Donald Western reads at ArtRage.

Beyond Our View

Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group holds public reading

Beyond the waving flags, steps past marching for the public to view, stands the experience of the women and men who have served in the armed forces in this country. In the week leading up to Veterans Day, the Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group met at Art Rage Gallery in the Hawley-Green Historical District to share their work.

Eileen E. Schell, a Syracuse University writing professor, hosted the event and leads the writing group.

Hosted by Eileen Schell, the group leader, the event brought together local veterans to relay individual perspectives on their time during and following military service for this country. The group, founded in 2010 following the passing of Schell’s uncle — a veteran himself — is a safe haven for veterans to share their experiences. “It’s important to have these conversations,” she said about the importance of the writers sharing their work. The writers say putting pen to paper has spurred conversations with family, friends and others seeking insight into the things they saw, participated in and felt during and following their time in the military. The group is sponsored by the College of Arts & Sciences of Syracuse University, specifically the Writing Studies, Rhetoric and Composition group.

On a day filled with pageantry, the writers group welcomed community members to learn through listening to these veterans’ perspectives — inviting us collectively as a society to take responsibility for our war making. The second reader of the evening, Donald Western, highlighted a blanket phrase often used “Thank you for your service.” Western’s work states that, for him, this phrase, a cultural response to military service, “causes a mental short circuit” that provides him “the impulse to talk about what happened in that time.” In sharing his writing, Western shows how on Veterans Day we should be honoring our living veterans, by starting a conversation, by listening to what is held in the hearts and minds of the men and women who have served this country. Western also questions the idea of heroism often tied by our society to those who have passed on in the course of their duties. In his reading, he highlighted how “earning a grave” is equated to being a hero regardless of valor or status. Western conveyed that conceptually, the overused label of hero further highlights the divide between societal perception and a veteran’s perception of armed conflict and veterans in general.

On this Tuesday evening, the group offered poetic interpretation and personal accounts of time spent in service. Jennifer Jeffery, the thread through the event by sharing three pieces, opened the evening with a poem titled “The Crow.” Following Jeffery and Western, the third to present was Robert Marcuson. He recounted in vivid detail search and destroy missions conducted during the Vietnam War. In his account of one mission, he painted humanity into the conflict as he discussed standing grenade in hand while children and a family pet emerged from a bunker thought to have housed enemy troops. Marcuson was followed by Ginger Star Peterman who weaved deftly her childhood, that of her own child, and her military experience together more deeply engaging an already captive audience.

In the latter portion of the shared writings, Robert Brewer, Ralph Willsey, Lee Savidge and Bill Cross each made their way to the front of the room to convey their experiences. Willsey, a reluctant poet according to other group members, displayed the constructive ability of a seasoned writer and opened up to reveal his hidden talent. Lee Savidge lent humor to the night in an ac-count of a false threat on U.S. soil.

Bill Cross, reading a piece titled “Taming My Rage,” aided in portraying the importance of hearing a veteran’s view of service. A practicing psychotherapist and Vietnam veteran, Cross’ writing began with a childhood memory of killing an animal and the shame that immediately followed this act, curving upward to the rage and immediate shame felt as a result of actions taken during combat duty in Vietnam. Cross went on to parallel his own feelings with those of his great grand-father who had passed down through family history feelings of rage and great shame experienced during the Civil War. Elements of his own life, his classmates and peers in conflict, and those of his family’s military experience all serve to show his fellow veterans and civilians alike the pain felt by these men and women and what should be recognized by all as we as a country recognize our veterans this Saturday, Nov. 11.

Following the reading, Ralph Willsey’s mother spoke of her son’s involvement with the writing group. “Writing in this group has been his healing,” she shared. “There was a brokenness in him.”

The Veterans’ Writing Group welcomes veterans, military family and those members of the community deeply impacted by military service to join them one Saturday per month to share in their experience and put their personal experiences in writing. The group meets between 10 a.m. and noon with meditation led by Syracuse University Communication & Rhetorical Studies personnel immediately prior to the writing session. Further information can be found here.



— Article and photos by Jeremiah Howell, The Stand community contributor

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