Writing a Way Back
It was just after Marine Corps boot camp when William “Wyl” Schuth III returned home to his father’s hometown of Trempealeau. Located right on the Mississippi River in Western Wisconsin, the small village has a population of just under 1,500.
“It’s a tight-knit little river village,” Schuth says. “It’s in the little lost country area of the upper Mississippi. ”
People know each other from church, or just seeing each other day after day on the street. La Crosse, the biggest nearby city, doesn’t necessarily influence Trempealeau’s character, except as a shopping and restaurant destination for the village’s residents. When Schuth returned to Trempealeau, his neighbor, a World War II veteran, immediately invited the newly-minted Marine over for coffee after church one day.
“I just hit it off with this guy. His name was Harry,” Schuth says. “Harry and I developed a friendship that spanned 60 years. He was in his late 80s when I first really became friendly with him, and he had helped found that VFW post with my grandfather.”
Harry Eichman and his wife, Helen, invited Schuth to attend the next meeting of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 1915. Schuth’s grandfather, along with Harry, helped found the organization.
“I think it’s the friendships you develop that really then translate into being drawn into a community or into an organization,” Schuth says. “I wanted to be a part of it because my relationship with Harry means so much to me.”
The network of veterans’ organizations across the state, often formed by these types of bonds, range from the hard-line and hierarchical formality of well-known advocacy groups like the American Legion to spontaneous and informal drinking clubs for returning veterans. It is a spider web. It possesses a complexity of distinction and nuance similar to that of the U.S. greater military apparatus.
The iconic, small-town image of the Veterans of Foreign Wars outpost as the local watering hole dominates the traditional narrative, but there is more to this world, created by veterans for veterans, outside of the combat zone.
Clubs not without flaws
The American Legion and the VFW both have a long history. The American Legion was founded after World War I, while the VFW traces its origins to the Spanish-American War in 1899.
While anyone who served in a branch of the military and was honorably discharged can join the American Legion, the VFW has more specific membership criteria. Veterans must have served in a foreign-war combat zone and received a campaign medal to be eligible.
Called chapters or posts, each entity or formation of the American Legion or VFW has a commander, sticking with military-bent language and hierarchy. After post meetings, members stick around for drinks. In Wisconsin, American Legions and VFWs have a tradition of Friday fish fries, which often become a big event on the small-town Wisconsin calendar.
“I haven’t gone to meetings, frankly, for years. They were just too boring,” says veteran Steve Piotrowski. “Typically, they start with the Pledge of Allegiance … a moment of silence in remembrance of those passed. Then it is the meeting minutes, call to order … treasurer’s report. They very much do old business, new business.”
As advocacy organizations, both have championed veterans’ causes over the years. It was the American Legion’s successful lobbying that made it so the manufacturers of Agent Orange had to pay dues to those veterans exposed to the chemical.
But historically, their records are not spotless. Both the American Legion and the VFW did not welcome veterans from Korea and Vietnam with open arms. Since the Vietnam conflict was not technically declared by Congress as a “war,” the first Vietnam vets were not even allowed to join, according to Piotrowski.
“Certainly back in Vietnam, the VFW posts were often dominated by World War II vets, many of whom were very hostile to who they saw as Vietnam vets [for losing the war],” UW-Madison faculty member Craig Werner says, referencing the blame placed upon those fighting in the conflict rather than those making the leadership decisions during that era.
Today, millennial veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are not flocking to either organization, or are only joining as an afterthought. However, it’s not due to disillusion that seemed to exist in the past for the Vietnam veterans. They’re just going elsewhere to organizations that better suit their needs.
The student culture shock
Although Schuth did join the Trempealeau VFW Post 1915, when he came to UW-Madison, he found a more student-oriented organization: Veterans, Educators & Traditional Students. Their office and meeting space are located in UW-Madison’s Student Activity Center.
For many soldiers-turned-civilians, readjusting to student life on a college campus after coming back from a war zone is tough.
“I wasn’t making that many friends on campus, because all my classes, the vast majority of them were freshmen only,” says James O’Rourke, UW-Madison student and president of V.E.T.S.
O’Rourke, who is in his late 20s, originally got involved with V.E.T.S. based on a tip from a friend of his who was in the National Guard. He’d told him that the offices had a free printer for him to use for all of his readings. O’Rourke found himself in the role of vice president by his second semester on campus.
He says the majority of his closest friends have been made through the organization’s network, but he doesn’t really have an interest in seeking out other veteran support organizations. It is not out of disregard for them. Quite the opposite: he holds them in respect, even awe.
“In my deployment to Iraq, it was calm … we mostly got shot at once or twice and blown up once or twice and that’s about it,” O’Rourke says. “There’s a kind of a sense of ‘I don’t even deserve to be in the same room’ as some of these guys. The suck back then was a whole lot worse than the suck now.”
The generational gaps in war and conflict, particularly the technological advances made in the last couple of decades, make fighting wars fundamentally different from the fights of past generations.
