide in Iowa tomorrow (Thurs., Nov. 10) at 7:30 p.m., Central Daylight Time.

Titled "Iowa Soldiers Remember Afghanistan," the documentary was compiled from Iowa Public Television (IPTV), Des Moines (Iowa) Register, and Department of Defense video, and will air three additional times on Veterans Day Fri., Nov. 11.

On-air schedule for "Iowa Soldiers Remember Afghanistan":
  • Thurs., Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. on IPTV
  • Fri., Nov. 11, 5:00 p.m. on IPTV World
  • Fri., Nov. 11, 8:30 p.m. on IPTV World
  • Fri., Nov. 11, 10:30 p.m. on IPTV
Also premiering on public television stations nationwide is "Where Soldiers Come From," an 86-minute documentary focusing on three Michigan National Guard soldiers deployed to Afghanistan's Khost Province in 2009.

According to press materials: "As it chronicles the young men's transformation from restless teenagers to soldiers looking for roadside bombs to 23-year-old combat veterans trying to start their lives again, the film offers an intimate look at the young Americans who fight our wars, the families and towns they come from--and the way one faraway conflict changes everything."

In discussing challenges citizen-soldiers face upon their return from deployment, the film covers topics such as Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury.

The Iowa on-air schedule for "Where Soldiers Come From":
  • Thurs., Nov. 10, 2011 9:00 p.m. (IPTV)
  • Wed., Nov. 16, 2011 7:30 a.m. (IPTV World)
  • Wed., Nov. 16, 2011 1:30 p.m. (IPTV World)
  • Wed., Nov. 16, 2011 6:30 p.m. (IPTV World)
  • Sat., Nov. 19, 2011 11:00 a.m. (IPTV World)
For local listings elsewhere, use the Zip Code-based locator here.

07 November 2011

Aim Your Words at the Write Targets

Documenting personal and family stories of military service is a long-running theme in the Red Bull Rising blog. What follows in this post is a list of venues through which citizen-soldiers, veterans, friends, and family members can share words, stories, and perspectives. These venues are presented in alphabetical order, and range from informal online exchanges to more traditionally edited print publications. Some even provide opportunities to communicate through visual arts, poetry, and fiction.

Remember, you don't have to write for a living to write about your life.



Website: www.americanveteranscenter.org

According to the organization's website, "the mission of the American Veterans Center is to preserve and promote the legacy of America’s servicemen and women from World War II through Operation Iraqi Freedom." Veterans, friends, and family can place a personal stories on the Online Veterans Tribute, via the website, e-mail, or postal mail.

E-mail: tribute AT americanveteranscenter.org

Mail submissions to:
American Veterans Center
1100 N. Glebe Rd. Suite 910
Arlington, VA 22201

Submissions sent via e-mail or post should be submitted in Microsoft Word format, if possible. According to the website, any story that is not submitted in a format that can be electronically copied and pasted onto the site will take 4 to 6 weeks to transcribe and post online.




A series of Eastern Iowa stage performances in November and December 2011, "Telling: Iowa City" presents the individual experiences of nine veterans, as performed by those veterans. A component of the performance is an opportunity for others to share their own thoughts and experiences regarding military service.

According to the website: "'Telling: Iowa City' is only a small collection of the hundreds and thousands of stories across Iowa of veterans' service to our country. We invite you to tell your own story to us. We will collect them and archive them with the rest of our 'Telling: Iowa City' narratives."



Website: va.eku.edu/volume
Facebook: Click here.
Print publication: The Journal of Military Experience
Deadline for submissions: Dec. 31, 2011

Edited and published on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Ky. and started in Fall 2010, the Journal of Military Experience "reflects the struggles service men and women across the nation, a process that has helped them come to terms with what they experienced and educate those who have not served about the nature of war and military service. Many of the [writers featured in the first issue] have expressed a therapeutic effect from sharing their stories and all are motivated to move forward with their new lives."

