Bear Witness

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I joined the Marine Corps at age 34. I officially became a Marine in October of 2000; two days shy of a month and year before 9-11.  I went to boot camp with men young enough to be my sons and later to war with men and women who weren’t born when I first was eligible to join. Needless to say I understand the dynamics of trans-generational relationships inside the military community. I had, although, always been on the older end of that paradigm. Until now.

When I returned from war I started to hear of other veterans’ struggles with PTSD and to be honest, ended up with the gun in my mouth a couple of times. Writing saved me. By being able to express my thoughts and feelings on paper, even when it was never to be shared, it helped me somehow. In a way I can’t quite describe, some of the pressure was removed when I was able to get the words outside of me and onto the page.
I wanted to share this with other veterans.

About fourteen years ago I came to be associated with a group called Warrior Writers founded by Lovella Calica. It is a nationwide community of active duty servicemembers, veterans, and some allies who were using writing as a healing practice, a way to learn to live in a healthier relationship to our military experience no matter what our feelings about war or politics might be. I’ve lead workshops around the country and taken part in many weekend retreats for veterans. Currently, I lead a monthly group of active duty and veteran military members in New Orleans and have for about a year now. A few months after I began leading that group, I was approached about leading a second monthly group for elder vets at Kingsley House. I was immediately excited about the idea and also, to be honest, a bit nervous about the challenge. These older vets live in a different relationship to writing than their younger peers. Most are Black men who left a segregated educational system in the South to serve in Vietnam before returning to rampant racism still alive and well in 1970s Louisiana. Whatever their many and varied paths have been, several of these men have not had too much experience committing their stories to the written word. Also, the physical limitations of aging including neurological disorders and arthritis can be a barrier to implementing the program as it is practiced by younger and able-bodied veterans. Here’s the thing: these men’s stories are valuable and they are an important part of American History. If we do not archive them in some way, they will be lost forever to posterity. We cannot let that happen.

In our first couple of meetings there was a fair amount of “you people” from a couple of the guys. The “you people” they were referring to were White people and they were looking at me. At some point one of the older vets thought maybe somebody had gone too far and apologized to me. I will say here what I said to him so that it might be a determinant principle for any of this work I’m seeking to do with these precious elders, “I want this to be a safe space for you to say whatever you feel needs to be said.” And if we can’t provide at least that then I think we should stop trying.
The veterans at the Kingsley House meeting of Warrior Writers in New Orleans (I’ve come to call them the “Elder Platoon”) now treat me like a younger brother. They’ve learned that I can take all the “you people-ing” they need to bring and I’ll gladly take it because I know this is healing. And as I say to them each month, I’m the lucky one and I leave each gathering with more than I brought in. These men have been walking the Veterans’ Path for about thirty years longer than I have. They offer so much to me, I want to give back to them.

Any barriers that might disallow the individual veteran’s ability to tell his story can be overcome. I’m not quite sure how yet but we won’t quit. We bought some audio recorders thinking that the veterans who weren’t so comfortable with the pen could simply speak their responses to the writing prompts into the recorder. Even the most usually-verbose among the men barely gave more than name, rank, and serial number. We won’t give up. One of my co-leaders Alex Fenno and I have been discussing the possibility of having some younger veterans come in to interview the older vets, or more accurately for them to have a conversation—in the spirit of Story Corps on NPR.  I’m sure NPR would love to support us in this effort. Resources are already available to help archive these valuable stories before they slip forever into obscurity and therefore becoming unknowable to future generations. We mustn’t waste that opportunity.

I am also the Artist in Residence at Bastion [Community of Resilience] in New Orleans. Bastion has just purchased three fine cameras for the purpose of digitally archiving veterans’ stories. This is a perfect fit. With appropriate permission granted, I’d like to have younger veterans interview older ones and to film it for coming generations. I’d like to be able to offer such videos to the Elder’s family and, again with appropriate permission, seek to get these stories out there. I’m sure a front end partnership with Story Corps would be easily manageable and these stories should be in the Library of Congress. I wrote a play based on my journals from Iraq which toured and ended up off-Broadway in New York. The script is now in The Library of Congress. These men’s stories belong there beside mine. They are part of the American Narrative.
Until we sort out the challenge of how exactly to get these men’s stories from the spoken word to film or page, we continue to come together to tell stories, the base principle of Warrior Writers. I cannot tell you how privileged I feel to bare witness to these men. We’ll figure out how to transmute them to tablet, and soon.
Until then, we’ll do as veterans of war have done since the beginning of time; we’ll sit around the fire and tell our stories to each other. Sometimes that’s enough.


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