“We don’t have the same things to talk about,” O’Rourke says. “There’s an aura of respect, like, ‘we didn’t f****** do that.’”
The living room for the night’s Deadly Writers Patrol meeting, contrary to the group’s name, is well and warmly lit by a smattering of stained glass lamps. A wreath of treeleaf lights — red, orange, gold and green — hangs from one of the archways. Firewood, still neatly packaged, lies next to the fireplace. The house’s hardwood floors, cloaked in lush carpets, are a far cry from the calming, modern efficiency of the V.E.T.S. office at UW-Madison or the sticky tile of the bar room during the typical VFW happy hour.
“I imagine one of the things you’re wondering is why we’re here and not there,” Schuth says.
In the kitchen, Alaskan Amber beers are offered, but there is wine as well. And more importantly, there are homemade pumpkin cupcakes on the counter for later. Baked not by the wife, but by the husband.
It’s a tie between the host, Steve Piotrowski, and Schuth for who wins the honor as the best cook of the group, says Werner. Werner, who did not serve in the military, grew up in Colorado Springs, a military town. As a faculty member of the Department of Afro-American Studies at UW-Madison, Werner teaches cultural history classes, some on the Vietnam Era, which all of the other men in the room, save for Schuth, lived and fought through.
One of the regular DWP members can’t make it tonight. He had a bad fall during his visit to San Diego. His injuries are described as “scary” by Rick Larson.
“Nice terminology, corpsman,” Schuth playfully shouts from across the kitchen.
The banter flies fast and loose between the different service branches. Larson served as a Navy Corpsman; Schuth and William “Bill” Baker, another member, are former Marines; Piotrowski, and members Doug Bradley and Bruce Meredith, were Army men. All of the men are in their 60s with some pushing 70, save for Schuth.
“Drop and give me 20,” Bradley says back to Schuth.
Beneath the roots
The story of the Deadly Writers Patrol is rooted in the very fabric of Madison. None of the members here tonight were founding members, but Werner has been involved the longest, since 2004. However, he adds that Bradley’s on-and-off involvement actually goes back further.
“The networks here go back from before I was here,” Werner says.
For Schuth, it was the academic connection to Werner and Bradley, first as a student and then as a teaching assistant that drew him into the Deadly Writers Patrol after an invitation from Werner. However, without that initial encouragement from someone he knew, he says, he would have never known about the organization.
As a group, the Deadly Writers Patrol seeks all writing from veterans about their experiences, with a particular interest in writing from Vietnam vets.
“When I started writing in creative writing class, my best stuff was always about Vietnam,” Meredith says. “It stayed with me.”
The Deadly Writers Patrol mission statement says that “writing can express the reality of suffering, and explore the possibility of healing … resolve problems and help achieve a deeper understanding of our common humanity … [and] bring us face-to-face with the parts of life that always will remain a mystery.”
“It is forever etched in my memory,” Baker says of Vietnam.
Bradley traced the organization’s origins back to Vets House, a Madison grassroots organization built in 1974 purely for veterans to help themselves and take part in peer-to-peer activities. Its organizers soon figured out that that setup was a great way to reach veterans of all ages in the community.
“They started to realize that there were different ways to do therapy,” Bradley says. “Some people needed to talk. Some people needed to write. Some people needed to do something in the community. Some people needed to be musicians.”
Writing groups started to become popular as a method of therapy, involving both the individual writer and feedback from other writers.
“Writing was the place where we could find ourselves, or at least say the truth we wanted to speak,” Bradley says.
The Deadly Writers Patrol, as a specific writing group, started both from this mentality and also from a graduate student’s project she found that hearing the vets trade stories, which by then had become a Friday afternoon tradition, was valuable for her dissertation.
“Some of us are writing about things that happened to us 40 years ago,” Larson says. “And for some, it burns.”
People “waxed and waned in and out,” according to Bradley, who admits that he himself joined the Deadly Writers Patrol for a while and then moved on to other projects before returning. Others stayed in for the long haul.
“We’ve brought in other people on the way; we’ve got the next generation,” Bradley says. “But writing is at the core of all this, and writing as an expression, as a look into the soul of the experience.”
There’s no sense of superiority to be found in the members of the Deadly Writers Patrol. Each did touch on the merits of other veterans’ organizations, and the importance of the bonds the organizations forge between people.
When Eichman and Schuth’s grandfather founded VFW Post 1915 in Trempealeau, it was not a simple task. The founding members bought a Baptist church structure and moved it to where it now stands.
“They basically picked it up off its foundation,” Schuth says.
Before Eichman’s death in 2012, he and Schuth would talk about their mutual experiences in San Diego with the Marines, what was still there and what had changed. Sometimes, Eichman’s son, Tom, a Vietnam veteran, would join their talks, sparking a three-generation conversation.
“We had a bond that there were certain things we didn’t need to say,” Schuth says. “There was a trust there that he was able to tell me some things that happened to him that he couldn’t talk to other people about. And I felt the same way.”