This is a Blue Star Service pin. I wore it everyday my youngest son was deployed to a war zone halfway around the world. I proudly display this same symbol on the back of my vehicle. After all these long years of our nation fighting the war on terrorism, it’s sad to know that many Americans do not know the significance of this symbol and what it stands for.
In her poignant memoir, Losing Tim, iconic writing instructor Janet Burroway writes about the death of her son, a former Army ranger and government contractor. “Every suicide is a suicide bomber. The intent may be absolutely other—a yearning for peace, the need to escape, even a device to spare family. Nevertheless, the shrapnel flies.”
A few years ago, I was struck by shrapnel, and I’ve been carrying a heavy chunk of it inside me ever since.
We’re all aware of the startling statistic, twenty-two veteran suicides a day, but the statistic never hit a personal note until the violent suicide of a Marine Corps friend. In the wake of that tragedy, my friend left behind two teenaged daughters and a slew of Marine friends who wondered what we could have said or done that might have made a difference to a friend who had become so disillusioned with his civilian life he ended it with a gunshot.
His suicide came shortly after the release of my memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine. For several months, I’d been answering a number of emails and Facebook requests from veterans who were eager for writing advice. Everyone has a story, and every story matters, whether that story is written for self-reflection, a family legacy, or for publication.
But after my friend’s suicide, I stopped the cutting and pasting of advice snippets from one email to another and began to develop On Point, the first writing guide for veterans and their families. Frankly, I was searching for a way to make a difference—for a way to reduce that 22-a-day statistic that sent shrapnel flying into the hearts and psyches of twenty-two families and countless friends every, single, day.
It’s no secret that getting an appointment with a health professional at a VA can sometimes take so long that a veteran gives up. It’s also no secret that transitioning from the military into civilian life is more difficult for some. But could a writing guide, I wondered, written by a veteran for fellow veterans and families, fill a gap? After all, most mental health professionals use writing, and other forms of art, in their programs for cognitive processing therapy.
My gut said yes, and here’s why. Writing about our military experiences, even if we decide to turn our true stories into fiction, helps us develop a deeper understanding about our life, our decisions, and the motives behind our decisions because meaningful writing comes from identifying meaningful patterns. Meaningful writing requires a self-awakening. When we write, we’re training ourselves to search deeply for motive behind choices, whether we’re writing about ourselves in a memoir or essay or about the characters within our military short story or novel.
In On Point, Brooke King, a soldier who served in Iraq and who admittedly suffers from post-traumatic stress, shares how writing helps. “It helps to make sense of what is happening to you,” she said. “In Cognitive Processing Therapy, a veteran with PTSD is asked to confront their traumas head-on by writing down the incident, and then connect the feeling associated with it. I didn’t think writing was helping at first, but I kept doing it because it was the only way I knew how to express myself.”
When I first shared the premise for On Point with friends and fellow writers, most assumed On Point would be a guide exclusively for the military veteran with a war story. Not so. Not every military story is a war story. I never saw combat in the 1980s, but my story of overcoming self-limitations, gender bias, and abuses of power still found its way into the world.
On Point is a guide for writing the military story. If you are serving in the military today, or have ever served, On Point is for you. If you are, or have been, a member of a military family, On Point is for you. In Red, White, and True, I included a number of true stories from spouses and grown children, and their essays are just as compelling as the essays from Iraq War veterans. And if you are the parent of a military son or daughter, you, too, have stories about how military service has affected you; at times you have probably felt pride, worry, fear, betrayal, resentment, anger, and other strong emotions.
On Point may have been born out of grief over losing my Marine Corps friend, but over time, the book grew as a wish to inspire a cross-generational sharing of the military experience–and where needed, a healing.
The cold sun sinks behind the trees outside but she does not turn on the lights. The dark holds no comfort, but it does hide her icy tears. In the gloaming, pictures of her two oldest sons sit on top of the console radio a few feet away. She leans forward and twists one of the knobs. The tubes glow. Before the announcer can say much, she turns it off again. She covers her face and rocks back and forth in her seat. Life was never easy for her – but it had been fun. Now fun tastes wrong. So does love. So does hate, for that matter. They told her to keep her routine – but that doesn’t seem right either. So she sits in that chair every day – waiting.
The condolence letter from President Roosevelt made my Uncle DG’s death official – but not real. He didn’t die in battle – he was run over by a truck somewhere far away with an unpronounceable name. They buried him where he died. There was a war to win before they could send him back to my grandmother.
Nanny’s grief was still new, when her second son, my eighteen-year-old father, entered the war. All she knew was that he was with the Fifth Marine Division – and the Fifth Marines were engaged in a fierce fight with the Japanese on a little island known as Iwo Jima. Newspapers reported heavy losses – thousands killed – many more thousands wounded. With one child dead and another in harm’s way, all Nanny could do was wait – and fret.
So it is again. Anxious families display blue star flags in their windows. They check computers for emails from children who are half-a-world away in towns with unpronounceable names. They program cell phones with ringtones – and leap to answer that special one or swallow back tears when an unfamiliar tune sounds.
They remember cuddling apple-cheeked babies with gummy smiles – or chasing wobbly bicycles on first-day-without-training-wheels rides. They touch prom night pictures with the tips of their fingers and tell stories about the day their children graduated from high school or college. But, sometimes, fear taints the best memories like snow obliterating tender shoots. Will their precious boys and girls be the same when they return? Will the darkness of war blunt their sparkle? Will they come home at all? Torn between devouring and ignoring the news, they wait and wait – and wait.
Not long ago, a man that I have never met messaged to say that his son had died in Iraq. For him, the wait was over. I stared at the IM, wondering what to say. Whatever the reason, however it happens — to lose a child is to lose a dream. I wanted to reach out to him, but sensed comfort wasn’t appropriate. His agony was a bonfire that needed to burn itself out. He just didn’t want to be alone. I waited – an anonymous node on the internet — thinking about my grandmother, sitting in her chair – waiting for her boys to come home.
Award-winning author Joyce Faulkner is the daughter and niece and wife of veterans. She writes about things that move her about life. She is a past president of Military Writers Society of America and is the cofounder of The Red Engine Press. To read more about Joyce’s work, please visit her website at www.JoyceFaulkner.com
For sixteen years I believed in this novel. Snarled at rejection. Revised. Raised two sons. Sold stories to national magazines. Stayed true to my dream of finding a traditional publisher. And then it happened. On my 50th birthday. Then USA Today, The Associated Press, & Military Times took notice. And now almost six years after the original publication, my little book that grew wings and learned to fly is back in paperback and e-book.