Our Own Medicine

by Daniel Buckman

In 2009 my fourth New York novel was circulating in paperback. I wrote and published four of them in ten years and became terrified at the prospect of sitting in a room alone for another decade. I said goodbye to all of that after those four novels and writing time in Paris with my wife and started teaching the children of immigrants in my native Chicago. I fell in love with the kids with my wife, and my life-long need to write disappeared.

It seemed that I had to be a sheepdog for a while. I got adjunct professorships at community colleges in Chicago while teaching my high school kids in the afternoons—mentoring two men through West Point, and two women through Illinois Army ROTC. I had composition classrooms full of Army and Marine Corps infantry veterans, Obama Surge grunts young enough to be my sons. It was the beginning of the Recession. Money in education was scarce, but I decided to make sure my kids and the grunts in my classes got educated by Malcom X’s famous saying about how you get things done, which is “by any means necessary.” My need to write vanished and I did my duty. How can a former soldier walk away from hard-working immigrant children? How can an infantry veteran turn his back on young grunts coming home from the Obama Surge?  I never will regret giving up writing for five years to help these young people. I couldn’t have written in those years if I tried. There was duty to be pulled with both the kids and the vets.


I joined MEA in 2012 and ran an online workshop with Travis Martin and Jerad Alexander for vets to write fiction based upon military experience. David Ervin took over this summer, and we have expanded our model of publishing any veteran who wants to write literary fiction and do as many drafts as it takes.  I edited many volumes and conducted many peer-edit phone calls. I told them to read Hemingway’s short fiction and the novels of James Jones and Larry Heinemann. Like the immigrant children, the young, hungry vet writers took away my need to write, because seeing them best Hemingway a few times with a story was better than writing for me.  They were nephews (OIF) and sons (OEF “Obama Surge”). I had kids becoming officers, a squad of OEF/OIF grunt students, and many vet writers needing my time. I never thought too much about writing for five years, no bitterness included.

My wife of twenty-three years died suddenly at home with me and our cats in Chicago on July 6, 2015. We met on May 15, 1992.  It was unexpected, a flash of severe pain for her, and then my love had slipped this flesh and crossed the river.  I was talking immediately after Rebecca’s passing with other MEA staff, especially Amira Pierce, David Ervin and Travis Switalski, and they gave me a dose of the pill I make vet writers swallow: You already run and read, so you better write to save your mind.

It was beautiful and humbling. Two veterans of OEF/OIF and my old agent’s assistant and friend, now an NYU writing instructor, helped me through the worst week of my life. Ervin and Switalski loaded me with writing assignments for the website and told me to get at another book. There was no argument from me. The publishing world is much different than 2001 when my first novel was released, but I was reminded not to get anxious. Also, I hadn’t felt the need to write with the intensity needed to publish in five years. Now two veteran writers who I taught the basics of narrative a few years ago (and watched them write great things on their own) have enrolled me, the Vice President of Military Experience and the Arts, back into our basic program. The same men I told to use writing narrative for mental clarity to focus their minds away from intrusive thoughts were returning that advice and telling me to write a piece by the day to stay out of rabbit holes.

My legs are getting stronger, but I know that I will need to take the “medicine” we offer at MEA for a good year of my life. I will be both managing editor of fiction and veteran mentee in non-fiction while I work with an editor to make my fledgling essays publishable. I help run MEA, but I also walk among you MEA vet writers who are learning how to write long-distance with one of our editors.

Please stick with us when the cold weather comes and work to tell your stories. I can tell you from experience that we’ll stick with you.


Traditional Students and Veterans: Using Drama to Bridge a Difficult Gap

By Gaby Bedetti

“Fantastic show, that’s what education should look like!” said Travis Martin’s generous e-mail in response to our class’s attempt to capture the experience of war and its aftermath in a play. “A wonderful, often moving piece of theatre,” wrote a professor about “From Shiloh to Afghanistan.” Neither suggested a disconnect between war and the students’ representation. Yet Daniel Buckman’s “Swords to Pencils: Thoughts on the Veteran Experience in Academics” articulates a troubling question: Did any of us develop a real understanding of the veterans’ experience?

Comprised of traditional students, our Eastern Kentucky University class spent spring 2015 armchair traveling from the American Civil War to the modern-day battlefields of the Middle East. Neither my co-teacher, Mason Smith, nor I have fought in a war, so, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we focused on its bloodiest battle. To convey what they had learned from reading history and fiction, the students wrote, directed, and performed six one-act plays on May 7 in the Black Box Theatre of the EKU Center for the Arts. A jug band from the seminar performed brief interludes of Appalachian songs. The production concluded with “A Litany for Our Veterans,” constructed from lines of poetry about all the wars in which Americans have fought. The litany’s elegiac tone projected an earnestness its fifteen reciters may not have earned.