Proceeds from book sales go toward publishing future issues, as well as toward funding an "Operation Veterans Success" scholarship and retention program at the university.

Click here for guidelines.



Website: mowarriorwriters.wordpress.com
Facebook: Click here.
Deadline for submissions: Dec. 30, 2011

The Missouri Warrior Writers Project is seeking submissions for a national anthology of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction by veterans and service members about their wartime experiences regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the organization's website:
This experience includes deployments and those who have never been deployed. Transition back into civilian life is also a topic of interest for this anthology. The contest will award $250 each to the top entries in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. All entries will be considered for publication in the anthology. There is no entry fee.
Click here for guidelines.



Website: www.realcombatlife.com/share-a-story/
Twitter: Click here.

The purpose of this Minnesota-based online effort is "to provide an online forum for our brave veterans to share their experiences and to educate the public on what life is like in combat from a first-hand perspective."

The website continues:
Writing your thoughts down has long been a method for individuals to help deal with stress. Military members have the most stressful job in the world and it is important that we do not ignore those signs within us. Sharing your story may not help heal all the pain we have inside but it helps you know that your story is out there and not bottled up inside.

It is also important to educate the public on what life is like in combat. The media reports what they want you to hear. This is your chance to educate the public on what life is really like in combat and to let them know what you have done for our great country. Not all stories have to be about getting shot at. We want to hear your funny stories and what you do to fight the boredom. The story can be as long or short as you want ... we just want to help you get your voice heard!

04 November 2011

Midwest Vets to Tell Their Stories on Stage

In a series of November and December performances, Working Group Theatre will present "Telling: Iowa City," a play taken directly from the stories of Eastern Iowa veterans, and performed by the veterans themselves. The creative process is based on a project founded in Eugune, Ore. by Jonathan Wei.

The cast comprises nine veterans of various ages, ranks, genders, and experiences both overseas and stateside. As the theater group's publicity materials note: "The veterans’ service to our country spans over half a century, from the streets of Baghdad to the jungles of Indochina."

Performances are:
Nov. 8-10, 7:30 p.m.
University of Iowa Theatre Building, Theatre B
Tickets are free
To reserve ticket, e-mail: info AT workinggrouptheatre.org

December 2-4, 7:30 p.m.
Riverside Theatre, Iowa City
Tickets are $12 to $15
To reserve tickets, call: 319.338.7672
Hosts, partners and sponsors of the event include:

03 November 2011

Vets Write Their 'Ways Back Home'

Blog-editor's note: This post is based on pre-event press materials regarding "Writing My Way Back Home," a free writing workshop for veterans conducted in Iowa City, Iowa, Oct. 14-16, 2011. The event was sponsored by the University of Iowa Veterans Center. Contact information regarding future such events appears below.

The day after Emma Rainey finished organizing and teaching a writing workshop for veterans in 2010, she received a letter from her father—a U.S. naval officer during the Korean War—describing a war trauma he suffered and never mentioned to anyone in the family. "The irony did not escape me," said Rainey. "I barely understood my passion to help veterans—mostly I was driven by news reports of returning veterans committing suicide and knew writing could help. To discover my father had suffered an ungodly trauma—and never mentioned it till now—sent me reeling."

"The workshop’s primary aim is not to generate work of literary quality—although this may happen and certainly did in our first workshop,” said Rainey, a 2009 graduate of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program co-facilitated the workshop with John Mikelson, UI Veterans Center coordinator. “The workshop begins the powerful process for veterans to write their stories and reflect on events they experienced in war in a way that may lead to greater insight, creativity, and healing."

Writers from UI's Nonfiction Writing Program and Writers' Workshop, poets, playwrights, and veterans volunteered to teach blocks of instruction. Topics ranged from the use of descriptions and dialogue, explorations of poetic and visual forms of expression.

