Syracuse University Magazine

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Members of the Veterans' Writing Group listen as Frank Hobitz (in green fleece), a Navy veteran of the Korean War, comments on a story. 

Photos by John Dowling



War Stories

It’s 10 a.m. on what looks likely to be a total washout of a Saturday. The summer sun has given way to a brisk fall wind and large gray storm clouds that have rolled in over campus, seemingly out of nowhere. The sky is about to crack open at any moment and pour buckets of water, trapping the few students who had been lured out onto the Shaw Quad by the promise of early morning sunlight.

Steps away, inside the Syracuse University Writing Center in Huntington Beard Crouse Hall, a group of writers has managed to escape the impending weather—but there’s still homework. Professors Eileen Schell and Ivy Kleinbart have just passed out the latest in a long line of writing prompts to their monthly gathering of military veterans turned poets and memoirists. The collection of nine veterans that makes up this morning’s circle of desks spans decades of patriotic service, with representatives from the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Over plates of fruit and pastries, they turn their attention toward the next great battle ahead of them.

“The experience of being a writer is the experience of actively grappling with the desire and perpetual failure to communicate. But such difficulties also define our daily life experiences and relationships.... Try to remember a few specific memories of the military that are shaped by a failure to communicate,” reads the prompt.

The assignment cuts straight to the heart of the group’s mission: to turn memories and experiences of their military service into stories. Schell, the former director of the Writing Program in the College of Arts and Sciences (2007-12), founded the group shortly after Captain Shannon Meehan, an Iraq vet and author of Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline in Iraq (Polity Press, 2009), spoke on campus. Inspired by Meehan’s work and spurred by her own experiences with an uncle who returned home from Vietnam shattered, she established the Veterans’ Writing Group in spring 2010 as a way for former combatants to create narratives that could be shared more widely. “My concern is that veterans are coming back to a society that forgets they were at war,” Schell says. She worries that some people only understand the military through the prism of television or movies. The program, one of many popping up around the country, provides veterans with a way to cement and circulate their stories in writing, allowing real voices of experience to begin to drown out the commercial bellowing of Hollywood. 

Once a month, Schell and Kleinbart, a writing program instructor, offer their expertise to those who have served, critiquing drafts and helping to put their war stories into print. Today’s first piece is shared by Dawson Brown, a naval veteran who is looking to eventually shape his tales from the tail end of Vietnam into a book. Neatly stapled, the three- or four-page document from which he begins to read was typed by his wife, Pat, whom the others jokingly refer to as his editor. Brown’s story about a hellish bus ride from Syracuse to Orlando, Florida, for basic training—a rollicking epic that features an angry drill sergeant, a shaking bus, and more than a few four-letter words that he politely omits—is immediately met with snorts of appreciative laughter.

Frank Hobitz, who enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and worked as an electronics crew chief during the Korean War, says it was the pecking order established by his fellow soldiers—not their superiors—that gave him the most abuse. Heather Faulkner, a member of the Navy reserves who recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, can’t remember the name of her drill sergeant, only that her brutal mid-winter training in Chicago could have benefited from some southern sun. “The things we learn in concert with other veterans help us deal emotionally and psychologically and that’s something good that comes out of these groups,” says Pete McShane ’72, G’73, a special forces medic who served in Vietnam.

McShane’s work is the last shared of the day. He asks the group if he’s read them his piece about his ex-wife yet. “No, but I’m looking forward to it!” Hobitz says. “The Lie” is the story of McShane’s relationship with his former wife, who succumbed to stage 4 uterine cancer shortly after the two came to terms over their failed marriage. At first, his words fly off the page with an angry, accusatory flair before slowing to a somber crawl as the writer ultimately claims responsibility for the divorce, collateral damage in his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Silence. Finally, it’s time to offer feedback, to give McShane insight into how he can make his writing sharper, clearer, more accessible. Brown’s hand is the first in the air. “Pete, you’re being too hard on yourself,” Brown tells him.

Murmurs of consent echo around the room, proof that if writing is actively grappling with the desire to communicate and the perpetual failure to succeed at it, then it helps to work with people who speak the same language.     —Frank Ready



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Air Force veteran Lee Savidge G'77 listens to a group member read. 



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Ralph Willsey (left), an Army veteran of the Iraq War who is now a student at Onondaga Community College, looks on as Derek Davey, a Marine Corps veteran, offers feedback to a writer. 



writing-group-4.jpgWriting Program professor Eileen Schell is the founder and co-leader of the group, which she established in 2010.