The students dramatized their generation’s stories in various ways. For example, in “An Ignorant Soldier” a time-traveling student journeyed back to the Battle of Shiloh, where he accidentally killed Gen. U.S. Grant and started a chain of events that altered the course of history. “Row Your Boat” depicted a straggler and a general at the Battle of Shiloh trapped as one struggled to row toward safety, and the other toward battle. Martin coached the writers to tweak the dialogue and behaviors to make them more realistic. He challenged the writer of “Homecoming,” whose brother is in the military, to aim for a more nuanced portrayal of a veteran with PTS in this excerpt:


(approaches him with a clip board in attempt to sell cookies)

Excuse me sir?



Get away from me.


What, no? I just have a question for you.



What are you hiding behind that clipboard?

(rips it out form her hands and she accidently falls back out of shock and cries)

What do you want? Get away!


(Libby hears the shouting and runs over)

Hey, hey, hey! Calm down she’s just selling cookies. What’s going on?


She wouldn’t listen. I told her to get away and she wouldn’t. She needs to get away from me.


The writer modified the violence by having only the clipboard fall, not the little girl. A deeper understanding of those who have experienced war calls for a more authentic learning experience.

In order to respond to what Buckman aptly characterizes as the narcissism of the traditional student, academics could collaborate with the veteran community. In her article, “Veterans Studies: Expanding Notions of ‘Vet Friendly’ to Include the Curriculum,” Penny Coleman endorses Martin’s call to bring both veterans and non-veterans together. The course could be cross-listed in EKU’s Veterans Studies Program. Veterans would educate instructors about their needs and learning styles, as Sarah Gann suggests. Voices of Student Veterans and Verbatim Theatre could teach the kinesthetic learning style emphasized in military training and favored by traditional students today. While the class could never approximate the cohesiveness and camaraderie that Buckman describes in his all-veterans composition class, integrating drama may help bridge the gap.

Along with collaborating with veterans, instructors might focus the reading strategically. With so much excellent war literature available, we could pair works from JME with Civil War readings. We could showcase the experience of women involved in war, as Martin advised, by juxtaposing a female hospital nurse’s experience during the Civil War and Erin Byers’ “Dear America.” Another approach to making the course more genuine would be to have the class focus on a particular image the way Lund focuses on images of hands as a writing prompt and shortcut to agency. An alternative is to focus on a specific moment, such as the night before battle, a motif memorialized in Book VIII of Homer’s Iliad, and captured in the EKU student play, “Shootin’ the Breeze.”

Finally, instructors could more overtly use the course to bridge the gap between veteran and traditional students. To promote points of empathy, we could use a public blog to engage soldiers and veterans in virtual interactions. We could bring veterans into the course through JME and veterans on campus. A veteran could serve as a visiting instructor. Students in the course could help promote the field of Veterans Studies by presenting at the Veterans in Society Conference. A course titled “Battle of Shiloh: Drama for the 21st Century” would be enriched by the coming together of veterans with traditional students.

Our hope is that by improving the course design, the military will exist beyond the university enclaves Buckman describes. Rather than carrying what Gann calls the “burden of seclusion,” veterans will help educate traditional students. As brothers, friends, and fiancés of people in the military, many traditional students have a degree of exposure to the moral and literal injuries of war. Gann presents the academy with an opportunity it cannot waste. The million current VA Education beneficiaries provide the academy with what Gann describes as “an occasion in which it can rise to greatness, to serve those who have greatly given in selfless service.” Bringing soldier and student together in the classroom to write and produce plays about the experience of war is a step toward healing and reconciliation.


The trailer for the play is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWXetx-jfeo.

A recording of the performance is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEPF-DaJOwY.

Spotlight: Daniel Buckman

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

The Names of Rivers by Daniel Buckman, his second in a cycle of four novels, begins and ends a dark, heartbreaking tale of the multi-generational dysfunction between fathers and sons who have both survived the major wars of the American Century. The patriarch of the Polish-American family, Bruno Konick, once soldiered with the First Infantry Division from Omaha Beach to the liberations of Dachau and Buchenwald, an experience that aged his body and forever disconnected his mind. The post-traumatic stress caused by his involvement in WW II affected his life, the lives of his two sons before they ever went to Vietnam, and the life of his grandson, Luke, who wanders Watega County, Illinois realizing that something bad has happened, but unable to understand the big whys. 

