Spotlight: Clayton D. Murwin

Once more, Clayton Murwin offers his artistic talent to The Journal of Military Experience providing powerful illustrations to accompany the 18 pieces of writing in the upcoming volume. Clayton, a self-proclaimed “comic book freak,” chooses to use his talents to give back to those who serve.

“If a member of the military is willing to put their life on the line for me, someone they don’t know, the least I can do is what I do. What I am trying to do is write a check for a debt that can never be repaid.” Murwin explained in an interview. Founding Heroes Fallen Studios was one step toward this ambitious goal and a step that put him in contact with Military Experience and the Arts’ president who invited Clayton to create the illustrations for JME 2, to present a graphic novel workshop at the MEA Symposium, and once again to illustrate JME 3.


Clayton has a deep respect for the military and our veterans. This respect is apparent throughout his work. His illustrations show an understanding of the military experience not often seen by civilians. He planned to serve his country, but a medical condition kept him from the opportunity. Now, capturing in illustrations the sketches of fallen heroes, the stories of veterans offers Clayton the chance to give back. “I put a lot of myself into this. I don’t do it for fame or money,” he says of his work capturing the essence of the military experience. “Sometimes, those drawings get quite emotional, and I have to take a step back.”

Currently, Clayton is taking his illustration work to a new level as part of a collaborative effort to see 2 volumes of stories and illustrations about the Korean War reach publication. The volumes, formed from interviews conducted by MEA’s Scott Lee (Veterans’ PTSD Project) were slated for publication through the Department of Defense to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Korean War; however, the recent government shutdown stopped the project. Clayton worked to have the rights to the works returned to Heroes Fallen Studios, and now is working to raise $2500 through the project’s Kickstarter campaign to publish the two volumes. The entire $2500 must be raised by 12pm November 16th, or all pledges are lost and a new method of funding must be found.

Be certain to look at Clayton’s breathtaking artwork in the Journal of Military Experience 3 released tomorrow. Check out his work at Heroes Fallen Studios, and if you can, make a pledge to help see the Korean War 60th Anniversary Commemorative Graphic Novels reach publication. As Clayton says, “these are all stories that need to be told, not forgotten.”

Works by Clayton D. Murwin featured in the JME’s third volume:

Above And Beyond


Engine Trouble

Highway to Hell

VA Hospital

Review: “Veteran ‘On Killing'” (VOK), a Documentary by Zach P. Skiles

By Karen Springsteen

In the recent column, “On War, Guilt, and ‘Thank You for Your Service,’” West Point Professor Elizabeth Samet argues that the ritual of thanking the troops for their service is a “poor substitute for something more difficult and painful—a conversation about what war does to the people who serve and the people who don’t.” 

That conversation often comes about when citizens—out of concern, curiosity, or too many beers—have the desire to ask: “So, did you see any action?” “What was it like over there?” Or the lesser-spoken (I hope) “did you ever kill anyone?” To many veterans, such questions may be foolish and offensive or smack of some kind of voyeurism.

In the gentle words of former Marine and now professor Galen Leonhardy, “asking a person whether he or she has killed another person does seem to push the limits of propriety” (349). Yet, “action” (combat, killing) is a truth of war. It is as undeniable as it is ineffable (overwhelming, beyond words): faced with the mortal realities of more than a decade of war, how many of us—veterans and civilians—turn off, tune out, go numb?

With a new feature length documentary titled “Veteran ‘On Killing,'” (VOK) Iraq veteran Zach P. Screen shot 2013-11-06 at 12.03.22 PMSkiles, offers a way to reconnect. He shares the voices and faces of veterans as they read and respond to passages from Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman’s book, On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society, which Skiles read while staying at the Pathway Home PTSD clinic in Northern California. By first reading a passage from the book aloud for the camera and then offering his or her own perspective on that passage, twelve veterans (of Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Kosovo) bring Grossman’s research to life.

When, for example, Grossman writes about how citizens today are mostly insulated from death (our meat is pre-packaged, medicine prolongs life, mortuaries take care of our dead), Iraq veteran Jose Arias reflects on how death is treated in war, discusses how “our honor code prevented us from talking about it,” and suggests that “we create the bubbles we want to live in.” When Grossman cites the term “operant conditioning” from B.F. Skinner’s work, Iraq veteran Mack Butler follows up by talking what had become “natural” from his training. Relating an experience from combat, he talks about the “path of least resistance” and the power of automatic, as if instinctual, response.

In another passage, read by Skiles, Grossman uses the term “combat exhaustion” to describe a scenario in which the current physical and logistical ability to sustain combat outstrips humans’ psychological capacity to endure it. Grossman notes that never before have troops had to stay in such a continual state of fight-or-flight, and seldom did they experience such high levels of imminent personal risk without respite. In response to this passage, Skiles tells us that, in his first two weeks in country in 2003, he got eleven total hours of sleep, a point about sleep deprivation echoed by Javier Juarez, a veteran of Kosovo and Iraq: “when I came back and I would tell people I didn’t sleep for a year, physically you might’ve but even then your brain didn’t.” The vigilance and danger has been so extreme that, as Iraq veteran Irwing Lazo puts it in the film, “in a sense, you have to play like you’re dead already”—a practice that Lazo sees extending into veterans’ postwar lives as well.

