Western Illinois University has a national reputation for being good to student veterans and service members. Military Times ranks Western in the top 20 percent of all universities, colleges, and trade schools in the country. Western is "military friendly" because it's affordable, classes are small, the university counts some armed forces training towards college credit, and Western has one of the first Veterans Resource Centers in the state.
As a result, Western has seen an increase in student veterans over the years, with a little over 800 currently enrolled - accounting for about 7% of the student population.
But Barbara Harroun, Assistant Professor of Composition and Creative Writing, said there’s a lack of communication between civilian students and student veterans.
“Some of them just did not know what to ask, or what was appropriate to ask,” she said. “I had one student who said the two questions were: was it hot over there? And did you kill anyone?”
Harroun said she understands the hesitation. Both of her brothers were in the military and her youngest brother, Eli, returned home from war when she was a young adult. Harroun said her family didn’t know how to talk about it and though she had a lot of questions, she often got caught in what she calls, “the awkward.”
“Those little moments that you wish you could have said what you were really thinking,” she said. “Instead of, we’ll just all act like you haven’t been to war!”
Harroun wanted to create a safe space - a place where student veterans could share their stories and others could listen.
She teamed up with Jacque Wilson-Jordan, Assistant Professor of Composition, Developmental Writing, and 19th and 20th Century American Literature, and secured funding from the university’s Veterans Resource Center and created Veterans’ Voices: Personal Stories of Combat and Peace, a collection of fiction, poetry, and prose.
Jordan said the project fulfills their mission as English teachers.
“Listening and valuing other people’s stories. That’s really central to what we do and our philosophies of teaching," said Jordan.
Veterans’ Voices, featuring writing from 14 military veterans, tells stories about bad military meals, lonesome nights, and what it’s like to live through an explosion. Three student veterans served as editors - Jared Worley, Dan Holst, and Ryan Bronaugh.
Bronaugh, the publication’s fiction editor, is a graduate student in WIU’s Department of English and Journalism.
He said he began writing not as a way to reach out to others but to get back in touch with himself.
“The process of writing really helps us work through particular events and experiences,” he said. “Good or bad.”
Bronaugh, who served nearly 8 years in the Navy, deploying to Europe, Africa, and Iraq, said his last year of service, 2005, was a rough one. A close buddy died in combat and Bronaugh got bombed, sustaining injuries severe enough to keep him off the front lines.
Like nearly 1 in 5 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bronaugh returned home with PTSD, which has a variety of symptoms.
“The one that really bothered me was, as a parent, [was] having to mask this anger that I wasn’t really sure where it was coming from,” he said. “That anger, as I would suppress it, would turn into chronic depression.”
Bronaugh sought help from the VA and was placed in a cognitive therapy program where he wrote daily. He’s kept up the practice and advocates that writing has the power to help people heal.
But Veterans’ Voices struggled to attract contributors and only a handful of student veterans such as Bronaugh participated. In order to fill the pages, the publication’s creators invited WIU alumni veterans to also submit writing.
In addition, no one showed up to the Department of English and Journalism's 3 workshops for veterans to work one-on-one with the publication’s editors.
Crystal Kepple, the Veterans Resource Center clerk, said the lack of participation is a symptom of the very struggles the project is trying to address. Because veterans don’t often get asked about their military experience, they tend to discount it.
“A lot of people were thinking 'I don’t have any interesting stories',” she said. “And then people would sit there and talk to us and we would say, 'That’s exactly the kind of story that everybody would love!' And they just feel like people don’t want to read what these veterans have to say, and we do.”
The magazine’s launch party, held in the University Art Gallery on May 11, 2015, was proof that civilians are interested in listening. The gallery was packed, with close to 50 people in attendance, prompting the Veterans Resource Center to order a second round of magazines. Free copies are available at the Veterans Resource Center on WIU’s Macomb campus.
Five of the magazine's contributors read stories, including Dan Holst, a retired Air Force veteran who served for 21 years. He was the publication’s poetry editor.
Holst said he hopes Veterans’ Voices will publish more editions in the future because projects like it bring veterans together, help them deal with the past, and learn how to live again.
Barbara Harroun hopes the project will continue into the future, as well. She said it's helped her get over the awkwardness of not knowing what questions to ask and focus on listening.
“I wish I could go back and say to my younger brother, I have no idea what you went through. But if you ever want to talk, I’ll listen,” she said.
Suggested Reading from VV's Editors
Flander’s Field by John McCrae
Dolce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
The Long Walk by Brian Castner
* I’d add The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brian and The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb.