Road to Suwon

from We Were Beautiful Once: Chapters from a Cold War

by Joe Carvalko

Battle of Osan MapON JUNE 25, 1950, IT RAINED HARD ALONG the invisible line separating the two Koreas.  Sometime in the early morning, rumors flooded Seoul that the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA), had crossed the 38th parallel.  Three days later, the NKPA stormed into the capital killing, wounding and capturing thousands.  Taken by surprise, the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) government based in Seoul set up operations twenty miles south, in Suwon.  President Truman ordered troops flown into the country, in what he described as a police action—giving the impression he was sending forces in for crowd control.  Less concerned with how it played at home, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the 1st Battalion, 21st Regiment, 24th Infantry Division to Suwon, to hold the line of advancing NKPA.  Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Brad Babcock, a contingent of four hundred and six men departed from Itazuke Air Base, Japan on the morning of July 1.  Included among the troops were a few war horses, like WWII veteran Sergeant Joe Johns, a burly thirty-year-old with one ear, and a large contingent of green privates—like Roger Girardin, the lanky twenty-three-year-old.

Accounts of well-orchestrated troop movements going awry litter military history, and Korea was no exception. Instead of flying to Suwon, the Air Force dropped the men on a landing strip outside of Pusan, hundreds of miles south of the intended destination.  Babcock quickly organized a caravan and moved seventeen miles to board a train that would take the troops partway to Suwon.  Since the train wasn’t ready for boarding, Babcock ordered the mess sergeant to break out a chow line, but when his adjutant informed him that, except for the sergeant, the rest of the cooks were left in Japan, he revised his order—C-Rations. The troops were off to a shaky start.

Task Force SmithRoger and his fellow neophytes deploying to the front for the first time did not dwell much on food but on the abstract anticipation of combat.  They feared the unidentified, saw a boding evil in everything—from the orderliness of lines to the simplest staccato commands—that seemed loud and exaggerated.  On the platform, waiting to board an old steam train, Roger watched the officers, hushed and heads lowered, sluggishly moving toward the rickety, wooden second-class cabins.

Sergeant Johns stood at the front of the formation.

“This fucking place smells like shit,” he grumbled.

“Smells like rotten cabbage, Sarge,” blurted the man next to Roger.

“No one asked you, soldier.”

A local high school band played a Sousa march near the locomotive, as commands were shouted over horns, calling for the men to climb aboard.  In the brown boxcars coupled behind the officer’s second-class cabins, the stench of cabbage gave way to the smell of hay, piss and animal crap.  Each man found a spot suited to his level of anxiety: edgy talkers and listeners, readers (comics, novels, bibles) letter writers, poker players.  Most men were sweat-soaked to the bone.  Roger chose a corner strewn with hardened nuggets of dog shit, pushed them aside, and flopped down onto floorboards suspiciously stained with dried blood.

A steam whistle blew.  The cars jerked forward as the locomotive chuffed from the station, spitting and spewing a silver-white vaporous exhaust, its sound swallowing the oompah-pah of the golden tubas.  A steady acceleration, a repetition of articulating connecting rods, the mechanical growls as the wheels bore down on the tracks—muffling the bass drums that had earlier drowned the shouts of the officers bringing the men to order.  In due course the train relaxed under a steady quickening, its cadence eventually calming Roger’s unease.  He pulled Julie’s last letter from his knapsack, and his eyes closed before he finished reading the last line.

At 0800, July 2, the train pulled into Taejon, its whistle startling Roger out of a restless sleep.  Some diehards were still playing poker.  The men jumped from the cars and assembled in rows ten feet from the tracks.  On command, they broke formation, found a dusty space alongside the dirty, gray, clapboard station, opened rations for a second time and shot the breeze—reminding Roger of the Boy Scouts he once saw headed for summer camp.

While the men bivouacked, Colonel Babcock and a band of soldiers, including Roger, drove jeeps north to Osan to survey and choose a location they would defend if the NK headed toward Pusan as predicted.  A few miles south of the village of Suwon the colonel found what he was looking for: a group of small hills that crossed a road—a pinch point for troops moving through.  He designated one—a three-hundred foot elevation, Hill 116—to serve as his “vantage point.”  That night the troops boarded another train to Pyongtaek, leaving them with a ten-mile march that began at midnight.  Three hours later, in a light rain, they reached a muddy flat one-half mile south of Hill 116, where men from the 52nd Field Artillery Battalion were setting up artillery armed with high explosive anti-tank shells.

Roger woke at dawn to the sound of radio chatter. “T-34 tank from the interior.  Look to the north, sir.”  Two lookouts about twenty feet away heard the report, too.  One of them poked his head out of the brush, scanning the horizon through field glasses blurred by a steady downpour.  Handing the glasses to the man next to him, he snarled, “It’s crawling like a motherfuckin’ bug.”  Thirty minutes later, other tanks were visible.  The radioman reported, “I think there are eight, maybe more, sir.”

“Recoilless! Recoilless rifles!” Babcock hollered. Johns repeated the order, and men on the forward slope fired the first American rounds of the war—sending a shudder through the troops huddled behind boulders dotting the hill.

“A splash of mud, sir, the mark’s short.  Tank’s advancing,” reported a veteran.

Osan Bazooka TeamBabcock radioed the bazooka men lodged in a drainage ditch alongside the road, “Hold your fire until they’re on top of you!”  When the lead tank came within twenty yards, an explosive fire and thunder shot out from the turreted gun.  A second later, a concussive vibration rattled the hill, followed by a sharp cracking sound from several toppling hardwoods.  The radio chattered.  “Tank’s still coming.”  From another direction, “Medic, medic.”  Roger saw three men covered in branches sprawled in a clearing next to the felled trees.

The men of the 24th crouched or leaned behind the trees and large boulders.  A short while later the point man spotted twenty-five more tanks moving from the north, outside the range of small artillery.  A howitzer from the south encampment blasted off two rounds in succession targeting one of the six forerunners.

“Bug’s on fire!” shouted the point man.  The five remaining tanks turned to outflank Babcock’s howitzer 105s.  Within two hours, the first of the group of twenty-five T-34 tanks had completely bypassed Hill 116. Roger heard chatter again.

“Sir, one o’clock.” Roger lifted his head from behind his rock and through the rain saw a column of trucks and troops that stretched out as far as his eye could see, reminding him of the panic he felt the first time he saw a five-foot water snake slithering along the ground at his uncle’s farm.  He felt like shitting his pants.