Sitting on their porch, two veterans (not identified by name in the film) tell us that the effects of such service aren’t as noticeable “until you get out and maybe are a civilian” “I think it’s been promoted, like, I think in the military it’s better to be wound up and uptight.” The practice of militaries committing “psychological warfare” upon their own troops is addressed by Grossman in a passage to which Iraq veteran Tasia Flores responds:

It’s much like in basic training when you do say ‘kill, kill, kill.’ It’s just another word … but reading this book, I see how it can affect people, you know. Learning that ‘kill’ is not a bad word to knowing, like, yes it is, and it has a profound ripple effect not only on my life or the person that was affected by it, but their family and, you know, their community.

As a collective voice, the personal reflections and real responses to Grossman’s work that are captured by this documentary speak to the larger historical, psychological, and moral context of war and post-traumatic “stress” (which now seems like too plain a word). The documentary teaches us that veterans’ problems coming home from war are not pinned to individual defect or aberration and that no vet is alone in feeling the embodied effects left over from a military’s systematic, years-in-the-making, training apparatus. In this way, Zach P. Skiles’ “Veteran ‘On Killing’” is humane, powerful, and humbling.

Currently, the documentary can be found on Youtube as an eight-video playlist, each of which is 9-12 minutes long and has received anywhere from 75 to 576 hits. Please watch, learn, and share with veterans who may be transitioning into or out of service.

Review by Karen Sprinsteenkaren


Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995. Print.

Leonhardy, Galen. Transformations: Working with Veterans in the Composition Classroom. Teaching English in a Time of War. Spec. issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College 36.4 (2009): 339–52. Print.

Samet, Elizabeth. “On War, Guilt and ‘Thank You for Your Service.’” Bloomberg LP. 1 April 2011. Web. 6 Nov 2013.

Spotlight: Veteran Poet Ryan Koch’s “Poetry Potential”

by Judith McNeely


Ryan Koch
Ryan Koch

Ryan Koch is one of the promising new poets whose work will soon be featured in Blue Streak: A Journal of Military Poetry. Ryan describes his poem “Showtime” as one that compares his arrival in Afghanistan to the sensations experienced by an actor taking first steps onto the stage on opening night. In a recent interview, I asked Ryan about his journey from war to writing.

Ryan labeled his year-long deployment to Afghanistan’s Kunar Province as “rough.” When I asked him to describe his military background and his deployment with 1st Platoon, B Company, 1/327 Infantry, Ryan’s response resonated with pride in what he and his combat brothers achieved there. As sometimes happens in a deployment, Ryan’s platoon was re-routed and attached to 2/327, making them the “bastard children of 2nd Battalion.” This meant that his platoon was “given the worst of the worst missions.”  When he describes the hardships he and his brothers faced in Afghanistan, Ryan does not forget those who were killed and injured there.  In the interview, he noted with pride that, “Every mission we were sent on we accomplished, even with overwhelming odds.” Of course, this success also earned them more missions, and, for Ryan, these experiences produced memories of bad times and good times.

But Ryan has—unexpectedly, he says—discovered that writing poetry helps him deal with the “dark place” that was his military experience. He describes himself as having always been a writer, but when he attended the Military Experience and the Arts Symposium in the summer of 2012, he found resources both within himself and in the form of other veterans there. In particular, Ryan credits fellow veterans and MEA contributors James Hackbarth and Bill Howerton with helping him to see his own “poetry potential.”

Not only did Ryan find that he had “poetry potential,” but he also found the healing possibilities that come through writing poetry. Ryan described the impact writing has had on his life, explaining that writing has a power that can lift him out of the dark feelings that followed him home after his year in Afghanistan. Where medication and therapy failed him, Ryan discovered that writing is one of the two forms of therapy which helps. He says that talking with other veterans offers the greatest help, but beyond that “writing is the biggest and best therapy I have.”  Ryan also finds writing to be the best means of communicating his inner turmoil with non-veterans.

Finding a veteran community network has been essential to Ryan’s success.  He credits MEA with introducing him to a veteran community that has helped him both personally professionally. Through this network, Ryan is able to get feedback and encouragement. This is important to him, Ryan says, because “Veterans know what I’m trying to say and they can help me make my pieces better without losing the theme.”War themes will continue to play an important role in Ryan’s future writing plans.  In addition to his poetry, Ryan is working on two larger projects, one of which is a screenplay inspired by his experiences with PTSD. He is currently editing this project and toying with ways to expand it so as to explain the “why” of PTSD. In addition to this screenplay, Ryan is working on a proposal for a program that would collect and share the stories of veterans from World War II, Viet Nam, and Korea. A key component of these stories would involve returning the veteran to the deployment theater as part of a narrative that would tell these veterans’ stories “from enlistment/draft to life after the military.”

