To that end, for several years my friend and fellow writer, Leilani Squire, has facilitated writing workshops for veterans (which now include their families), culminating with a formal reading for the public and the publication of some of their work. This project was sponsored by Wellness Works, Glendale, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, with additional funding from the reading and writing workshops program of Poets & Writers.
Ms. Squire writes of her experience: “As the writing workshops progressed, I witnessed the veteran participants search with courage for the story they wanted to write. I witnessed their voices emerge as they wrote their stories and memoirs. I witnessed family member participants delve into the philosophical dialogue about war and their relationship to the military… Most of these stories were difficult to write, but important to write so we could embrace what needed to be embraced, and in the process, share with others what we needed to share.”
This volume contains the work of ten veterans: Stephen J. Jacobs, Wes Cloys, Roger E. Thurnell, Denise M. Woodard, Eric Fleming, Patrick Ignacio, Terre Fallon Lindseth, Kenneth James, Erren Geraud Kelly and Adam Cloys—and seven family members—Dallas Dorsett Mathers, Mary Lu Coughlin, Sandra Squire Fluck, Justine Helena Bugaj, Leilani Squire, Lisa Raggio and Glenn Schiffman.
Reading this book is a profound experience—the more I read it, the more it grew on me, and the more I appreciated the stories being told.
Patrick Ignacio’s description of what it’s like to have PTSD is worth sharing: “At the end of each and every day, I lay my head down in an attempt to sleep. That in itself is no different than you. But when my eyes close and I should be drifting off into a peaceful bliss, my mind takes over, and I am tormented in my dreams with a vivid and exaggerated version of every combat encounter witnessed. There has been nary a night that I do not experience this, and I have not had an uninterrupted night of sleep for years. Yet in the morning, I rise with the consistency of the sun, roll out of my sweat-soaked bed, and shake off the remnants of the nightly battles and start my day…just like you….
“There are times that I am extra medicated. My PTSD comes in cycles and when things get bad I need that extra chemical push to regulate me…”
In a piece called “Do you know my first name?” Denise Woodard writes about the sexually charged jokes directed at her by male commanders in the field, where she was the target of hostility, dismissed and ignored for her contribution to exercises. She writes about receiving an invitation from a colonel who says he can help her, only to find when they meet that he’s hoping for a sexual assignation.
Terre Fallon Lindseth writes this about the women who joined the military: “They were poor. They were desperate for something better in their lives. They were desperate for something different than what life had doled out to them. There was a sense that there was one thing to do in this place. Survive. Make it through. That was the feeling from the majority of the girls.”
I couldn’t help but notice that the quality of the writing was better among the participants who are seasoned, professional writers than that of the amateurs. For a civilian like me the stories written by family members of veterans were more accessible than the pieces written by veterans.
Dallas Dorsett Mathers wrote a gentle, touching imagined memoir about her mother giving birth to her older brother at the Walter Reed Hospital when her father was in the military during World War II. The hospital is huge and she wanders through a section reserved for those with mental disorders before finding her way to the maternity ward.
In Mary Lu Coughlin’s When I Was Waiting to Be Born she writes, “Leilani brought a poem to the first class, “The Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz. After reading it aloud, she asked what line spoke to us. For me, the line midway through his poem, when I was waiting to be born was it. The image captured my imagination. With our line selected, we were instructed to write for 20 minutes not letting our pencils stop. Just keep going. And so, I did.
“My first day’s writing revealed my mother’s version of that time. June 1941 through March 1942 marked the time when I was waiting to be born. Pearl Harbor is the pop-up here…”
Leilani tells that when her father retired after serving thirty years in the Navy, he became bored and so started driving cab in San Diego, where they lived. After exploratory surgery to remove an intrauterine device that had perforated her uterus, she developed a rare infection and not only was hospitalized but quarantined. After he got off work each night, he would come and visit her. Leilani attributes this nightly vigil of her father as being instrumental in her recovery. I only wish that she had satisfied my curiosity about how the IUD was finally removed and about how she finally recovered. Perhaps she will write more extensively about this traumatic experience elsewhere.
Curious about the current situations of the book’s contributors, I was grateful that included at the back of this book are updated biographical information about them. Now they all are living productive lives—their military experiences may have had a destructive impact on their lives, but they are on their way to being healed, and writing of their experiences has helped.
I think many could profit from reading this book.
The Storytellers: Veteran and Family Members Write About Military Life is available for sale at Amazon.com. Now through October 7th, the anthology is available at a discounted price of $2.99 for the Kindle version and $8.00 for the print version. Visit the Kindle and Amazon stores now while this great opportunity lasts.