In the bottom drawer of my desk are among my most valuable possessions—the letters my brothers sent when they were active duty Marines.
Included in the pile is an email, printed and coming apart, sent the night before my youngest brother went to war. These letters tell me the stories my brothers were willing to share with a sister they wanted to protect. I can tell you how I lived for their letters, how missing them was a weight I always carried, and the weightlessness of relief when they were home on leave.
I can also speak to the nights when I could not sleep, trying to imagine Iraq, trying to piece together a picture from the news reports, trying to imagine my little brother safe and whole.
I can speak to the fact that suddenly a war that had been an abstraction was so real, so terrifying that, sometimes, I had to simply sit down and breathe. I understood what was easy to disregard before my brother was in Iraq—all of the men and women who served, the names that were read and the pictures that were shown of the dead, had lives as rich, full, and connected as my brother. They all had stories. I thought of the family members and friends who had to navigate a terrible new world without their beloved in it.
A decade later, I continue to hold those who sacrifice through service in my thoughts and heart.
I can also speak to my silence. I often did not know what to say when my brothers were home, which questions to ask—what was appropriate. I knew nothing of the experience of war but what I had read and what the nightly news had shown me. But then, five years ago, I began teaching at Western, and I began learning about war, and military service, through the writing of my students.
The Veterans Resource Center website proudly states, “Western Illinois University has earned the distinction as a "Best for Vets College" by Military Times EDGE magazine and ranks in the top 20 percent of all colleges, universities and trade schools serving their veterans and service members. Our designation as a Military Friendly School is clearly evidenced by one of the first dedicated resource centers in the State of Illinois specifically designed to meet the needs of our student veterans and service members.”
According to Kathy Meyers, assistant director of the VRC, we have over 800 veterans enrolled at Western Illinois University.
In October of 2014, as part of the writing program’s professional development series created by the amazing Christy Wherley, I facilitated a session entitled “How to Best Serve Those Who Have Served.” Faculty were joined by Kathy Meyers and Crystal Kepple, the dedicated assistant director and clerk of the VRC, Marcia Dace of the University Counseling Center, and the president, vice president, and members of the Veterans Club. Beyond learning what incredible resources our campus offers, we heard the stories of veterans navigating university life. These stories impacted me profoundly.
One veteran said the question he was asked the most, when people learned he had been in Iraq, was “Did you kill anyone?” Recently a student confessed that on Veteran’s Day, when he was thanked, he was aware that community members often had no idea what they were actually thanking him for. War is complex, as is military service, and often the personal stories and experiences of veterans are not shared for a myriad of reasons.
Moved by our work with the VRC, the writing of our students, the commitment of our institution, and our belief in the power of the personal narrative, my friend and fellow teacher, Dr. Jacque Wilson-Jordan and I decided to create a forum for veteran students, faculty, and staff to write in a safe setting. We see poetry, short stories and nonfiction as a bridge—to educate our larger community, to change us as individuals through the acts of writing and reading, and to bring us together in understanding.
We encourage all WIU veterans to participate in the creation of a literary magazine, Veterans’ Voices: Personal Stories of Combat and Peace, produced and edited by WIU student veterans. A series of writing workshops will be held in the 3rd floor computer classroom of the Malpass Library on February 16th & March 2nd from 12:00-1:30, February 17th & March 3rd from 9:00-10:30, and Saturday, March 14th from 1:00-4:00. Workshop attendance is not mandatory.
We also welcome your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 1st. We hope that you will tell your story in an effort to create, educate, and come together in the spirit of true community.
Barbara Harroun is an Instructor of Composition and Creative Writing at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or WIU. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.