Another hour passed before he heard the rattled pulse of sprocket driven tracks; fifteen minutes later the metallic cadence stopped.  Enemy infantry emerged like green ghosts out of the downpour.  Three hundred yards north of Hill 116 an NK tank faced the troops.  It raised its turret and fired.  Following a thud, screams of “Corpsman, corpsman.”  Babcock’s bazookas returned fire, but the shells bounced as they fell short.  Roger saw the colonel, a few lieutenants, a dozen noncoms and as many grunts zigzagging toward the top of the hill.  He followed, bolting up a narrow path and tripping over a man gurgling in his own blood.  “Corpsman,” someone yelled.  Roger kept running until he saw a three-boulder fortress, and he fell safely into a cranny, shaking as much from fear as from the cold rain coming down in sheets.

From his new position, he saw a steady stream of enemy infantry, arcade-like, crossed the base of the hill, two hundred yards out, firing blindly.  The Americans fired back at phantoms—partly due to the rain and partly due to the enemy darting in and out, but the firing seemed to retard an all-out assault.  Roger, like most of Babcock’s new recruits, did not conserve the two hundred rounds of ammo issued in Pusan, and by late afternoon, he had less than thirty rounds in the extra two magazines he carried in his field jacket.

As the afternoon passed on, rain limited visibility to feet rather than yards.  Over the staccato rifle fire, Roger heard garbled orders shouted out in the distance.  About an hour later, in the last light of day, he saw hazy figures of men fleeing their positions.  To his astonishment, he and a few men had been left behind.  The yelling earlier had been orders to retreat.  Everything was still, and he felt the enemy was waiting for dusk before charging murderously.  When he could not see farther than the end of the barrel, he heard the bugled death-knells and a swell of fire from the base of the hill, followed by horror-filled shrieks that filled the air—the sounds that living things make when impaled, sliced and blasted in the soft extremities.  Guys in front of him were being massacred.  He held fast—frozen with the dry heaves—but he knew had to get his jelly-like legs moving.  He started running away from the screams, south by southwest, where the hill flattened into a murky no man’s land.  At the edge of an open rice paddy, there was a gully where he found Sergeant Johns crouched.  Together, they headed away from the gun fire, turning east, south, southeast following a half-frozen muddy irrigation ditch.  Three feet apart, they now most feared losing one another in the desolate night.  Only when near-terminal exhaustion set in and Johns said he could not go another step, did they stop.

The pair crawled into a dry part of the ditch and slept.  Next morning, the horizon began to reveal what seemed like the end of the Earth, a long, flat, empty plain.  The men followed the narrow channel as it wound through the outskirts of several adjoining paddies.  In the distance, Roger thought he heard small-arms fire—.45 caliber.

They followed the trench, and the shots got louder.  A half-hour later, Roger poked his head over the edge.  About two-hundred-fifty clicks, a steam shovel was parked near mounds of dirt, and next to it a pair of diesel trucks and three black cars with silver emblems, and milling about, were a dozen South Korean grunts.  Beyond them were a half-dozen men in black suits standing on top of a long levee, firing into he figured was a creek.

Neither man could tell what was happening, and they stayed put.  Fifteen minutes later the firing stopped.  Soldiers got into the unmarked trucks, and the men in suits got into the cars and drove off.

Roger and Johns waited another half-hour before approaching the levy, which turned out to be dirt-piles ten feet high.  As they climbed the pile, their boots sunk to the tops of the laces.  When Roger came within a few feet of the top, he gagged and had to cover his nose in his field jacket. Smelled like a rotting carcass.  At the top he saw wide trenches.  Inside a large hole, were dead bodies, white shirts, suits, women in dresses.  His stomach turned upside down. Johns fell to his knees, stuck his head between his thighs and puked.

Roger, hands shaking, pulled his camera from his belt and, holding his breath, clicked off half-dozen frames of hundreds of bodies heaped on one another, arms and legs tangled.  Gray tones, dirt, matted hair, black sludge, exposed bones, bared nipples, twisted, doubled over, eyes facing all directions.  Innards and entrails reminded Roger of the time he bagged a buck and sliced its belly open.  Snap. He wound the next frame.  Snap, snap, exposing the blacks and whites of the devil’s work against condensation—threads lazily rising from the pit.

Roger and Johns laid back behind the elevated berm habituating to the sweet stench of death.

“Holy Christ! What the fuck?” Johns grumbled, in a voice just above a nervous whisper.

“A bloodbath.”


“Korean Commies, maybe?”

“Maybe the guys who shot ’em were . . . who the fuck knows . . . we better not hang round,” Johns advised, grimacing.

Roger, committing to memory what logic rejected, looked into the pits one more time. Thoughts raced back in time trying to connect things he had read, stories he had heard, pictures, paintings, bad dreams—anything that might have prepared him to process what reality dished up. No match, no reference.

Hidden as before, Roger watched three flatbed trucks hauling yellow bulldozers come bumping over the fallow ground, stopping thirty yards from the pits. He snapped three more frames. Workers in green coveralls emerged from the trucks to crank the dozer engines.  In two hours, the machines had leveled the grave, its secret intact. Roger loaded more film and snapped pictures of the workers driving the dozers back to the flatbeds. When the engines were shut down, a quiet swept over the land—except for a few birds of prey.

In the distance, a brown sedan approached. It stopped, and two men got out and walked over to one of the truck drivers. From Roger’s vantage they appeared to be U.S. Army officers: a major and a second lieutenant. Later, Johns would indicate he wasn’t sure. They decided to stay put. As Roger finished one roll and loaded a fresh one, he quipped, “Damn, that guy looks familiar.”

Johns warned, “Be careful, sun may reflect off the lens.”

Rogers snapped a few more frames: the officer leaning against the door of the sedan, trucks with soot spewing from vertical exhausts, dirt road, barren field and the horizon—beyond which, the men would later learn, Suwon lay torn asunder.

Roger lifted his notebook from the knapsack lying on the ground and opened it to jot down that memory, putting pencil to paper and wiping the tears that added a residue to the carboned script:

“A no man’s land, faux vacancy, methane of the dead bodies twisted in sculptured poses, pyres of flesh, wire, gas, guns, stench, cold, killed in the trench, buried . . . the improbable mug staring back . . . .”

The men remained holed up until nightfall, then followed the maze of ditches to Ansong, arriving close to two in the morning. They ran down a narrow street with darkened houses, which led to an avenue with a roadblock. Two police cars were parked across the road. Johns said worriedly, “I don’t know if it’s safe to just go over to the two guys sitting there. You stay here, cover me.”

Roger watched Johns—carbine slung over his shoulder, pointed forward, safety off.  One of the policemen jumped out of the car. Johns held his ID in front pointing to where he had come from. Roger heard him say who he was.