"Our first workshop was full of surprises," said Rainey. "First, half the veterans were women—I didn’t expect that. Also, I was overwhelmed by the determination of disabled vets to journey to Iowa City—a blind vet flew in from Minneapolis and a paraplegic took the Greyhound bus from Chicago—to write their stories. But what struck me most of all was the camaraderie—it didn’t matter which branch of service, age, rank, or war had been fought. They veterans were just glad to be together."

Following 2010's event, Rainey and Mikelson had noted many veterans wished to participate, but found traveling to Iowa impossible. Rainey has since incorporated and is finishing the application process for non-profit status to conduct writing workshops throughout the U.S. The name "Writing My Way Back Home" came from correspondence with John Lavelle, a Vietnam War vet from Bettendorf, Iowa. "John used the expression: 'writing my way home' in our e-mail communications," Rainey said. "This phrase was an ideal metaphor for what the vet faces when returning stateside, as well as how they must reconnect—and come home—to themselves. So when it was time incorporate and fill in the name of our organization, John Lavelle gladly gave his permission to use it."

Rainey recently completed a course titled "Recon Mission" at the Therapeutic Writing Institute, Wheat Ridge, Colo. She also conducted two writing workshops this past year for Operation: Military Kids, run by Iowa State University for military children with parents about to deploy. "I think the National Guard has it particularly hard since they are not full time. And though I wasn’t born when my father served in the Korean War, I remember how difficult it was for our family when he was out to sea, sometimes for a year at a time. I’m impressed how organizations are recognizing that family members need supportive attention, too."

The writing workshop was open to all current and former military personnel—whether they were in combat or not.

One lunch was donated by Bread Garden Market, Iowa City. "Eating together—the vets and writers and volunteer therapists—helped deepen the bond in the writing community during the weekend."

Rainey also mentioned Karl Marlantes's 2011 book, "What It Is Like to Go to War" “Marlantes bravely looks into the heart of the warrior and demands our society recognize the healing work needed for our returning warriors.”

Marlantes writes:
This book is my song. Each and every one of us veterans must have a song to sing about our war before we can walk back into the community without everyone …quaking behind the walls. Perhaps it is drawing pictures or reciting poetry about the war. Perhaps it is getting together with a small group and telling stories. Perhaps it is dreaming about it and writing the dreams down and then telling people your dreams. But it isn’t enough just to do the art in solitude and sing the song alone. You must sing it to other people. Those who are afraid or uneasy must hear it. They must see the art. They must lose their fear. When the child asks, "What is it like to go to war?" to remain silent keeps you from coming home.
This year John Mikelson is setting aside a time slot for veterans to read their work during this year’s Veterans Reception on Nov. 9 at the Old Capitol Town Centre. "The one component missing from our last workshop," Rainey recalls, "was a venue for the veterans to read their writing to civilians. It’s a transformative experience, both for the vet and the audience, to hear and understand the warrior’s experience. It’s part of the healing process for the vet and the civilians."

Rainey believes it is essential we reach out to the veterans we have sent to war to help integrate them back home. "After reading my father's war narrative, I began to write an essay about it and realized how his unspoken trauma became an intimate member of our family—an unnamed sibling—and would have been rendered invisible if not for its explosive echo powerful enough to erupt, to this day, the lives of my sisters and mother. More than ever I am committed to helping U.S. military personnel find their way back home through writing."

For more information on "Writing My Way Home" offerings, click here.

Visit the project's Facebook page here.

Or contact:

Writing My Way Back Home
P.O. Box 3470
Iowa City, Iowa 52244

John Mikelson, UI Veterans Center: john-mikelson AT uiowa.edu

Emma Rainey, Writing My Way Back Home, Inc.: emma.rainey4 AT gmail.com

02 November 2011

'The Forever War' on the Prairie

Home of the University of Iowa, the municipality of Iowa City, Iowa is also a UNESCO City of Literature. The designation recognizes the regional confluence of academic, private-, and public-sector activities and events centered on writing and literature.

