Inside a Veterans' Group Writing About War and Peace

by Shepherd Bliss by Shepherd Bliss

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After being raised in the military family that gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas, I have tried to live a normal civilian life. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam Era, I have tried to live a normal civilian life. But like many "military brats" and veterans, I have not always adjusted so well to life outside the service. I spent over 20 years being militarized and have now lived nearly 40 years de-militarizing myself. Those formative first two decades have been hard to overcome, though I can usually cope and pass. Then war breaks out again…

After a dozen years of writing and reading our work to each other, our Veterans' Writing Group will release a book in September. Edited by award-winning author Maxine Hong Kingston and published by Koa Books, it is entitled Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace. (Information at vowvop.org.) It includes storytelling — nonfiction, fiction and poetry – by 80 veterans spanning five wars. The writers are combat veterans, medics, others who served in war, gang members and victims of violence, draft resisters, deserters and peace activists. Unfortunately, our book is timely, as the war drums grow louder every day.

Koa Books in Maui published our book. Kingston moved to the aloha state during the Vietnam War and lived there for nearly two decades. Our publisher, Arnie Kotler, also moved to Hawai'i a few years ago. I have lived most of the last three years there, teaching at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo. Hawaiian aloha has much to offer the world, especially now that we seem to be heading into expanding wars.

Our group emerged from workshops given by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Kingston has been our ongoing teacher for a dozen years. I attended one of Hanh's workshops for veterans in the early 1990s. I later began going to the writers' group, though my voluntary attendance has not been as regular as was my mandatory presence at family and military meetings. "All present and accounted for, Sir!" I remember shouting first to my father when he assembled his family squad of five children and then to my commanding officers. "Number One, front and center," my father used to bark, calling me by my birth order, rather than my name. Lots of order, little liberty.

Our writing community is different, fortunately — no shouting, and more freedom. By writing within the group and listening to the stories of others I have been supported to understand, describe, and heal from some of my military trauma. Our writers' community seeks to heal war trauma through art and produce writing that can communicate to those both in the service and civilians.

After decades of counseling in groups, at Vets Centers, and with therapists, I still have more work to do. My sound trauma still gets triggered, and I typically respond with the classic flight or fight. Certain sounds agitate and irritate me, so I usually just leave the scene. Leaf blowers, ticking clocks, people talking while chewing gum or eating, and other sounds can literally drive me crazy.

Veterans who are now civilians tend to be a pretty independent lot. Can you imagine keeping such a diverse group — from retired West Pointers to deserters – together? We do not ignore our differences or seek agreement. Our goal is to continue writing our various and distinct stories. Kingston has been an able leader, as well as an excellent writer providing important feedback. She helps create a context within which we are free to write out of our hearts and minds. Usually sweet, Kingston can be firm when necessary.

My contribution to the book is about sound trauma. My essay was written in Hawai'i, one of the places I went in order to tend my wounds. When the call went out to our group to submit stories and poems to the pending book, I submitted an essay entitled "America on the Warpath: A Nation's Soul at Risk." I wrote it originally in 2002, at the request of Amal Press, a Muslim publisher in England who knew of my love of the Persian poet Rumi. It appeared in their 2003 book Shattered Illusions: Analyzing the War on Terrorism, as did a poem of mine, "Caves, War, and People," written in the group from listening to stories of combat vets.

An updated version of that essay was published in the sampler that we prepared for our reading at the Hawai'i Book and Music Festival in April in Honolulu, at which 16 veterans read. However, in May I sat at my home in an u2018ohi'a forest in Puna — a district where many vets live on the Big Island — and began writing another kind of essay.

"America on the Warpath" is more external, distant, and analytical. It appears in a book that brings together Muslims and Americans who want peace. My new essay is an insider's personal account of a military family and a veterans group. Its first title was "Being Raised in a Military Family." Kingston felt that the essay is really about more than that. Even in its rough form, she suggested that it would be better for our book than the one published in the sample version.