Johns nodded, and the other guy got out of the car. They took stock of Johns’ ready rifle. They motioned to him to get into the car. John said he had a buddy and waved Roger out of the shadows, and the four drove less than five minutes, passing a sign that read: U.S. Army—Post Headquarters. MPs at the entrance escorted them to the CQ’s barrack. A duty corporal poured the men coffee while Johns told him what he had seen. The CQ picked up a phone relaying the matter to the officer-in-charge. At about 6 a.m., two first lieutenants from Pyongtaek, who had been flown in June 29 from the States with an intelligence unit, woke them. Lieutenant Jacoby, the apparent leader, was a five-foot-five talky guy from Texas. Roger thought he looked like Napoleon. Lieutenant Samuelson let Jacoby take charge. Johns described what he saw. “Blood looked like it was still wet. Most were men in white pants. Women there, too. Bodies over bodies in all directions. I wanted to puke even before I knew what I was lookin’ at.”

“Could you tell how many, Sergeant?”

“Figured four, five hundred. Mostly guys. All dead, I figure. Saw one, two move, but I’d seen the dead move before. Had to be . . . dead.”

“Were they wearing any special clothes, anything odd about them?”

“Don’t remember.  Mostly peasants. Lots of them doubled over, poor buggers. Saw lots of white. Probably remember because,” he paused. “Honestly?” He paused again. “There’s lotsa, lotsa blood . . . a few men in white shirts. Few women in long dresses.”

“Could you tell if they were mostly shot in the head?”

“No, sir, could not.” He paused. “Honestly? Remember a young girl, stared straight up. Didn’t look that long. Saw what I saw, didn’t need to gawk.”

“What about you, Girardin? What’d you see?”

“Sir, can’t add nothin’.”

“You must have seen something.”

“Yeah, but you know, was like a bad dream, a picture of hell.” He hesitated and added, “The ‘Souls of the Wrathful.’”

“What’s that soldier, what’d you say?”

“The Souls of  . . . it’s a painting. Dante’s hell, bodies lying all over the goddamn place.”

Samuelson and Jacoby looked at each other.

“Dante who?” asked Jacoby.

“Never mind.”

Lieutenant Samuelson, the more introspective officer, dropped his gaze to Roger’s waist. “Take any pictures?”

Caught off guard, Roger replied straight away, “No . . .” Then remembered the Leica tied to his belt and quickly countered, “ . . . ’cept for the film that’s in there.”

“Let me have the camera.”

Samuelson rewound the film, opened the back and removed the film Roger had loaded earlier. He returned the camera. Roger’s hand passed over his pocket—he felt the rolls of film he had put away and wondered if he should turn them over. He looked at Johns, got no sign; he left things where they were, one roll for them, three rolls for himself. Later that day, Roger and Johns hitched a jeep ride to Pyongtaek, where Roger bundled the film rolls into a package and had the mail clerk send it to his father’s attention. The note read: “ . . . hold until I return.”


In August and early September, victory continued to elude the Americans. At one point, the better conditioned NK soldiers captured nearly the entire 19th Regiment, leaving dozens of American POWs shot in the head, hands tied behind their backs. This hit the newspapers. American sentiments about the U.S. engagement sank precipitously, and the political arm of the CIA considered it all the more essential that any atrocities be kept top secret.

Based on the interrogations of Johns and Girardin, the intelligence officers generated an incident report. They wrote “Secret” on the envelope and inserted the report, along with the photos they had developed. The package was delivered to Major General Church, in Pyongtaek, fifty miles away. The general would emphasize its importance in his cable to Washington, but the matter of the pits did not register in the organizational mind of military intelligence or the CIA until mid-September, nearly two and a half months later. Meanwhile, forces south of Seoul could not push the NKPA back from the advances made in August.  But on September 15, 1950, U.N. forces under MacArthur’s command launched a surprise amphibious attack at Inchon—well above the NKPA units in the south—effectively severing their connection to the northern supply lines. By the end of the month, MacArthur’s forces had recaptured Seoul and pushed the enemy back across the 38th parallel.

In late September, when CIA chief Walter Smythe learned about the pictures, he fumed, imagining the political consequences if anyone learned that the ROK, under orders by President Rhee, had massacred thousands of political prisoners and citizens suspected of being friendly to the communists. Smythe ordered Paul McCallister, the U.S. Embassy military attaché operating out of temporary headquarters in Seoul, to have Staff Sergeant Joseph Johns and Private Roger Girardin immediately brought back to HQ X Corp for sequestration and questioning.

On September 30, two senior Army officers, thirty-year-old G-2 Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Barclay, twenty-seven year old a G-2 Captain Sonny Reiner, and CIA operative thirty-five-year-old Robert Perrone from Langley Field, Virginia were under secret orders to find the fast moving reconstituted 1st Battalion, 24th Division, 19th Regiment and return Sergeant  Joseph Johns and Private Roger Girardin for questioning. The instructions were specific: “. . . Confiscate all cameras and film the men might have in their possession.” There was a supplemental order:

. . . if it is deemed unfeasible to secure the subjects under the control of the military police or otherwise return the men for sequestration and questioning, then any member of the Barclay Task Force is empowered to take necessary and sufficient action to prevent Private Roger Girardin or Staff Sergeant Joseph Johns from falling under control of the enemy.”

By mid-October, the U.N. forces north of the 38th parallel were situated along a line from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, inland to Wonsan—a seaport forty-five miles to its east. Under MacArthur’s leadership, the U.N. forces were heading straight for the Manchurian border. The 24th Division, with Johns and Girardin, crossed the Ch’ongch’on River and came within fifty miles of the Yalu River, separating Korea from Manchuria. But in November, an ominous turn stopped the relative ease with which the U.N. had penetrated North Korea.

Surprising Army Intelligence on Sunday, November 26, 1950 stated an estimated 300,000 Chinese Communist troops crossed the Yalu River. They overran Allied forces, cut off escape routes and drove them thirty miles south, killing, maiming and capturing more than 40,000 U.S. troops. On December 2, the U.S. 1st Cavalry lost a battalion in a battle with soldiers wearing Mao apparel. The next day, the 24th Infantry hit heavy resistance and, alongside large numbers of other U.N. forces, began a hasty retreat south. The men of the 24th Division again crossed the Ch’ongch’on River. The end of the war was a long ways off.

Joe Carvalko is an American author born in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His recent novel, We Were Beautiful Once, Chapters from the Cold War, (Sunbury Press, 2013), judged a finalist for Best Historical Fiction, (Military Writers Society of America, 2014), is a story inspired by a trial he conducted to find a missing POW, efforts that were later featured in a 2004 documentary Missing, Presumed Dead: The Search for America’s POWs narrated by Ed Asner. He recently authored The Techno-human Shell: A Jump in the Evolutionary Gap, about how future medical technology will transform us into part cyborg.  Other publications include: A Road Once Traveled, Life from All Sides, a narrative on the fabric of American life; A Deadly Fog, a collection of poems, essays, and short stories about war in America. Published poems include: Mobius Strip, (FLARE: The Flagler Review); County Road 80, Manifest West (U. Press of CO, Oct. 2014); Registered Letter, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Vol. 2 (Missouri Hum. Council, & SE MS State University Press, 2013); The Road Home, finalist, (Esurance Poetry prize, 2012); The Interior, book of poetry, finalist poetry prize (Red Mountain Press, 2012).  Winter Interrupted, a short story about two aging vets will be published in the Military Writers Society of America, Anthology, 2014. He has numerous published textbooks and articles related to science, technology and law. He is a Vietnam-era veteran (’59-64), USAF (SAC). He holds a BS, JD and an MFA.

