The story of a war is a compilation of fragmented memories — the individual stories of citizens and soldiers pieced together into one narrative.
When soldiers don’t tell their stories of combat, that narrative is lost and everyone suffers — the soldiers, who never find an outlet for their emotions; the families of soldiers, who never know what their loved ones sacrificed and learned; and society, which never grows from the experiences of past generations.
Making sure those stories aren’t lost was Margaret von Steinen’s motivation for creating a combat writers group in 2009. The writer and communications officer for Western Michigan University’s Haenicke Institute for Global Education says she started the group to help bridge the gaps between soldiers and their memories and between soldiers and the public. The group meets on the second and fourth Tuesday of most months at the Portage District Library, and during each hourlong session, veterans are asked to write about a trigger that von Steinen thinks up for the group.
“I’ll give them a trigger that can relate to all of them, like marching or ammunition,” she explains. “The different ways one trigger can get manifested is always surprising. From every trigger, there is a wide mix of stories, and often the trigger brings up a memory that the writer hasn’t thought of in years.”
Once the group members write their stories, they share their memories with the rest of the group. After the session is over, von Steinen encourages the veterans to keep their written stories, type them up, share them with family members and even try to publish them if they’d like. She offers her support through any process they choose. On Veterans Day, the group hosts an event at the Portage District Library to share their stories with the public.
Group member Bob Short, a veteran of the Vietnam War and a regional coordinator for Buddy-to-Buddy, a volunteer veteran support program, collects his typed stories in a binder.
“War is a unique experience that you never forget and you never put behind you,” he says. “I spent my 21st and 22nd birthdays in Vietnam, and I’ll never forget the experiences I had. Writing is a good way to get them off my chest.”
Writing with other veterans is particularly helpful, he says. “We have an understanding of the range of emotions — excitement, exhilaration, fear, sadness and anger.”
But while the group has the therapeutic effect of helping veterans give voice to their feelings and experiences, both Short and von Steinen emphasize that the feelings and experiences aren’t always weighted with fear and grief. “There are sometimes a few tears, but there are a lot of laughs too,” Short says.
The group’s size changes often, as veterans move in and out at certain points of their lives, but it has a core of about seven members who have served in conflicts ranging from World War II to Vietnam. Von Steinen and Short explain that while Afghanistan, Desert Storm and Iraq veterans are always welcome and sometimes stop by, they usually have too much on their plates — raising families, going to college, deployment, careers — to commit to the group long-term.
Although she’s not a veteran of combat herself, von Steinen’s experience as a journalist and writer enables her to serve as the group’s facilitator. She knows how important storytelling is, she has a genuine interest in hearing the stories of the veterans who come to the group, and she learns from every shared experience.
“I’ve learned that you can use a helmet to eat out of, that you can take a shower in a monsoon rain with a bar of soap,” she says. “And I have a heightened awareness of what it feels like to be at the other end of that crosshair. As a civilian, you can read books and it makes an impression, but when you hear these stories firsthand, it hits home a lot harder.”
Short says von Steinen’s enthusiasm to learn from the group is what makes her the perfect facilitator.
“She likes hearing these stories,” he says. “She listens and is not judgmental in any way. We’ve all grown to trust her.”
That trust is important if a combat veteran wants to feel safe enough to open up and share, Short says. He knows it takes a lot of courage to talk about experiences that many are encouraged to put behind them when they return from combat, but he encourages any combat veteran who likes to write and is looking for an outlet to try the group.
“Give it a try,” he says. “I don’t think one of us has had a bad experience, and it’s good to take some time out to remember.”
For more information about the group or for a meeting schedule, contact Margaret von Steinen at email@example.com.