16 December 2015

Review: 'Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors' 4

A rule of thumb, in both newsrooms and Tactical Operations Centers, is that "two times is a coincidence, but three times is a trend." Four times? Four times must make something an institution.

Now in its fourth consecutive volume, and published annually on or near Veterans Day, the military-writing anthology series "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors" is arguably the high-point of the 12-month veterans-lit calendar. In partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council, the series is published by Southeast Missouri State University Press, Cape Girardeau, Mo. Comprising short fiction, non-fiction essays, interviews, and photography generated by or about military service members, veterans, and families, no other book publishing effort so regularly portrays the scope and depth of U.S. military experiences.

World War II is here. Korea and Vietnam are here. Iraq and Afghanistan are here. The home front is here.

The Navy is here. The Army is here. The Marines are here. The Air Force is here.

The memories of 80-year-old veterans are here. The words of a high-schooler from Gilman, Iowa are here.

It's all here. Every year.

In reading across the most recent edition's 270 pages, one is struck by the chorus of voices. One hears harmonies in times and places. One hears differences in experiences, but never dissonances. In short, the book seems to embody the sentiment: "Everybody has their own war; no one has to fight it alone."

Keeping with the choral metaphor for a moment, the solo performances are stand-out. Each issue features a winner and two honorable mentions in five categories: fiction, essay, interview, poetry, and photography. (Disclosure: The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog was a runner-up in this year's poetry category.)

For example, photography winner Jay Harden's image, "Planning for Peace," graces the cover of the book. Harden was a B-52 navigator on 63 missions over Vietnam.

This year's fiction contest winner, Christopher Lyke, weaves a braided narrative of loss and return and fighting against—or maybe for—the routine. A former infantry soldier, Lyke is a Chicago-area writer, musician, and teacher. He is also the co-editor of the literary journal "Line of Advance." You can hear the Chicago in his prose, in story titled "No Travel Returns":
He woke up and ran the dog and showered. He dressed and woke up the kids. This kept happening. Then he made breakfast for the kids and woke up his wife. This happened every day, too. He made it happen, this routine.
Essay category winner David Chrisinger delivers a profile of U.S. Marine Brett Foley, an Afghan War veteran. Chrisinger, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, interviews Foley and Foley's wife, and grounds the resulting conversation in grief theory. Chrisinger is the son of a Vietnam-era veteran, and the grandson of a World War II veteran. He teaches a student-veteran reintegration course on campus, and counts Foley as his best friend. The resulting exploration is, then, both personal and professional:
What helped to increase Brett's resilience and help him move toward a productive and purposeful life was talking about his trauma and remembering the good men he served with. Only then could he move on. And even though he never discovered the complete and final truth of his experiences—no one ever really can—Brett did create meaning out of them by organizing his memories and creating a coherent narrative. […]
In the winning poem, titled "nights," Navy officer Nicholas J. Watts writes an hypnotic, rhythm-infused ode to sleep and memory:
I visit dark places
where war still rages
and I didn't fight
like I should have
where whiskey flows
from plastic jugs into Salvation Army cups
to be cast away
like dead children from suicide bombs
or Talib cattle shot for sport […]
Such exemplars are indicative of the qualities to be found throughout the book. In a poem titled "TBI" (which stands for "Traumatic Brain Injury"), VA nurse Susan K. Spindler delivers a punch to the gut with lines such as:
[…] A brain weights three to four pounds.
It floats in a fluid that protects it.
You floated in me once, Josh.
I gave up pot and booze and moved
us far away from the man that was half of you.
I thought you would be safe. […]
In a war story titled "How I Almost Lost the War for the U.S.A.," Korean War veteran and former U.S. Marine George Fischer tells a hilarious and harrowing tale. He was driving a WWII-era amphibious truck called a "Duck," one laden with ammunition destined for the front, when he ran over a long-haul communications cable presumably used by much-higher headquarters. The Duck gets stuck. He walks over to a nearby artillery unit, to radio for assistance:
While I waited for that wrecker, the 155 guncrew listened on the phone to announce the next target. Some of the crew asked me how the hell did I get to this howitzer emplacement. I pointed to where my truck rested in the dark across the meadow at the road. They were amazed and astonished as they told me that field I had walked on was thoroughly mined.
In her introduction to this year's volume, series publisher Susan Swartwout describes some of her lessons, taken from four years of compiling, editing, and producing "Proud to Be":
Just a few of the things I've learned include that some veterans carry their stories inside and won't speak their war burdens to friends and family—but they will write them to the world when the have a place and invitation to do so. […]

I've learned that a veteran's coming home to loved ones and civilian life can be yet another battle with its own version of firestorm. […]

And I've learned that many veterans and military personnel have an awesome sense of humor, brilliant with word play and pranks.
Sherpatude No. 26: "Humor is a combat multiplier …" And thank goodness for it. World War II veteran Bill McKenna was an infantryman with the U.S. 24th Infantry Division in the Philippines, when his buddy took off, suffering from the "G.I.'s" (gastrointestinal distress). A Filipino leading a squad of Moro tribesmen happen upon McKenna. After a wary stand-off, they mention in passing to McKenna the recent death of the U.S. President:
For every G.I. in a far-off battle zone, it's great to hear from home—a letter from Mom, Sis, or Sweetheart. But today I got news delivered first-hand to me on a Philippine jungle road. Not the usual way to hear the news, I suppose, but damn, it was exciting.

Later, I learn that the news of the Roosevelt's death was delayed for troop morale considerations.
Where else are you going to hear a story like that? Who else but a veteran would be the one to tell it?


For information on the 2016 military-writing contest and anthology, click here.

A Facebook page for the project is here.

A St. Louis-area book launch event is planned for 1 to 4 p.m., Sat., Dec. 19, 2015. The event is free and open to the public. Information here.

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