When asked what advice he would give to other writers, he recommends writing about the good times and the bad. Ryan said, “Write for you and don’t worry about what others think.” Editing, he says, is another step best saved for later.  And he has some specific words for other veterans who want to write, “Keep writing … Write about everything, especially the traumatic memories … Write about the good memories, too. Those are the ones that will keep you going day after day.”

Judith McNeely
Judith McNeely was the Veterans Liaison at the 2012 Military Experience and the Arts Symposium in Richmond, KY and currently serves as an MEA staff member.

Review: Ellouise Schoettler’s “Arlington National Cemetery: My Forever Home”

By Roger Thompson, Stony Brook University 

See Ellouise Schoettler’s Arlington National Cemetery: My Forever Home here. Start a discussion with Roger and others who’ve viewed the performance below.

Roger Thompson

Two years ago, I visited my father-in-law at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio. He had been buried in 1997, two months before I married his daughter, and since that time, neither I nor my wife had returned. For my wife, a visit was too complicated. The difficulties of family dynamics had, in his death, left her under a shadow whose boundaries she had yet to trace, and the fact that he had not made known to any of his family, even his own wife, that he had made plans to be buried alone in the military cemetery caused confusion and even anger. I did not share that family history, and though his secret decision seemed to me hurtful, it also seemed to me full of some meaning that needed to be honored, and at some point, understood. My trip to his grave was an attempt to help my wife try to tell her father’s story and choice of final resting place again, perhaps in a new way. It was also a way for me to try to, more than ten years after his death, reconnect with the person who would have been my father-in-law had cancer not claimed him in his fifties.

Screen shot 2013-11-04 at 12.48.32 PM
Screenshot from Schoettler’s Arlington

Connection is at the heart of Ellouise Schoettler’s story-telling, and I get the sense, watching her Arlington National Cemetery: My Forever Home that her visits to the resting place of both one of her daughters and her husband at Arlington National Cemetery is more than just, as she says at the end of her performance, “remembrance” of the dead. Her performance derives from the finest traditions of story-telling, and it is about animating the lives of the dead so that the living connect with them, understand them, and recognize them as neighbors breathing life into us like the first spring air that breaks winter. That Schoettler concludes her nearly hour-long rumination on death without so much as mentioning the word “death” is testament to the fact that she’s actually more interested in life, or that, more accurately, she is interested in collapsing the line between life and death in order to make it so thin that marking out its boundaries is like trying to distinguish one brilliant white marble headstone from among all the others in their perfect rows. Step in close, you will see the firmly etched name of an individual.  Look up and cast your eyes around, and you will see only the collapsing certainty of the white rows.

Schoettler’s story-telling is complex. While it leans on a sentimentalism like that from Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon, it doesn’t rest in that place.  Instead, it complicates such sentimentality by the use of remarkable juxtaposition.  Her narrative opens with the burial of one of her children nearly fifty years ago, and that story is the force that moves her toward the burial of her husband in 2012 after more than fifty years of marriage. As her story moves onward, she punctuates the family remembrance with stories of her future “neighbors,” those who are buried next to her husband, her child, and one day her. These are reminisces of death, beautifully told, and in each case, focused not on the loss, but on the breathing, loving, and continuing lives of those left behind.  Arlington is transformed in these narratives, then, into a community that bustles with energy. It is no less lonely than any other cemetery (the image of survivors sitting next to their loved ones’ headstones repeats in her tales), but, unlike other stories of loss and loneliness, there is in Schoetller’s Arlington the certainty (not merely possibility) of reunion, connection, resolution, and perhaps even peace.

The most striking of the juxtapositions gestures toward this certainty.  Schoettler is driving into Arlington on one of her many trips to see her husband, and as she drives toward the grave, she is overrun by a mass of twelve year old children. They are on a field trip, and they roll toward her like a wave up the road. She pulls over to let them pass, and as they do, she engages one of their teachers in conversation. They are here on a field trip, having driven in from New Jersey, and after seeing the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, they are making their way to lay a wreath at the grave of an alumnus of the school who had been recently killed in Afghanistan. The children, of course, are full of life, darting along, laughing, running, enjoying a warm day out and away from school, and yet, despite their clatter, they are “beautiful” to Schoettler, their sounds pressing life into the sacred space. They are also the exact opposite of the dignified procession of her husband’s burial related earlier in her narrative, and while she makes no comparison explicit on this point, it is impossible in listening to her relate the story of the field trip, not to have in one’s mind the contrasting images of the flag-draped carriage drawn by Marines down the road and the bubbling mass of children swarming up it. One image focuses on ritual and silence, the other on buzzing and blissful chaos.  Maybe more, it is also impossible for me not to hear in that story the recovered voice of her own daughter, chattering above the earth. She begins the performance with the death of her child, and as her narrative weaves its way to a conclusion, the mass of children arrive, crowding her out, pushing her to the side to make way for their almost impossible joy in summer. Her loss, then, is new life not only for herself and her family, but for her child, who lives now in her listeners, and she essentially erases the line that separates us from the dead.  We hear them as well as the children. We hear her as well as her child and husband.  We hear the story of parents, children, warriors, and civilians as they spin out from Schoettler’s tales, and we are ultimately witness to their enduring parade.