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Veterans to read their stories of service at WWU event

Bellingham resident Malcolm Kenyon recounted when he was aboard a Navy minesweeper at the mouth of the Mekong River. They were searching fishing boats for contraband and draft dodgers. It was 1966, early in the Vietnam War. An officer aboard kept threatening the fishermen and their family members with his pistol. Frustrated, Kenyon finally promised to shoot the officer if he didn’t put his gun away.

Dennis Jaeger, who lives in Vancouver, B.C., described the time his reconnaissance unit in Vietnam was fired upon by the enemy and they fired back. Afterward, he was checking the dead bodies and found an enemy soldier still alive. Jaeger said an officer told him there wasn’t time to call a medic, and told Jaeger to kill the man. He carried out the order.

“That weighed on my mind for, what has it been, 45 years,” Jaeger said.

Both men participate in a weekly writing workshop for veterans that has been running at Bellingham Vet Center for more than two years.

“It’s a small group; it’s an active group,” Jaeger said. “I have found it a very powerful, soothing and rewarding experience to go to the group and write.”

Both men also participated last year in the first “Stories Deployed” event at Western Washington University, at which 10 veterans read stories about their experiences in the service and as veterans.

This year’s free public reading will be Friday, May 15, in the ground-floor theater at the south end of Old Main, on campus.

Matthew Swisher, a Marine who is the student coordinator of the Veterans’ Outreach Center at Western, said writing groups and public readings can help veterans stitch together and save their stories, whether it’s for themselves, for family and friends, or for the reading and listening public.

“They know their story is not going to be forgotten,” he said.

Kate Trueblood, an English professor at Western, is helping to organize the event. She appreciates veterans; her physician father was able to pursue his profession because of his training and time in the Army. She also recalls the departure of students from her classes when they left to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Trueblood said programs that gather veterans’ stories, and enable veterans to craft their own, can help bridge the gap between the general public and the small slice of the populace who serve in the armed forces.

“There’s this profound disconnect between Main Street and the military,” she said.

Besides being helpful, even cathartic, telling stories seems a natural for many veterans, Trueblood said, because many of them have spent hours talking about themselves and their experiences during quiet moments in the service.

“They are great storytellers,” she said. “Some of the stories are very poignant, and some are very funny.”

To encourage veterans to read May 15, Swisher and Trueblood attended a series of writing sessions with potluck meals on Friday evenings at the VFW hall in Bellingham.

Swisher, a 28-year-old Oregon native, isn’t a committed writer, per se, but he read a story last year and plans to do so again on Friday. He served in the Marines from 2007 to 2012 as a helicopter mechanic.

His story last year described his experience aboard the USS Boxer. An amphibious assault ship, the Boxer was part of the anti-piracy task force off the east coast of Africa that rescued container ship captain Richard Phillips after he was kidnapped by Somali pirates.

Swisher, who is in the reserves, plans to rejoin the Marines as an officer after he completes his degree in history.

Swisher said all veterans can benefit from recording their stories, whether they saw combat or served in safe support positions.

Trueblood said that for veterans who experienced combat or other traumatic events over which they had little to no control, writing offers the opportunity to revisit those moments but under their control. It’s a chance to parse painful memories without having to relive them.

“Some of the charge goes out of it,” she said. “You’re not supposed to heal from everything. Being able to live with it is the objective.”