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


Spotlight: Kyle Larkin

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

“The desert is not what we thought it would be—it’s colder, grayer, indifferent as a corpse. Everything is ravaged. There’s a thin film of dust that covers this entire city, but it’s more like ash than sand. Even the palm trees are muted and dull. Buildings that have been blown into piles of rubble look like scorched crumbs in the bottom of an old oven. The devastation is permanent.


Minarets,” a short story written by Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Kyle Larkin, is a raw, hard, highly descriptive narrative that gives a glimpse into an infantryman’s experience on a cold, eerie morning of the Iraq War. For readers who have experienced combat, the story is like a nostalgic trip back to the war. For civilian readers, it helps lend an understanding of the daily life and observations of soldiers in combat. Larkin’s open, honest, and descriptive writing style leaves little to the imagination, painting a vivid picture of the Iraq experience.

Larkin is an Army infantry veteran who fought in Samarra, Iraq in 2004-2005 with Charlie Company, 1-128 Infantry. After his service, Larkin attended the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, double majoring in Literature and Philosophy and graduating with honors. He also received a Recognition of Excellence award from the College of Liberal Studies. He began writing after developing an interest in war literature while working on a genealogy of post-traumatic stress disorder for his philosophy capstone project.

“The first time someone suggested that I read a war novel, I remember thinking, ‘Why the hell would I want to read a book about war? I’ve been there. It was terrible. That’s the last thing I want to read about,’” Larkin says.

But after reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, he was inspired to draw upon his time in the military to express himself. He was encouraged further by his English professor, who helped him to explore literature and challenge ideas through writing. A particular occasion in class served as a springboard.

It turns out, he says, that the war is “all I’ve ever written about. I did not take writing classes in college, or study creative writing where you are taught to write about all kinds of experiences in different ways. I had a literature course where one of our assignments was to write about a personal experience that left an impact on your life. I had only done academic writing before, essays mostly, but decided to write about an experience in Iraq when my squad leader was killed. Our professor shared this with the class, and I received a lot of positive feedback from the other students…Many of them told me that I should pursue this type of work.”

Larkin believes that works of fiction by veterans are important tools in providing insight and understanding regarding war experiences to those who haven’t served and society as a whole.

“I think great fiction has the potential to create an enormous influence on the public perception of the military. It seems that today society has sort of collectively, although inadvertently, created a paradox for returning veterans. It has become a catchphrase for people to tell veterans, ‘I could never imagine what you’ve been through.’ Of course, veterans say this to people also: ‘You could never imagine what I went through.’ This is a problem. First, it erases even the possibility of anyone sharing such an important and shaping experience because it is believed that this can ‘never’ be understood…The entire possibility for a dialogue is severed immediately. So on one hand, people are telling veterans that they can never be understood, while veterans are telling people that they can never understand – a modern catch-22. The result is that there is now a homogenous view of the military, where every person who served is a ‘hero,’ and everyone deserves equal respect…It sort of sanitizes the entire experience for a lot of veterans, where they are basically told, ‘Thank you for your service, but don’t tell me about it.’ This is where I see the potential for literature, because it brings people directly into the experience, makes them uncomfortable, which is a good thing, so that they can understand it, because they should understand it.”


Larkin’s goal is to write a novel about his experiences in Iraq, using “Minarets” as the first chapter, and to submit more short pieces that can be used in his novel. He is currently working on a literary essay on trauma and post-trauma, veteran suicide rates and their causes and how the current dialogue, understanding, and culture surrounding PTSD can and should change.

You can read “Minarets” in The Blue Falcon Review, Vol. 2. You can also find “Convoy” here.

Spotlight: Chris Clow’s “Straw Dogs”

When a college professor asks ‘Jackson’ a sensitive question, the young Iraq War veteran and the protagonist in Chris Clow’s “Straw Dogs” is tempted to give an answer that “stick[s] to the concept, the soft, harmless thing that can’t possibly hurt anyone.”

But the story itself does nothing of the sort. Instead, Clow delves into the complex and conflicted world of a combat veteran’s reintegration. “Straw Dogs” follows its protagonist as he navigates college, social life, and work. It bears many of the hallmarks of that experience along the way, highlighting the feelings engendered by awkward questions and, at times, outright antipathy. His unique narrative style renders these experiences in a way that illustrates how the memories of war act as the lens through which the protagonist sees the world.

Chris Clow
Chris Clow

Clow’s work adds a degree of understanding to the experience of the modern veteran that he feels is missing in current literature. Like most veteran writers, he has personal motivation for helping society understand.

After six years as an infantryman in the Washington and Oregon National Guard, a fellow veteran and friend of Clow’s committed suicide. “As the details came out,” he says, “it made national news briefly, and a lot of people whom I knew in the civilian world made a lot of assumptions that I found to be short sighted and offensive.”  He thought their assumptions were based on the overwhelmingly simple archetypes of veterans as victims or heroes. Clow sought to add alternatives to this dichotomy through writing fiction.

“Through fiction, an outsider can examine the experience of another with the baggage of the real world weighing less heavily on the creation. You strip away all the excess and present just what needs to be said.” And Clow believes it’s the veteran and military community that need to tell these stories, to broaden this societal conversation. “It’s on us to be the face we want the community to present to the world.”

“Straw Dogs” is a step in the right direction. It’s not Clow’s first. He’s published a short story, “The Five Most Dangerous Things in the Army,” in The Pass in Review. Nor will it be his last, as he’s working on his first novel.

Read “Straw Dogs” and other stories in As You Were: The Military Review, Vol.1

Congratulating Patricia Stotter

The beginning of a new year is ripe for reflecting on days past. In the past year, contributors and supporters of Military Experience and the Arts have accomplished many feats for bridging the military – civilian divide through arts and education.

One very noteworthy event is the award poetry contributor, Patricia Stotter received this past fall. Stotter, published her piece “Triggers” in our inaugural issue of Blue Streak: A Journal of Military Poetry. 

Along with Marcia Rock, she created the 2011 documentary Service: When Women Come Marching Home. This past fall, Stotter and Rock received a Silver Star award from The Volunteers of America of Illinois, who “recognize individuals who have distinguished themselves as real advocates of Veterans and/or members of the Military through either significant philanthropic activities or other personal acts of notable service.” Co-producers, Stotter and Rock were awarded by the VOA Illinois because, their “documentary highlighting the struggles women face after service resonates with our clients while drawing attention to the need for greater after-care services. We are especially appreciative of the film’s candor, which is why we are awarding you our Silver Star.” This award is much deserved and the documentary is worth watching if you have not yet seen it (it has aired on PBS). Also, the amazing BriGette McCoy is featured in the documentary; McCoy is a major supporter and contributor to MEA and runs her own organization Women Veteran Social Justice.

Congratulations to Stotter and Rock for their award!