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Preserving Our Stories: A Military Family’s Legacy

by Nancy DeCesare, PhD

(this piece is also available in PDF format through the MEA Bibliography)

World War I (April 6, 1914 to June 28, 1919)

My grandfather, Victor, was born in a small mountain village in southern Italy near the Adriatic Sea. He came to the United States at age 16, landing at Ellis Island, New York. He spoke no English and entered his new country with very limited resources. These included a few extra pairs of pants, a few shirts and a few dollars.  Eventually, he settled in Baltimore, Maryland, where he lived with his older brother Tony (Anthony) and his family. In his desire to be self-sufficient he worked hard at developing a new skill and with support and training from Tony became a master tailor.

In 1914, Victor received a letter from the Italian consulate in New York advising him that all Italian male citizens were required to serve in the Italian army. He was ordered to appear for induction no later than December 1, 1914. As an immigrant who loved his new country, he never appeared.

In 1917, at the age of 24 and only in the country for eight years, he enlisted in the United States Army, and served as a member of the 313th Infantry, 79th Division, and 157th Brigade. He was given the rank of Corporal and fought in the Battle of the Meuse Argonne, France, from September to the middle of November, 1918. In that battle alone, the Americans lost 26,277 men and 92,250 were wounded, making it the bloodiest battle in the history of World War One (Hickman, 2). My grandfather lay among the wounded.

In early December, 1918, Victor’s name appeared in the Baltimore Sun in what was known as the “Current Listing of Wounded.” Both his immediate and his extended family were unaware of the extent of his injuries because all news of war and its men came without much speed or regularity. My grandfather’s family did not know if he succumbed to his wounds or if he was still alive, and if alive, they had no idea of the seriousness of his wounds.  It was four months-120 long days and nights when they finally received notice of the extent of his injuries and learned that he was indeed alive. His discharge papers indicate that he suffered from artillery shrapnel wounds. As a small child I recall hearing the story about how he was shot in his left hand and lower back. He was also subjected to mustard gas, which resulted in a dry cough and bronchial infections as a young man. In addition, he was totally bald in his twenties something we always contributed to the gas. Like many soldiers of that time period, he never mentioned any of his sufferings in our time together. He was always happy in my presence spoiling me with Hershey ice cream bars, Italian breads and cheeses, and occasional small sips of beer.

In August 1919 Victor received the World War I Victory Medal also known as the “Inter-Allied Victory Medal,” awarded to U.S. Military who served in Europe. In December 1920 he received the Meuse Argonne Victory Metal (Defensive Sector) as well as one other medal which I am unable to read since the one-hundred year old metal’s lettering is worn away. Some years later his service was recognized in a letter from President Truman my grandfather kept this commendation among his most treasured possessions.

By the end of World War I my grandfather had been away from his mother, father and some brothers and sisters still living in Italy for more than ten years. He attempted to return to Italy to see them, but was unsuccessful due to emerging conflicts in Europe. Finally, in 1939, after thirty years away from his family in Italy, he was packed and ready to go to visit when he received a phone call from the Department of State of the United States informing him that if he returned to Italy, he could be inducted into the Italian Army because Italy still required all males to serve and the United States could not guarantee his U.S. citizenship protection.

World War II further delayed his return to Italy until 1955. By this time, all of his immediate family had died. His desire to be an American citizen and his desire to defend his new country cost him his extended family relationships and many of his nuclear family relationships. His physical health and sometimes his emotional health were also compromised by his service. He never wanted to talk much about his experiences of war, nor, the family that he left behind in Italy. One can only imagine what he gave up to be an American yet he loved his new country and did everything possible to honor it including eventually becoming a Fourth Degree member of the Knights of Columbus and a member of the Lions Club.

The many remembrances of World War I during these centenary years (2014-2018) should inspire us to tell the stories of veterans like my grandfather, remembering his service like that of other War I veterans,  thanking them even now by telling their stories of  the sacrifices they made to keep our world free.

World War II (December 8, 1941 to September 2, 1945)

The sense of duty and love of country was also instilled in my grandfather’s son, my father Victor. On December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, my father was on a train to Washington D.C. to visit his cousins. He heard of the attack while he was in the train station in Washington and recalls that “Life in the United States changed immediately.” He observed that the U.S. population became extremely active militarily: everyone wanted to enlist, both men and women. Mandatory mobilization of all males ages 18 to 40 went into effect. When he was 15 he recounts that the war was not progressing well for the United States so he decided to take his chances and enlist in the U.S. Army Air Force on the day after he graduated from high school.

My father recalls that although my grandfather never talked much about his military service, he strongly suggested that my father try for an officer’s commission and definitely stays out of the infantry. He told my Dad it would “make his life more tolerable.” By August, 1944, at the age of 17 my father was on a troop train headed to Mississippi for basic training.

My father reminds me that the Air Force was not a separate entity at that time, but part of the Army. Some three years later, the Air Force became a separate entity and so he was formally discharged from the Army and immediately enrolled in the Air Force. He actually has two discharge certificates.

While in basic training, my father was recommended for the first class of crew training for the new B-29 planes and studied for 8 weeks in Denver, Colorado: he was then sent to Tampa, Florida, where his crew was assembled. They flew in trainings each day preparing to fight in war. While there, he was promoted to Sergeant, a rank he held throughout his service.

In a training accident on a B-29 while trying to evacuate, my Dad went out an escape hatch onto the wing to find water aflame with burning gasoline and oil. He dove through the flames into complete darkness. When oil burns it produces a dense black smoke. Under the flames and in the dark of night he could see nothing. Suddenly he saw a pair of boots, one on each side of his head less than a foot away. It was another crewman doing a scissors-kick, which closed onto my father’s head before he could react. He was kicked in each ear simultaneously. He can only recall getting out of the water and being in the hospital. Both memories are vague. His ear drums were broken and his inner ears became infected and eventually, after several years, he began to lose his hearing. This accident has resulted in his total deafness today. He is one-hundred percent VA certified disabled from these injuries.

