A few years ago I was the featured speaker at a local high school’s Veterans Day assembly. This was, of course, an egregious error. I was there to accompany the school choir, directed by bandmate Brian Hoskins, in a performance of “Carry On,” a piece I wrote inspired by the stories of a B-17 pilot in World War II. The student-group in charge of scheduling a speaker had failed to do so and, without my knowledge, slotted me in. Gulp.
Not only am I not a veteran, at the time I was acutely aware of how much less connected to patterns of military service I felt when compared to the majority of the students in that particular location and era—years of working with Brain’s choirs had exposed for me just how many of these kids had friends and family members enlisted. My speech, then, consisted of the only point I felt comfortable offering with any authority: every veteran has a story, and we can all do our best to honor that; here’s the story one individual—the late and likeable Don Shawe, who consented to my voicing his experiences in “Carry On”—told me.
Last year, I accepted an invitation to represent The Bushwick Book Club Seattle as a guest instructor with The Red Badge Project, an organization co-founded by actor Tom Skerritt that “supports Wounded Warriors… as they discover and give voice to their unique stories.” Earlier this year, I underwent training (at the hands of the capable Shawn Wong, whom Bushwickers may recall as the curator of the 2012 Jack Straw Anthology) to become a regular instructor for Red Badge, exploring the ways one can tell stories through music. My vocabulary of military acronyms is growing.
Many experiences and conversations stand out from that week in March, but one in particular embodies my transition from flabbergasted-school-assembly-keynote to more-informed-and-aware-civilian, one who still leans pacifist (and performed for a Veterans for Peace-focused gathering mere weeks later), but who appreciates the depth and breadth of personal experiences, motivations, and connections in a much more nuanced way—actively and (hopefully) transparently opting-in for participation and engagement. The group was walking the short distance from the Museum of Glass, where we’d spent some time exploring the ways visual art can inspire, back to our classroom at the University of Washington-Tacoma when one of the soldiers fell into step with me and posed a simple query: “Why didn’t you ever consider joining the military?”
Not long ago, such a question likely would have landed on me as a challenge, but this time I received it as a simple bid from one individual to another, an appeal to learn about his past and swap stories. Resisting my deep-seeded urge to answer in convenient and quotable package-statements, I left that older comfort zone for a new one, one of in-the-moment back-and-forth with no pre-determined outcome—just two guys exchanging stories from our lives, each having seen things the other hadn’t.
To further commit to this candid territory, I sat among the soldiers whenever Shawn was teaching and completed each writing prompt as if I was a student myself. Though a far cry from depictions of deployment, here’s what I produced after we watched the Australian (very-)short film “Apricot.” Shawn calls the exercise “Objective/Subjective” (and uses the film to illustrate it), and the premise is simple: write a series of statements, alternating between objective and subjective content with each one. I used my first experience with Red Badge at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2013 as my backdrop:
The wait for clearance was twenty minutes
It was longer than I thought it would be
Once I got it, I followed Shawn to the hospital
As we walked to our classroom, I wondered just who else occupied the other rooms in the building and what they had seen
The soldiers who assembled represented many different age groups and ethnicities, some in uniform, some in civilian dress
I felt nervous
One soldier called me on it
I wasn’t comfortable admitting it and blamed it on caffeine
The conversations that followed covered many topics ranging from life in the Army to the craft of writing, and places where the two might intersect
Some were heated and intense
Everyone had seen war up close
Everyone had a story to tell