Many of the seventy-four essays and poems in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors are hard to read. They describe moments of great pain: leaving loved ones at home, watching people die, killing others in combat. One of the rawest, “Between Wives” by Vietnam vet Jay Harden, is a starkly honest essay about his life of emotional isolation. “Relationships with women are a personal problem and a chronic disease of veterans,” writes Harden, adding that Vietnam vets have a 90 percent divorce rate.
Proud to Be was assembled after a national call for submissions in 2011 from the Missouri Humanities Council and the Warriors Arts Alliance. Edited by Susan Swartwout and published by Southeast Missouri University Press in 2012, the project grew out of writing workshops run by Rita Reichert and Deb Marshall at the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center in St. Louis. A new call for submissions has gone out for the second volume, with essays, short stories, poetry, photography, and interviews due this July.
Most of the authors, including those who won in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry are published writers, vets who went on to become teachers or students of writing programs. But Harden first came to his writing through the St. Louis workshop at the VA hospital, a familiar format offering fellowship and healing. He describes the anguish of one of his fellow vets: “Matt knows he is forever separated from his living gifts to the world by a chasm of combat consequences so violent, so vast, so beyond their experience, they can never comprehend or even offer forgiveness.”
The idea for the writing workshops Harden attended came from the veteran community itself. In 2009, Marshall was with a group of vets learning fly-fishing as therapy—and she heard the same wish over and over from each of them: “I would do anything if anybody could help me tell my story. I don’t have any hope.” And so, in Proud to Be, their stories get told. “It’s more about the humanity of being, than it is about the military,” says Marshall.
Of three noteworthy military publications in 2012 mentioned by Marshall—the Journal of Military Experience published by Eastern Kentucky University, O-Dark-Thirty from the Veterans Writing Project in Washington, D.C., and Proud to Be—the last is the only one that has been selected and edited by a civilian literary editor, not through a military perspective. “These are pieces of literature that we have collected,” says Marshall, “not a matter of military writing but a matter of military writing being accepted and presented in a truly literary context.”
“I edit two literary journals that have all the components of this anthology,” says Swartwout, describing the process and challenges of editing Proud to Be, a volume that encompasses voices ranging from a young soldier’s letter from World War I to a modern female soldier’s “two-step” between the duties to her country and those to her children. Swartwout says that one overriding theme among the writers is the difficulty of transitioning back to civilian life. In “A Rock Called Afghanistan,” Lauren K. Johnson writes about Lady Gaga, the birth of her sister ’s twin babies, and her ignorance of the latest smart-phone technology, which all conspire to make her feel apart from society: “I was a year older, returned to a world that had also aged a year. But we had grown up separately. We no longer recognized each other.”
The stories are not just being told, they are being heard, sometimes in surprising ways. At the first of several readings affiliated with the anthology last November, GuruSahai Good, a former army medic, read her essay “The Ride Home.” In it, she describes trying to comfort a soldier, stunned and silently staring at the mangled bodies from a helicopter crash that took the lives of his friends and brother. As she described the scene, an audience member and fellow writer recognized it from his service in Iraq. “It started to sound really familiar to me and I started to realize that the people she was writing about in her story were my friends, people who I had served with. I had completely put them out of my mind,” wrote Jarrod Taylor to Marshall. “That night made me remember my friends. And I have to thank you for that.”