Accessibility links

Personal Stories Bring Military History Alive

  • Alison John

The war in Iraq is still too current to be turned into history. But the National Endowment for the Arts has begun to collect writings from those who are experiencing it first hand, for an anthology of wartime stories.

Some of America's best writers, like Tom Clancy and Victor Davis Hansen, have led workshops on military bases to coach marines on writing skills and invite them to contribute their stories to the wartime anthology. But Tobias Wolff, who has written a memoir of his reluctant stint as an officer in Vietnam, has a different take on the value of committing one's experience to paper.

To him, the writing may serve posterity, but more importantly, it meets personal needs. "One of those needs is to have one's experience known. I want to know what's happened," he told the Marines he met with at Camp Pendleton, in southern California. "I want to hear your stories."

Several of the soldiers in the workshop he led had reported on the war for military papers like The Stars and Stripes. Gunnery Sergeant Mark Oliva wrote about entering Baghdad in triumph with his unit, after a long trip across the desert.

But his boyish face turns serious as he reads a poignant passage about returning home. "At the airport my 3-year-old son, not old enough to understand war tells me, 'I lost you daddy,'" he reads. "I'm happy to be home, but I feel guilty, guilty that my wife kept the house spotless in case someone came knocking on the door to tell her that something went wrong, guilty I no longer sleep with a gas mask next to my head …and guilty that the marines I call brothers haven't yet had their own welcome home. I'm a Marine, a gunnery sergeant to be exact, and Marines don't leave Marines behind."

Sergeant Oliva's conflicting loyalties to his family and his country are hard for him to reconcile, as are the differences he saw between Iraqis and Americans. "While Americans wake up every day and they worry about their portfolios, and they worry about traffic," he says, "these people in Iraq that I met are worried if they are going to be alive at the end of the day. Their values are so incredibly different." But he adds, "These people want the same things that we want out of life... they want their children to have an education, they want them to be healthy and be safe, so there's a certain amount of common ground in there."

Sergeant Oliva values what he learned in Iraq and says he wants to write about how that changed him. But most of all, he wants to write for his children - to help them understand why he left them, to fight far away, in a foreign land. "I hope, if anything," he says, "that my children come to embrace the things that I value, that it's not the material things in their world, but it's the fact that we have the ability to do what we want to do as Americans."

Deployed alongside Gunnery Sergeant Oliva was another Marine with a yen to write. Corporal Veronika Tuskowski was just 18 when she was first deployed to Iraq in 2003. She's a quiet woman - almost still a girl - with dark eyes and brown hair tucked back behind her ears.

For her, the act of writing brought up a lot of emotions. "It made me think about a lot of things I was trying to not think about," she says, "so it'll be therapeutic for me get it all on paper." Corporal Tuskowski says she never got a chance to do that while she was in Iraq, where she worked as a videographer. "I would see little kids who were injured or Marines who had bandages from getting blown up, hurt from blasts," she recalls, "and the first thing I wanted to do was go over there and take care of them, do the 'mom thing,' but then at the same time, I had to step back and remain professional."

Now that she has time to reflect, though, she doesn't plan to write about herself. Like a true Marine, she is more focused on what happened to her fellow Marines. She recalls videotaping a memorial service. "Watching grown men get upset and cry was startling," she says. It opened her eyes and her heart. "They [The men] had to deal with 32 Marines who were close to them, who were killed, but I knew, they couldn't talk about it right now because they were in the mindset of just go out there, fight, come back, sleep, go out and fight again."

Veronika Tuskowski learned a great deal about human nature from her time in Iraq - enough to write a novel, she says, …and she just might! She says it would be about what is going on inside the Marines she saw in action. "Some people can handle a combat environment, some people can't. Some people freeze, some people fight. It's surprising who can handle and who can't. I would want to write something like that."

Talk of recording history isn't what motivates these Marines to write… they want to use the written word to communicate to their loved ones, to release feelings they haven't been able to express during the rigors of war. But their accounts may yet be part of a sweeping history of the war in Iraq, when the National Endowment for the Arts publishes an anthology of writings by active military personnel and their families next year.