My new essay took on a life of its own and titles of its own. For a while it was called "The Sound of Trauma." Then a member of our group suggested a play on the term "gun shy." The essay had found its title — "Sound Shy." My childhood was filled with loud sounds — including planes taking off near our house, rifles and other weapons being fired, and men yelling orders at each other and responding "Yes, Sir!" My adult life has been characterized by sound avoidance. I can go to considerable extremes to get away from sounds that others do not even notice or tolerate.

I try to live a normal life. Then things happen. I left the United States in the early 1970s for Chile, where I met the first woman I wanted to marry. Then the Chilean military, supported by the United States, toppled the democratically-elected government of President Salvador Allende and killed thousands of people. One of my best friends, Frank Terrugi, was tortured to death by the Chilean military, and I was separated from my beloved. Frank and I had worked together in a group of artists; groups can be difficult for me — forming attachments and then losing a friend. His body had been so butchered that we pall bearers carried a closed casket at his funeral.

I never saw combat in Vietnam, though I have war wounds to heal. While still in the Army I went with a friend to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. His way of being was such a contrast to the many military men who had been my models. I decided to resign my officer's commission and joined the resistance.

Such memories often seem distant, like they did not really happen to me, but to someone in a novel. Being in the Veterans' Writing Group has enabled me to process some of my feelings within a structure that provided support. We met monthly from 1993 to l996 in various San Francisco Bay Area locations and since then have met quarterly in Sonoma County, Northern California. Two to four dozen people (never the same) usually come to each session. We start with a silent meditation and then have a guided writing exercise. Then we write together. We eat a potluck lunch in silence. In the afternoon we often have a walking meditation, followed by reading our work to each other. I always look forward to our gatherings, even when I cannot attend. Just knowing that a group of veterans that I am a part of is meeting to write and heal supports me.

But war continues to happen, making more casualties and spreading its destruction. I was protected from some of the horrors of Chile by forgetting much of my once-fluent Spanish, which contained my memories and feelings. Such is grief work, including the psychic numbing that can protect.

My family considered me a traitor for resigning from the military, so I eventually also resigned from the Bliss family.

After not speaking much Spanish for 15 years, I was invited to give a paper at an international conference in Spain. I met a lovely woman there who only spoke Spanish, so I needed to recall Spanish to communicate with her. I also eventually reintegrated into the Bliss family. I've never been back to Chile, though the vicious Pinochet dictatorship eventually fell. I have unfinished business in Chile, and would like to summon the courage to return and see for myself that there can be abundant life after such horrible death that I experienced there as a young man.

I remember a few years of relative peace. But when the bombs start falling, they seem to head right for my stomach. I feel them in my body. The casualties may be distant, but they feel close to home to me. So I keep writing, though usually from a safe enough distance, leaving some of the more difficult things inside.

Things happen. When the first Iraq War erupted, I remember sitting with a Chicano friend whose son was in the military, watching television. "Brown on brown," she commented, noting how much the Chicano and other dark youth on the American front look like the Iraqi boys fighting.

Things happen. On Sept. 11, 2001, I had breakfast with a United Airlines flight steward from South America. She returned to the house screaming and crying when she heard the news on the car radio. She knew that she had lost some co-workers. War had once again reached me personally. Sept. 11 was also the date that the Chilean military launched its coup, 1973, so it has long been an anniversary date of loss for me.

Now we have another Iraq War, which the United States has helped spread to Lebanon, as we watch, feeling almost helpless. Iran may be next. I try to lead a normal civilian life. But I know what is happening. I do not need to watch it on TV, which obscures much of the real story. Books like Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace and documentary films like Sir!, No Sir, in which two members of our vets’ group appear, are more helpful to reveal the realities of war than the sanitized, corporate media.

As I watched Oliver Stone's emotional World Trade Center film, in addition to the New York City rescue workers and their families, I also saw Chilean and Iraqi families hurt by other American wars.

Though she is not in our book, many years ago Deena Metzger wrote a poem that our book echoes:

There are those who are trying to set fire to the world.

We are in danger.

There is time only to work slowly.

There is no time not to love.