“Bruno Konick is a compilation of my uncles and grandfathers who fought in the European Theatre of Operations during WW II,” Buckman said in interview. He describes two generations of war veterans in his grandfather’s basement playing cards on Christmas Day. The Vietnam veterans felt isolated and alone at their table, while the World War II veterans, living with their own silent trauma, felt embarrassed for sending their sons off to a war they never intended to win.  “I think they had far less closure than 1950s and 1960s Hollywood would suggest. This experience is also framed by tough Depression childhoods as first-generation Americans.  I found that these men were sent home to roll final credits on WW II that refused a conventional ending after Auschwitz and Nagasaki changed how people must think about war to win.”


The story of Bruno Konick and his sons intertwines with that of his grandson, Luke. The boy can see the toll that trauma has taken on his working class, Polish-Catholic family even if powerless as a seventeen year-old boy to change anything. “He has a great-grandfather who was gassed in the Meuse-Argonne, a grandfather that was left with malignant PTSD after WW II, and an uncle and a father who are Vietnam veterans that are existing with untreated PTSD and the mania that comes from being a 1980s Vietnam combat veteran,” said Buckman. He wanted to articulate the irony of the boy joining the Marines in order to break the cycle of trauma by potentially exposing himself to the very same trauma.  “I wanted the novel to end with the reader wondering what will become of Luke as they already wonder what became of Huck Finn. Will Luke really get out and use the GI Bill?  Will Luke get sent to war and lose his nimble wits and wander with untreated PTSD from both his experience and the experiences of three generations ahead of him?  I wanted to write a novel about what continuing a military tradition in the family, which is often portrayed as fluffy on network morning shows, does to a family after some hard generations in American Century Wars and untreated PTSD running like an open sore between generations.”

When asked how he thought The Names of Rivers is relevant to America’s recent combat veterans, Buckman said, I believe that today’s OEF/OIF veterans are much like Luke.  He could have been in 1983 Beirut, which was the first major attack by an Islamic terror group on a hard American target, the Marine Barracks 1983.  I know from teaching  OEF/OIF veterans freshman composition at Chicago junior colleges as a Cold War paratrooper that many young vets from the recent crusade come from the same social conditions as teenagers from the divorce frenzy of the late 70s and 80s laced with untreated PTSD as when I served in the 1980s ‘mellow yellow’ period.  I am much older, born in 1967, but my experience teaching OEF/OIF vets and hearing them talk about Korean War veteran grandfathers and Vietnam veteran fathers impresses me one way: This generation of combat veterans are full of grandpa’s and dad’s PTSD themselves. OEF/OIF didn’t escape the culture, hardship, and weird mythology that sprang up to define the wars of the American Century.”  

Buckman is the Vice President and Managing Fiction Editor for Military Experience & the Arts. He has been committed since 2006, when OIF grunts started coming back in real numbers, to teaching veteran students to write college essays and mentoring veteran authors with the belief that writing can help individuals cope with their trauma. “Writing has historical credibility in helping veterans not only define their individual PTS into a manageable narrative that will need periodic adjustment over time, but it has made many veteran writers, who never dreamed they would be writers, become respected authors. Homer must have been a soldier.” Buckman challenges veteran writers and students to read books like The Iliad and The Odyssey, asking them if they identify with the characters, Achilles’ rage or Priam’s profound mourning. Most grunt veterans answered with a resounding “every single verse.” He later encourages them all to read authors like Crane, Hemmingway, Herr, Heinemann, O’Brien and Vonnegut to show them that veterans have been writing from pre-history until present day. “I have seen that the simple act of disciplined running, reading, and writing about the war has brought many vets back from real severe diagnoses.  If they have these books close, they are never alone. If they discipline themselves to write well every day and do PT, they will begin to understand their experience not as an overwhelming mixture of experience and emotional reactions, but as parts of a larger story that they can begin to write and assemble.  I hope that more veterans will use our services at MEA.”

The Names of Rivers is an important novel for all generations of veterans to read and embrace. It is of the same caliber of any of the novels that Buckman recommends to his students and veteran writers and is an outstanding example of the real contribution that veterans have given the literary arts. Buckman’s raw honesty and genuine, heartfelt sincerity come through in his writing, invoking the entire gamut of human emotions in the reader, setting a standard for all writers – veterans and otherwise – to follow.

MEA Vice President Daniel Buckman
MEA Vice President Daniel Buckman