Although at the time, the accident slowed my father’s ability to participate fully with his other crewmen; it did not stop his strong desire to defend his country. He soon geared up for his departure to the South Pacific. These orders changed in a matter of hours and he and his crew were quickly rerouted to Europe. They traveled to Le Havre, France, by boat. This is the renowned area now known as Normandy. He recalls upon their arrival the massive destruction in and around the harbor, including sunken ships and bombed buildings that were reduced to rubble. It was on the boat some days away from landing in Le Havre, France, that they heard of the unconditional surrender of Germany to the allied representatives in a Reims, France, schoolhouse on May 7th, 1945 and a day later in a second surrender in Berlin by presidential proclamation. It should be noted that despite Germany’s surrender, no peace treaty was ever signed by Germany and none exists to this day. Thus, this news did not stop their advancement into a still unsettled and extremely dangerous European theater.

From the boat, the men were put directly onto a train made up of boxcars. In Europe the boxcar was called “forty and eight.” Each car could accommodate 40 men and 8 horses. Their designation was unknown to my father and his crew. After several days they were told they were headed to Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, a trip that would eventually last four days and nights for both men and horses.

The railroads in France and Germany had received special attention from the U.S. Air Force as well as the Royal Air Force of England. Damage to the tracks was so extensive that the trains never moved faster than fifteen miles an hour. As my father’s train headed East into Germany there were trains going west out of Germany loaded with GI’s hoping to go home. They smiled and waved as they passed each other, all in need of connection to their homeland.

As part of the occupying forces now in Germany, my Dad was assigned to a “Photo Reconnaissance Group” near Nuremberg that used the Douglas A-26 (Invader) planes. This eventually made sense to him as the A-26 used the same gunnery system as the B-29. The A-26 was much smaller and with two engines, a pilot and a gunner considerably faster than the B-29.

My father’s crew was active in mapping through photography the major destruction of Germany in the days, weeks and months following the surrender. They flew over the bombing targets and took pictures to determine the extent of the damage and to make sure that there was no further aggressive action by the Germans. The pilot was the photographer. The nose of the A-26 held a very large camera permanently mounted to the plane. To take pictures the pilot had to aim the plane by diving towards the target from about 4000 to 5000 feet. The gunner rode in a small compartment about ten feet behind the pilot; he could not see where they were going but only where they had been and he controlled two 50 caliber machine guns in the event the plane was attacked.

A second mission of his “Photo Reconnaissance Group” was to process the pictures taken by other members of the reconnaissance teams who were on the ground. My father and his crew were responsible for the photographic development of thousands and thousands of pictures that came to his unit for development and processing. These photos were primarily pictures taken of the death camps in Poland including Aushwiz-Birkenau (April 1940 to January 1943) and Belzec (March 1942-June 1943) and in the death camps in Germany including Flossenbürg (May 1938-April 1945) the concentration camp on the outskirts of Nuremberg the town where he was now stationed. Some seventy years later he can still vividly recall many of these photos in graphic detail. Voluminous photos were images of naked bodies, packed five feet high and twenty to twenty-five feet long, ten to fifteen feet wide. So many heads, legs, faces that most of the time he could not look at what he was developing. Next to these bodies, more captured prisoners who were shot in place as they dug the mass graves to bury those who the Germans had already murdered. There is no doubt in my father’s mind that there was a massive holocaust killing tens of thousands of people mostly Jews and that evil truly exist in our world. It was not until the spring of 1945 that the true extent of the Holocaust was known (Olson 359).  It was only through vivid and undisputable pictures of skeletal, emaciated murdered men, women and children, narrative storytelling by those who survived and those who bore witness and eventually testimony at major tribunals like those at Nuremberg that the world would come to know the true extent of these atrocities.

A third mission which was not part of photo reconnaissance was an assignment given to my father by his father, my grandfather back home. My grandfather was a lover of beer especially Reading beer and was a frequent visitor to the local beer distributor. Mr. Newman the owner was of Jewish decent and many in his family had not escaped Europe prior to the start of the war.  He made a special request to my grandfather to ask my father to see if any of his family who once resided in Nuremberg survived the war and the death camps. My Dad was sent their last known address which he found only by searching through old street maps since most of the town had been destroyed by the bombing of Allied forces. After much searching he eventually was able to find some family members living in the basement of what was once their family home. They survived the war by living in a carved-out hidden cave in their basement which was now under all the rubble. To the best of his ability he helped Mr. Newman’s family members to find whatever resources they could in the midst of a devastated town and country. Since they did not speak English and my Dad did not speak German, he was never able to ask how they survived the war in a German town with a least three known concentration camps.

My father’s observations were that life in Germany was not easy for anyone. There was no electricity, few buildings were left standing, rubble blocked the streets, and there were no stores for the simple supplies needed for daily living. In addition, there was no place to go with so many service members coming and going and little organization. My Dad lived on a base with an airfield once built and occupied by the German Air Force. The airfield allowed him easy access to his plane and kept the crew close at hand, always ready to go on a minute’s notice.

In addition to his daily flying missions, my Dad attended the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. This famous series of trials of accused Nazi war criminals was conducted by a military tribunal from the United States, France and the Soviet Union and were based in Nuremberg, Germany. He got to sit in on several occasions during which he said that all the “top bad guys” were on trial for their crimes against humanity. The trial was easy to follow as all the testimonies were translated into five languages. All the spectators wore earphones that enabled them to select their language.  Sixty plus years later he still remembers some of the vivid details of the testimony and the brutality they revealed.

It was at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trails that the extent of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust became known to the world. It was also the first time that human beings were charged with “crimes against humanity,” a term that unfortunately is still used today to prosecute others who commit war atrocities. Eventually, twenty-two men from various military positions stood trial. They included some of the military personnel closest to Adolf Hitler.  Martin Bormann, Secretary to Hitler and Head of the Nazi Party (in absentia), Rudolf Hess, Deputy to Hitler and Nazi Party Leader, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Chief of Security Police including the SS and the Gestapo along with Hermann Goering, Second in Command to Hitler, were just a few of those men who stood trial for their crimes against humanity (Taylor 4 ). Eventually, nineteen of those twenty-two would be found guilty. Twelve were sentenced to death by hanging. The other seven were sentenced from ten years to life in prison. Bormann (guilty in absentia but never found), Kaltenbrunner, and Goering were three of those sentenced to hang while Hess was sentenced to life in prison. Goering committed suicide by cyanide the night before his sentence was carried out (Minow 116).  The graphic testimonies and horrifying pictures my father witnessed during the days he attended the trials still haunt him to this day. Some pictures of the death camps were pictures he thought he and his crew had developed but he could not be sure since they were responsible for the development of thousands of them.

During these same months my father was based in Nuremberg, he also remembers guarding two planes located on the German airfield that were carrying bodies of dead service members back to the United States. It was very dark and the smell of the dead hung over the entire area. This too is a vivid memory of his service. One can certainly understand why these very powerful memories would remain with him to this day; however, he only began to share these stories this past year. Perhaps the rather recent deaths of many of his Air Force buddies, his approaching eight-ninetieth birthday, a recent trip to the World War II Memorial in Washington and his recently discovered desire for the legacy of his service to live on pressed him to the point of avoiding his stories no longer.