From June to October 2011, libraries, businesses, and others displayed more than 25 "BookMarks" statues in public venues throughout the Iowa City metro area. Shaped like open tomes, and painted on themes ranging from "Moby Dick" to "A Book is a Present You Can Open," the statues will be auctioned off at a Coralville Center for the Performing Arts event, Thurs., Nov. 10, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Registration for the event ends Nov. 5.

Coincidentally, it was during a short October walk
between the university library and the UI Veterans Center that I first encountered a BookMarks statue celebrating Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War". I was in Iowa City to attend a series of seminars on writing about war, which was recently hosted by the vets center. More on that event tomorrow.

According to a press release regarding the "Forever War" installation:
This ground-breaking novel is one of the most influential works of science fiction written in the last 40 years. It was completed while Haldeman was attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and published in 1974 while he was living in Iowa City. He submitted a copy of the first edition as his Master’s thesis.

The Forever War is an oblique depiction of Haldeman’s experience as a soldier during the Vietnam War, and a mind-bending treatment of the concept of time and space, the ways in which human experience is forged by our perception of the times in which we live.
In the novel, William Mandella is sent many light years across space to engage an enemy species known as the Taurans. Due to time dilation caused by faster-than-light travel, Mandella and his fellow soldiers age two months while time on earth advances by a decade. Haldeman uses this scenario, which most science fiction conveniently avoids, to depict the concept of future shock in tangible terms. The novel becomes a meditative examination of the senselessness of war and the immensity of time and cultural change, with a love story stitching the pieces together on a human scale.
The novel won every major award for science fiction, including the Hugo and Nebula, and it is considered an important work about the Vietnam War. Haldeman wrote two sequels, and the original novel is currently being adapted to film by Ridley Scott. The sculpture, by the artist Jim Kelly, depicts the powered suit of armor that the soldiers in the novel wear, while the interior of the sculpture invites viewers to step inside the suit, by stepping inside the book.

01 November 2011

Iowa City Center is Outpost for Student-Vets

U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs blogger Alex Horton recently observed:
When veterans return from deployments and get out of the military, the campus can be an attractive place to start the next chapter of life. It can also be a place with unique challenges of reintegration, like a younger peer group and the juggling of family or career life. So, veterans are usually called nontraditional students, but that doesn’t mean universities understand or always prepare for their needs. But some schools have started to understand the need for veteran-specific programs and services on campus.
The University of Iowa, for example, has a Veterans Center located on the first floor of the UI Communications Center on Madison Street, downtown Iowa City. The center serves a growing population of students who are serving, or who have served, in military uniform. Currently, the veterans number more than 400 on campus, and enrollment anticipated to increase to more than 600 students next year.

Think of it as an outpost, where people speak fluent military-ese, don't flinch at mixing camouflage patterns, and may have even once walked in your boots for a time.

According to the center's website:
  • The center is staffed by veterans and is designed to ensure that student veterans at the University receive all benefits to which they are entitled. The center is home to the University of Iowa Veteran's Association (UIVA), which serves as liaison between the university and student veterans, and works to address issues specific to student veterans.
  • Assistance and information can be provided regarding issues and benefits such as: housing grants and loans, medical services, and credit hours awards for military service, among others.
  • In addition, the lounge offers comfortable seating, several networked computers, fridge/freezer, microwave, big screen TV, and pop/snacks are available for purchase.
  • The center is generally open weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but calling ahead is advisable: 319.384.2020; 319.335.3152.
The website further describes the University of Iowa Veterans Association (UIVA) as:
[A] group of veterans and supporters interested in helping veterans and returning reservists at The University of Iowa adjust to and integrate into university life. Additionally, the group aims to support persons still serving as well as their families, and to raise awareness among fellow students of the daily sacrifices made on their behalf.

This is not a pro-war or anti-war group. It is a pro-service member group for veterans, reservists, and supporters. People of all political ideologies are welcome.