04 December 2013

2nd 'Proud to Be' Delivers New Military Voices, Insights

Review: "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Vol. 2"

Released in early November 2013, "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Vol. 2" is a must-read manual on taking down barriers that exist not only among civilians and veterans, but among generations of veterans themselves.

One objective of creative expression—whether poetry, fiction, essay, journalism, photography, or art—is to allow a viewer to encounter new ideas and experiences. Literature and art can make the foreign familiar, or, conversely, re-cast the familiar in fresh ways. As both a contributor and a reader, I'm pleased to report that "Proud to Be, Vol. 2" is full of those surprises and encounters.

The 320-page trade paperback is part of an anthology series published by the Southeast Missouri State University Press, with assistance from the Missouri Humanities Council and the non-profit Warriors Arts Alliance.

This is essential reading for those of us who seek to breach obstacles not only among civilians and veterans, but among generations of veterans themselves. By way of example, here are some insights gained through reading random selections from Volume 2:

Insight No. 1: "Veteran" is not one tribe, but many.

Consider the variety of winning writing (there is a companion contest to the annual anthology) to be found in its pages:
That's a lot of time and terrain covered, and an all-eras and -branches choir of veterans' voices.

Additionally, each piece of writing and art is accompanied by a short biography of the author or artist. I enjoyed reading these almost as much as I enjoyed the articles and stories. Learning a little about each creator is itself an opportunity for revelation and reflection; this practice should be copied by the editors of other publications.

That said, future issues of the "Proud to Be" series would be further improved were all of the prose to be explicitly labelled as fiction or non-fiction. Beyond the winners and honorable mentions, readers of this volume are left to categorize each piece on their own, based on clues contained in the biographies.

Of course, borrowing slightly from Tim O'Brien"All war stories are true."


Insight No. 2: Haircuts are moments of surprising intimacy.

At Fort Knox, Ky., during my basic military training in the late 1980s, one of the guys in my platoon had brought a barber kit from home. On some nights, he'd have a line of us formed up on the barracks stoop, waiting to get our high-and-tights cleaned up enough for the next day's inspection. He didn't take money, but got a great peer-rating out of the deal.

It was a memorable lesson in buddies taking care of buddies.

When deployed to Egypt, I'd make sure to visit the on-post barber shop on specific days of the week. It's a personal thing to ask someone to run their fingers through your hair, after all, and I went only on days when my favorite cutters would be present. Sometimes, a guy was my favorite because he cut well and spoke a little English. Sometimes, it was just because he washed his hands.

On some bases in Afghanistan, reportedly exotic Eastern European women worked in the barber shops and salons. Soldiers would tell punny stories about getting some ... action. Like O'Brien's war stories, all of these stories were true, too.

All of this came to mind while reading a prose-poem by Minneapolis-based writer Charity Tahmaseb. In her work, titled "Land of the Free (Haircuts)," Tahmaseb tells a story of a private moment conducted in public, a haircut between a deployed wife and her equally deployed husband. Despite the close quarters, the sense of separation is almost painful.
[...] Paul sees me and the scissors snap shut.
He holds himself to impossible standards
while in uniform.
No PDA goes without saying,
but if he can run his hands over every single
scalp in Echo Company, there's no reason
he can't touch mine. [...] [p. 200]
Despite (or maybe because of?) my earlier experiences with haircuts in the military, Tahmaseb's words took me to a different place and fresh perspective. I will never again think about haircuts and loneliness in quite the same ways.

That's good writing.


Insight No. 3: The voice at the other end of the conversation hurts, too.

As an Army radio guy working in a Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"), one of my worst fears was the absence of a voice at the distant end. Until the final rush of static, it's all about your connections with the soldiers at the other, more dangerous end of the conversation.

I found echoes of those sentiments in the words of retired Minnesota Air National Guard pilot Eric Chandler, callsign "Shmo." While downrange, a buddy working in an Army TOC once e-mailed Chandler some battle-damage photos from an enemy I.E.D. "As we are often 5 miles away from the excitement in an air-conditioned cockpit, I was curious to see what the guys on the ground see," writes Chandler. "I got an eyeful." [p. 205]

Later, back home in Minnesota, Chandler recounts a sudden emotional reaction to his son's request for a military-theme birthday party:
[...] Shelley said that our son Sam wanted an Army theme for his party. I asked her to explain. She said that there'd be little Army Humvees on the napkins and the cake and that there'd be a piñata in the shape of a Humvee. 
Something about the idea of my son taking a bat to a Humvee, destroying it and having candy fall out of it, made me feel physically ill. I still don't know why it would effect me. I'm the fighter-jock glory hound who's never been near any actual blood. I had no reason to get upset, but tears filled my eyes. 
I told Shelly there was no way in hell our son was having a party where he attacked a Humvee with a bat. She was surprised at my reaction. Not nearly as surprised as I was. [...] [p. 206]
"Everyone has their own war," I like to say. In other words, everyone has their own experience of it. Collectively, this book helps tell that story, while also illuminating how individually varied those experiences can be.

Read it. You'll be surprised.

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