Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Wordcraft – Putting the real military experience on the page

Somebody at a writing workshop told me not to write about military characters because nobody wants to be reminded about what kind of shape the world’s in now. And I thought – really -- when I’ve got a shelf full of thrillers filled with military and paramilitary organizations, whose readers come out in droves to hear their favorite authors?

However, the real life aspects of military life don’t always find adoring fans. Wondering why, I dropped by a recent panel discussion on “Writing the Military Experience” at local VFW Post 6796 in Garland, Texas, to hear what it’s like to put real life on the page.

Panelists included author/teacher Leila Levinson, ex-Marine Rod Pannek of the Writer’s Garret of Dallas, Vietnam veteran/poet Charles Kesler, and military wife/mom/author Kathleen M. Rodgers

l-r: Pannek, Levinson, Kesler, Rodgers
“Civilian families will never ‘get’ what military families go through,” Pannek said. “How do you put military experience out to the public?” It’s an experience that becomes even more urgent because the experiences of war are not solely the problem of veterans.

Kesler is the son of a World War II veteran whose trauma led him to “train me for my war.” The mantra was always, “don’t you dare cry.”

Levinson, also the child of a World War II veteran, couldn’t understand why her father, a doctor, was one person to his family and a completely different one with his patients. It was only when she found a box of photographs from the Nordhausen (Mittelbau-Dora) Concentration Camp her father helped liberate that she began to understand the trauma he had experienced and repressed.

Her experience in teaching a course on literature of the Holocaust at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, had shown her that the trauma of survivors is passed down to their children. Then one of her students asked, “Did the trauma of the liberators affect their children?”

Gated Grief, cover image
Recognizing that legacy of trauma led her to write Gated Grief, dealing with the aftershocks of the concentration camps on those who liberated them. Her father, she realized, had never been able to talk about what he experienced in the camps because he felt his anguish was trivial compared to that of the prisoners. But it was this legacy of silence and repression that he passed down to his unknowing family, as Kesler’s father had passed down his own advice never to weep.

And the tradition of emotional repression doesn’t end with the passing of World War II veterans.

Rodgers married a fighter pilot who served in combat in the first Gulf War. She learned that life isn’t as glamorous as it looks in the movies and that death and disability are always possibilities, even outside combat, describing her husband returning from work with silent tears running down his face at the news of friends’ deaths. “He never opened up to me in those early years because fighter pilots are macho.”

Then she and her husband became the parents of a son at war in Afghanistan. A proponent of sharing such experiences outside the normal bounds of military fiction and nonfiction in her novels, The Final Salute and Johnnie Come Lately.

Rodgers and her family also share a newer problem, the fact that they and other military families are an increasingly small minority. “In my generation, 40 percent of us had fathers or mothers who were military veterans,” Levinson said. With the end of the military draft during the Vietnam War, it’s now far rarer to find military families in the general population. The fewer who have a direct connection to a military experience, the more remote it can seem.

One outlet for sharing those experiences is Veterans Voices magazine, which Kesler credited with helping him find his voice. Narratives need not be journalistic. Kesler, in fact, favors poetry for the narratives he gathered in his volume, The Book of Willie. See the Veterans Voices site for additional information and submission guidelines.

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