Mike Novotny, the team leader at Bellingham Vet Center, presides over a new class for veterans who want to write about their time in the military.
He isn't there to discuss the mechanics of writing. Someone with a master's degree in English does that. Rather, he's there to counsel the six people in the class, most of them Vietnam vets, whenever talking about or writing their memories becomes too much to bear.
"It's pretty emotional to start writing about events, even of long ago," said Novotny, who served four tours of duty in Vietnam. "You're refreshing them in your mind when you bring them up to write them down."
Painful memories can be just one barrier for veterans who want to preserve their stories. A reluctance to open up, uncertainty how to proceed, and a fear of writing can get in the way, too.
"They have memories of writing an English paper for ninth-grade high school class," said Marcus Brotherton, a Bellingham author who has written several books about World War II veterans.
Mention the need to save soldiers' stories and many people think first of World War II, the war with the oldest surviving veterans. There are fewer than 1.4 million of them still alive.
But there are also 2.1 million people who served in the military during the Korean War and about 7.2 million who served during the Vietnam years.
The free writing class at the Vet Center uses "Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story," a curriculum written by Ron Capps, who started The Veterans Writing Project, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
The weekly class began about three months ago. A new three-month session is planned, and a monthly drop-in class is in the works.
Writing can be therapeutic both for veterans and their family members.
"Secrets lose their power when you share them," Novotny said.
Saving their stories also preserves important family information for the veterans' children, grandchildren and future generations.
"It's important to record these stories because war is war," Brotherton said. "It's those stories that continually need to be burned into our brains."
Brotherton and Novotny offered advice on how veterans can be encouraged to share their stories:
- Just start. Recounting their experiences is more important than how it's recorded. But using a tape recorder or having someone interview the veteran can help if the vet isn't comfortable writing.
- Go easy. If you are interviewing the veteran, approach it like a friendly conversation, not an interrogation.
"The key to interviewing is just to get people relaxed," Brotherton said.
If the veteran becomes too emotional to continue, take a break. It's better to collect stories in manageable bites than to try to do so in marathon sessions.
Also, stories are more likely to flow if the veteran is asked open-ended sequential questions, such as "Tell me the story about when you enlisted."
- Don't forget artifacts. Gather names, dates and places to go with photographs, then put the photos onto computer discs. Important items, including medals and insignias, can be mounted in display cases called shadow boxes.
- Fine-tune later. Proper grammar and syntax can wait; it's most important for the veteran to talk or write. Likewise, helpful details from service records, history books and other sources can be checked later to supplement a veteran's account.
- Encourage thoughtfulness. Ask veterans about their personal reactions, with such questions as "What was it like for you?" and "Tell me more."
If the veteran is being interviewed, it can be helpful to wait, and wait some more, for answers to questions.
"Sometimes, dead air is the best thing ever," Brotherton said. "That silence prompts thinking and will prompt a veteran to speak further."
- Bellingham Vet Center: 3800 Byron Ave., Suite 124. Phone: 360-733-9226.
- Marcus Brotherton: www.marcusbrotherton.com. His newest book is "Voices of the Pacific: Untold Stories from the Marine Heroes of World War II," co-written with Adam Makos.
Reach DEAN KAHN at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2291.