Finally, as part of the occupying army in Germany, my Dad was able to access an Army jeep and a German prisoner of war driver to travel into different parts of Europe. It was during this time that he got to do something his father, my grandfather, was unable to do while he served in Europe. He was able to travel to Italy, visit my grandfather’s home town (Roseto) and meet many of our relatives. When he got to his father’s town he was surrounded by relatives, hugs and kisses, and food and wine flowed in a long overdue celebration. This was the only story he ever shared with his extended family until just recently, perhaps because it was the only happy memory of his service while stationed in Germany.

Six years ago (2007), my father was contacted by a woman in Pennsylvania who said they shared the same last names; she was from Italy and thought they might be related. He went to meet her and it turned out that her grandfather and his father were brothers. She remembers my Dad coming to their home town in Italy right after the war ended. She was nine years old at the time and one of the crowds of greeters.

My Dad spent twenty-six months in the Army/Air Force and it was a major part of his life: a tremendous experience and something he will “always remember”. Evacuating the B-29 plane had a long lasting effect on his life as he eventually went totally deaf from the accident. His deafness has changed his life in ways that he never imagined or expected.  He was now a wounded warrior. He has received services from the Veterans Administration for the past thirty-five years and is now one-hundred percent disabled.  Unlike my grandfather, he never received a “Victory Medal” for his wounds but I believe his victory is evident each day of his life as he makes every effort to communicate to his family, friends, war buddies and those around him.

Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF-2001-2010), Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF-2003-Present and Operation New Dawn (OND-2010-Present)

I am eternally proud of my grandfather and father, two of my heroes for their service to our country and our world in these two world wars. Both experienced the long-term consequences of that call to service without considering the suffering it would cost them.  It was not until both of them were well into their eighties that they began to share their war stories. Perhaps they wanted their families to know their military legacy so that this piece of their past would live on in our family storytelling and memory or perhaps they were just too tired of keeping the horrific memories of their service from those they loved.

Throughout history storytelling has been one of the most important practices of those who have returned from deployment in a war zone.  There are many war stories including, Homer’s epic narrative war poem The Iliad, that are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago (Shay 13). Yet some patriots share their stories verbally, without ever writing them down.  When those who fought for and protected our nation are no longer able to share their stories of duty, honor and courage, we must find a way to capture and preserve them. One way of doing so is through an understanding of the power of narrative storytelling. As a form of communication, the narrative can help tell the story giving shape and meaning to the soldiers’ experiences of war. Narratives can also help us to understand the experience of the soldier and the unimaginable emotions, feelings and unique experiences caused by war (James 2-3).

Narrative storytelling provides a window into the veterans’ world of war. This window can help civilian personnel, including family members, understand the unique experiences that veterans experience during war time and provide for us an opportunity for new insights, a deeper understanding of their experiences and a vivid account of their encounters. It can help the civilian population to acknowledge that these wars are our wars and that we sent those who volunteered to fight (Bowling el al. 451-458). By recognizing veterans’ war stories, we are providing a way of capturing their unique stories for a lifetime providing for society a narrative history into their experiences of war. These narratives can be used to “convey a shared social heritage that transcends generations, location, and culture” (Morie et al. 2).

This paper uses a first person account in a historical narrative format to tell the story of service of my grandfather (WW I), father (WW II) and myself, the founder and director of The Pennsylvania branch of The Soldiers Project PA. Personal experiences with my grandfather, father and now veterans of Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan (OEF) inspired me to tell our family story of service and heroism hoping that this story, like those of other’s will live well into the future with the hope that we might never forget those who keep our nation safe and offer their well-being and sometimes their lives to do so.

According to Coles knowing our heroes stories of service, putting meaning to what we have learned and experienced through those stories and experiencing their “moral energy” offers us a link between “stories and service” (23). It is from my grandfather’s and father’s commitment to service, duty and honor and my father’s narrative storytelling of his service and the fact that the United States was engaged in war in Iraq and Afghanistan with two million plus service members, that I was moved to do my part to help our present-day veterans.

In 2010 I began to explore the possibility of starting a branch of The Soldiers Project in the state of Pennsylvania with the hope that my service would help veterans like those in my own family to tell their stories. Though our caring professional team of trained clinicians’ we provide veterans the opportunity to communicate their story  in their own words and experiences giving meaning to these experiences with the hope of addressing the many invisible wounds of war. By doing so veterans can form a “coherent narrative to their past lives and combat experiences to their lives going forward” (Bragin 317).

The Soldiers Project is a national program founded in 2004 by, Dr. Judy Border, MD. Its primary mission is to provide mental health services to post 911 veterans and their loved ones. These services are provided free of change by trained volunteers and licensed social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, professional counselors and marriage and family counselors throughout the state. There is no cost and therapy (a way of narrative storytelling) is provided for as long as it takes to bring the veteran “all the way home”.

In addition to individual, group and family counseling provided by the Pennsylvania branch, we also offer ongoing trainings to all clinical volunteers and the general public statewide. These trainings are provided predominantly by doctors who are highly experienced clinicians in their specialized fields. They make every effort to educate others on the importance of understanding Military Culture, Post Traumatic Stress, Traumatic Brain Injury, Moral Injury, Military Sexual Trauma, Life after War and a host of other important educational areas that help those who wish to help post 911 veterans including those veterans who have recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of late, we have begun to explore ways to reach out to family members of veterans with a focus on the children exploring ways for these children to tell the stories of their own experiences and where possible, those of their veteran family members. These children are often overlooked in the helping process, yet they are just as important as our veterans.  They too are survivors of war having had a parent or sometimes two deployed, more often than not, multiple times.

As a the Director of The Soldiers Project Pennsylvania, I also have the opportunity to join forces with many local, state and national individuals and programs to work to enhance services to post

911 veterans and their loved ones. These include the Veterans Administration, Army One Source, and Student Veterans of America, the Yellow Ribbon Programs at several Colleges and Universities, Student Veteran Centers, the Governor’s Advisory Council-Veteran’s Service Behavior Health group and many programs and services whose primary missions include helping all veterans of all wars.

As I work to be of service to our veteran community and to build national, state, and local resources that will help these veterans and those they love, I cannot help but think of my own grandfather and father whose service cost them dearly for most of their adult lives. Their personal stories and journeys during World War I and World War II motivate me to deliver and at times create as many resources and opportunities for our present-day veterans as I can. Creating new opportunities for storytelling by our veterans and their loved ones may open a door that, at least for my family, remained closed for many hidden years.

Like my grandfather’s and father’s stories of the “Great War” and World War II more stories still need to be told. When veterans are no longer able to share their stories, it is our responsibility to do so. As Homer did in his Iliad, we, too, must tell the stories of veteran warriors from our past as well as those of our newest veterans and establish avenues to do so. Much storytelling remains for us to understand their history, experiences and memories of war. Let us each find new ways to help them tell their stories and when they are no longer able, let us be the ones to do the telling.


Sister Nancy DeCesare, IHM, PhD has over thirty plus years of experience working in the fields of administration, social Work and teaching. She started her social work career as a frontline social worker on the streets of New York City and has held high level positons including executive director. Presently she is an associate professor of human services at Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia PA. Sister holds a master of Social Work from Marywood University, and a master of Public Administration from New York University’s prestigious Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. She received her PhD in Clinical Social Work from the Shirley M. Ehrenkraus School of Social Work, New York University. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers, a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers, a Board Certified Clinical Social Worker and a licensed clinical social work in both New York and Pennsylvania. In 2010, Sister started the Pennsylvania branch of The Soldiers Project for the State of Pennsylvania a network of volunteer clinicians providing community based mental health services to post 911 veterans free of charge.


Martha Bragin’s “Can Anyone Here Know Who I Am? Co-constructing Meaningful Narratives with Combat Veterans” from The Journal of Clinical Social Work  (April 2010).

David Becker’s “The deficiency of the concepts of posttraumatic stress disorder when dealing with victims of human rights violations” from Beyond Trauma: The Plenum Series on Stress and Coping, edited by Rolf .J. Kleber, Charles R. Figley, & Berthold P.R.Gersons.

Ursula Bowling, Michelle Sherman, and Michelle August’s “Welcoming them home: Supporting service members and their families in navigating the tasks of reintegration” from  Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol. 39.4 (2008).

Robert Coles’s  The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism (1993).

Kennedy Hickman’s “World War I: Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Military History ” on (2013).

Martha Minow’s Between Vengeance and Forgiveness: Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence (1998).

Jacqueline Ford Morie and Erin Haynes’s “Warriors’ Journey: A Path to Healing through Narrative Exploration” found in the proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Disability, Virtual Reality, & Associated Technologies (Aug-Sep 2010)

Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London: The Americans who stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour (2010).

Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2003).

Telford Taylor’s The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir  (1993).

Margaret Sterm Storm’s “Transitional Justice: Restructuring Self and Society, Facing History and Ourselves, the Nuremberg Trials Fact Sheet” from Facting our History (2013).

William James as quoted in Ernest Kurtz and Katheine Ketcham’s The Spirituality of Imperfection:Storytelling and the Journey to Wholeness (1994) .

A Response to Eric Newhouse

By Jerri Bell

I’d been thinking about submitting work to The Journal of Military Experience, and a few nights ago I finally decided what to send. I curled up on the living room sofa with my phone to review the submission guidelines before heading up to my office to work on some last revisions. The second issue caught my eye: a great excuse to procrastinate for the rest of the evening. I settled down with the dog under my favorite afghan and opened the file, with a sigh of pleasure and deep gratitude for the editors who had collected and edited military writing for my reading pleasure. I opened the file and began reading Eric Newhouse’s introduction.

Read Eric Newhouse’s introduction here.

Halfway through, my amygdala went to General Quarters. I recognized the racing heart shallow breathing tingling skin prickling nerves that mean I need to fightfleefuckorfeed. I reread the offending clause and its paragraph twice to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood: “…we shouldn’t be sending our girls into conflict ever.” I looked up Mr. Newhouse’s biography on line to try to gain some insight into his reasoning. I tried a few deep yoga breaths. No joy. I was pissed, and my default setting is fight. I opened up my Facebook account and tried to pick a fight with the MEA President.

Even though I’d interrupted his Star Trek episode to rant and rave, and even though we barely know each other, he responded with patience and common sense. He reminded me that it is not our job as editors to censor material that makes us uncomfortable or with which we disagree. He also pointed out, not unkindly: “It’s not really natural to get that angry over something you read.”

His hint that I probably needed a little perspective was well taken, but ultimately I disagree. Words matter. Words, well written, engage our deepest emotions – including anger. Words on a page are the visible tip of an iceberg of propositions that a writer hopes to express. Here are the propositions that I perceive, correctly or incorrectly, to be underlying Mr. Newhouse’s clause about “girls” in conflict. First, he proposes that the females who enlist in the armed forces are “girls” and not “women.” Second, he proposes that he has enough authority to speak definitively about all women and all military combat (what I assume he means by the word “conflict”). Third, he proposes that involuntary limits should be set on the actions and choices of every woman, including those women who voluntarily enlist in the armed forces to defend the Constitution.

The proposition to restrict the military service of American women is an old one, and – unless there’s a return to universal conscription of men, a policy that Mr. Newhouse seems to recommend in his next sentence and one that strikes me as unlikely in the extreme – it’s neither realistic nor worth getting angry about. What really set me off was his tone, his attitude toward at least the women in his audience.

For a woman veteran with twenty years of active service, the propositions that seem to underlie Mr. Newhouse’s comment carry significant negative associations. Take the word “girl,” for example. For the first fourteen weeks of Naval Officer Candidate School, where I was the only female officer candidate in my company, my name was “Girl.” Military indoctrination is supposed to remove some layers of individuality and mold recruits into a warfighting collective. But while the drill instructors rendered to my male colleagues the small courtesy of using the surnames that would soon be preceded by “Ensign,” I remained a nameless, faceless representative of my gender, inferior and ineligible for even the tiniest scrap of respect accorded us in basic training. “Whitsett! Gillette! Dean! Girl! Drop and give me fifty!” If the DIs had called male officer candidates “Boy!” it would have been infantilizing and demeaning, like calling a dog: “Here, boy!”

Further underlying the sound of the word “girl” in my ear is the Navy’s early attempt to create separate-but-equal career paths for men and women. Until the mid-1990’s, the few female officers who trained in surface and air warfare were restricted to service on supply ships and in aviation transport and aggressor squadrons. The rest were designated General Unrestricted Line Officers – GURLs, correctly pronounced “gee-yoo-arr-ells” but mispronounced, when the intent was to belittle or demean, “girls.” GURLs served ashore in support positions: undersea surveillance, space and electronic warfare, and shore station management. The community’s flag billets could be filled by men who opted out of warfare communities. Despite PR to the contrary, General Unrestricted Line Officers simply did not have the same opportunities or respect as unrestricted line officers who commanded ships and squadrons. Although I was an intelligence officer – not a General Unrestricted Line Officer – my opportunities were even more limited. Sea duty was a prerequisite for selection to the few flag billets and fleet intelligence officer billets; the only intelligence jobs afloat were on combatants, and thus prohibited to women until 1994.

I carry all that baggage and much more into any discussion of gender equality in the armed forces. Under those circumstances, it was inevitable that I read Mr. Newhouse’s statement with a visceral feeling, one that began in my glands and ended in my fingertips and toes and scalp and the edges of my teeth, that his tone was condescending to women. That he had just devalued my twenty years of service, the combat experience of my female colleagues who deployed in Desert Shield/Desert Storm and OEF/OIF, and even the experience of several of the contributors to the JME issue he had just guest-edited.

When I joined the Navy in 1988, women could react to condescension and devaluation in one of two ways.

(Center) On the helo deck of H.M.S. Sheffield with colleagues, deployed as US liaison to the Royal Navy in the summer of 1994. It was customary that the US liaison officer wear Royal Navy rank insignia.
(Center) On the helo deck of H.M.S. Sheffield with colleagues, deployed as US liaison to the Royal Navy in the summer of 1994. It was customary that the US liaison officer wear Royal Navy rank insignia.

Debating, arguing and complaining were out: we watched our shipmate Paula Coughlin go down in flames when she blew the whistle on Tailhook. So we kept our heads down and our mouths shut and thought “Fuck you, yes I can” and worked twice as hard as our male counterparts for the same recognition. (For twenty years, “Fuck you, yes I can” was my personal mantra.) Or we deflected the insults with humor.

As a lieutenant on USS Mount Whitney, I preferred standing in port quarterdeck watches with boatswain’s mates. They were rude, profane, and funny; they had the neatest uniforms, sharpest salutes and biggest hearts of any sailor afloat. I spent a four-hour watch one hot summer afternoon in Norfolk listening to the Messenger of the Watch and Petty Officer of the Watch, two of my favorite boatswain’s mates, evaluate the physical attributes and personalities of every female sailor who walked by on the pier below. Each was deemed ugly enough to scare the white off rice, and they all eventually fell into one of two categories: sluts (who would sleep with everyone) and bitches (who would sleep with everyone but them). Finally the Petty Officer of the Watch shook his head sadly. “Women in the Navy,” he said with a sigh of regret. “They ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of lyin, cheatin, smokin, drinkin, cussin whores.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “I beg to differ.”

They’d either forgotten either my presence, or that their Officer of the Deck just happened to be a woman in the Navy. They spun around to face me with the look of men who know that a woman holds them securely by the balls and hasn’t yet decided what to do about it. I could easily have written them up for disrespect to a commissioned officer and made the charges stick at captain’s mast.

They stammered and sweated and repeated the phrase “present company excepted, ma’am” a few times.

I smiled, and I hope it was not a particularly nice smile. “Gentlemen,” I said, “I have never in my life smoked a cigarette.”

Many women’s advocates would say that I should have written them up. That by making their comments into a joke I was perpetuating a culture of sexual harassment and permissiveness about sexual assault. Maybe that’s true. But aboard Mount Whitney from 1995 to 1997, among the first small cohort of female sailors assigned to naval combatants, the first priority was to prove that we could do the jobs. Women had to get in the door before we could try to change the culture of gender relations in the military. I felt – and I know that many of my contemporaries felt – that we had succeeded when women deployed to combat roles in OEF/OIF. Women were now almost fully sharing in the responsibility of defending our country. And because we were doing almost all the same jobs, we could finally compete for promotion on an equal playing field with men. Some harassment and extra work seemed, to many women in my generation, a small price to pay for that opportunity.

A few months after I joined the staff of the Veterans Writing Project in 2013, the news media renewed its coverage of sexual harassment and military sexual trauma. Veterans Writing Project director Ron Capps and I began to talk about why women veterans weren’t writing or speaking up about their experiences as much as men: we see this frequently in our seminars and workshops, and in the submissions to O-Dark-Thirty. (At the time of this writing, in two years and nine print issues of O-Dark-Thirty we have published poems from six women veterans, nonfiction from two, and short fiction from one. We have published work from only a handful more in our electronic journal. It’s not because we don’t want or like the work – there just isn’t that much of it coming across the transom.) In graduate school, I refused the fiction advisor’s suggestion that I write a Navy story from a woman’s viewpoint; I know exactly why so few military women are telling their stories. Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University, pointed out earlier this year in the London Review of Books that the tradition of actively or passively silencing women’s voices in public discourse goes all the way back to the Trojan Wars. Ovid says that King Tereus of Thrace raped his sister-in-law Philomela and cut out her tongue to escape denunciation; when we choose to remain mute for fear of denunciation and retribution, we cut out our own tongues. We become complicit with those who would silence us.

Twenty years of my silence and humor and hard work were not enough. Gender relations in the military have improved since 1988, and many service members have internalized more respectful attitudes. But the disrespectful behaviors of those who scorn change have simply been driven underground, and silence allows their actions to continue. The job isn’t done; the mission is not yet accomplished. It’s time for more women veterans to take the next step: to start speaking up and writing honestly about our experiences.

I’m wrestling with my own baggage in fiction. Gender relations in the military, like many things in life, are complicated and messy – traits that make the best kind of fiction. The questions about men and women serving together in peace and during conflict have not been resolved; there are no easy, definitive answers of the sort that Mr. Newhouse proposed when he wrote “we shouldn’t be sending our girls into conflict ever.” That’s why publications like The Journal of Military Experience and O-Dark-Thirty are so important. They provide dedicated space for veterans of both genders to explore the essential, complicated, and controversial issues at the heart of both military service and our humanity. Through fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry, writers who happen to be veterans can grapple with the heart of life in twenty-first century America: its beauty, its ugliness, its triumphs and tragedies, and most important of all – its complexity.

And so I would like to challenge Mr. Newhouse to explain here what propositions actually underlie the words that he wrote about women and conflict in the second issue of JME. Perhaps I’ve ascribed to him ideas and an attitude that he didn’t intend. I’d like to know what he encountered in his work with veterans that led him to make such an absolute statement about women and conflict, especially in a journal that promotes and publishes the experiences of all veterans regardless of gender. Women veterans, I challenge you as well: let’s break the silence. Let’s discuss gender relations in the military and our experiences of war and trauma – in all their complexity, chaos and uncertainty – in publications like The Journal of Military Experience and O-Dark-Thirty. Let’s write and publish our stories and essays and novels and poems. Let’s take life and make it into art.

With her husband, David Bury, at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball at the US Embassy, Moscow, Russia, 2001.
With her husband, David Bury, at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball at the US Embassy, Moscow, Russia, 2001.

Jerri Bell served in the Navy from 1988-2008. Her fiction has been published in Stone Canoe; her nonfiction has been published in The Little Patuxent Review and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and on the Quivering Pen and Maryland Humanities Council blogs; and both her fiction and nonfiction have won prizes in the West Virginia Writers annual contests. She is currently the managing editor of O-Dark-Thirty, the journal of the Veterans Writing Project.