Why We Need War Stories

The first time I met the survivors of Alpha Company of the 2/22 Infantry in 2006, I was scared. It had been almost four decades since my husband, Capt. David R. Crocker, Jr., died in Vietnam in a booby-trapped bunker. I had never heard a first person account of precisely what happened, and I still wasn’t sure I was ready to hear the stories. What was I afraid of? Perhaps simply the peeling back of the protective layer of years since I was informed of the tragedy on that warm spring day in May, 1969. Back then, I had avoided the nightly newscasts by Walter Cronkite. I couldn’t bear to see bloodied young men carried out of battle. Before the worst happened, superstition about what might protect my beloved governed every move I made. Charmed thinking was my armor.   War stories are hard for both the teller and the listener. For some people “the beginning “ – that first telling – might not happen for years after the event. Veterans and other survivors of war may hold back their untold stories for decades. Despite their courage on the battlefield, describing that experience requires a reach back down into gut-wrenching details that they had tried hard to forget, back to a place where they may have felt guilty to be a survivor.   But, remembering has its power, too. Meeting the men from Dave’s company and hearing their stories of life with him in Vietnam was my first big step towards a kind of healing, and an understanding of what had actually happened in […]

Gold Star Wives of America: Resilient Survivors

(This article originally appeared here in April, 2015, commemorating Gold Star Wives Day and the 70th anniversary of the founding of Gold Star Wives of America, an organization devoted to educating and protecting those whose spouse died in combat or from combat-related causes.) It was a muggy July evening in 1946 when five women, whose husbands had died in World War II, traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to meet with a soon to be war widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt later wrote in her news column, My Day, “…they came for supper, and then went to Poughkeepsie the Lafayette Post of the American Legion had given them permission to use a room… It was a small meeting, though the casualties among servicemen from Dutchess County were pretty high.” In fact, more than 175 men from Dutchess County alone were killed or MIA by 1945. These five young widows had first met together in Marie Jordan’s apartment in New York City in 1945 to talk about how they might band together to support the needs of all war widows and their children. Losing a spouse in combat meant also losing medical care, commissary privileges and even their home if they lived in military housing. Most had married young and had no job training. They had little or no resources from the U.S. government and often relied on the charity of family and friends. Out of desperation they formed a support group called the American Widows of WWII. Their appeal to Mrs. Roosevelt was auspicious. When FDR died in 1946, she counted herself among them […]

Veteran’s Day 1968

Veteran’s Day, 1968. An excerpt from Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion after War. He spoke of his time in Vietnam as unavoidable, a river to cross, an obstacle to remove. Once the orders are issued, he said he would face court martial if he didn’t go. “There’s no other choice,” he said. “I have to go even if Dad says the war is a mess right now.” What his father had said was that there was a disconnect between what was happening on the ground, in the jungles, and what politicians and the Pentagon perceived the war to be and expected it to be, a reality which would not be unraveled from the fundamental untruths and hyperbole of the war until years later. But, I understood nothing about what he was about to step into. “We’ll survive – I’ll be home by Christmas next year,” he said. “Then I have only one year before I can get out of the army completely.” I promised to write every day and prayed for the rash to go away. “Letters – that’s all we’ll have over there,” he said. “Where I’ll be, there won’t be any other communication except mail.” The anticipation of verbal silence, physical distance, had its own power. It began slowly with long silences and idle activities, constant unspoken preparation. We could drive for an hour together without a word between us. We unpacked and repacked, organized cleaned, straightened, made lists. On our last night together on November 10, 1968 we barely spoke. We expressed our love for each other only with our bodies. The poison ivy scourge had […]

How to Earn a Gold Star: GSW of America

    It was a muggy July evening in 1946 when five women, whose husbands had died in World War II, traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to meet with a soon to be war widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt later wrote in her news column, My Day, “…they came for supper, and then went to Poughkeepsie the Lafayette Post of the American Legion had given them permission to use a room… It was a small meeting, though the casualties among servicemen from Dutchess County were pretty high.” In fact, more than 175 men from Dutchess County alone were killed or MIA by 1945. These five young widows had first met together in Marie Jordan’s apartment in New York City in 1945 to talk about how they might band together to support the needs of all war widows and their children. Losing a spouse in combat meant also losing medical care, commissary privileges and even their home if they lived in military housing. Most had married young and had no job training. They had little or no resources from the U.S. government and often relied on the charity of family and friends. Out of desperation they formed a support group called the American Widows of WWII. Their appeal to Mrs. Roosevelt was auspicious. When FDR died in 1946, she counted herself among them and became one of the original signers of the group’s charter. The name was changed to Gold Star Wives of America in 1948 and the mission expanded to seek benefits for both the spouses and children of persons who died in war and as […]

The Healing Journey of Grief

At a recent meeting with a book club discussing my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, one reader asked me if it is difficult today for me to look at pictures of my husband who was killed in Vietnam in 1969. It’s a great question because it brought back my memory of the many years during which it was difficult to look at anything that reminded me of him and our happiness. I remember putting out of sight anything that triggered my grief and the pain in my heart, even the book plates that he had placed in all our books, with an image of the little mermaid statue in Copenhagen, on which he wrote, “Dave and Ruth” was too much for me. I covered them up with the same bookplate, leaving the line where our names had been written blank. And yet, today, I have written and published an entire book about him, our relationship, his death and the serendipitous meeting of his comrades who have regaled me with stories about him. In the process of writing I’ve looked at many photographs of him, many supplied by the guys who were with him in Vietnam. I see this young, handsome guy who I was deeply in love with, who I still feel the same love for, but I can look at him and not feel shaken. Is this the effects of time, age, natural healing? Does the heart grow scar tissue? I’m not sure. In my memoir I wrote about learning from my mother’s example of putting things away after a death. When my youngest brother died at home after years of […]

Christmas Past and Present

  When I grew up in rural Connecticut in the 1950s, we attended church in Quakertown, an area in Ledyard founded by the Rogerene Quakers in the 17th century. The Quakers of that time were trying to escape persecution by the Congregationalists. Both of my parents had been born at home in Ledyard and were descendants of the Rogerenes. The church service had evolved since the early days and had become fundementalist, similiar to a Southern Baptist style. The main event of every worship service was music and lots of “praising” as people stood up spontaneously to say, “Praise the Lord!” They would mention the sick and needy during the praising periods and ask for blessings. Some people were overtaken by the Holy Spirit and rolled on the floor in the aisle while speaking in tongues, a nonsensical language over which the speaker supposedly has no control. For me, it seemed like a curious explosion of adult emotion. Kids didn’t “know” this language but grownups appeared to feel better afterwards. When they recovered and got back in their pew, they would be smiling and perspiring. I’m not sure what anyone expected, but they seemed relieved. At Christmastime there were trees laced with paper chains and ropes strung with cranberries and popcorn at the front of the church. Choirs and soloists sang carols and children performed pageants and memorized poems. My grandmother inscribed my poem on the back of an empty Christmas card box. She wrote it out in longhand and, because I couldn’t yet read at age four when I was assigned my first poem, she spoke […]

The Joy of Sharing

  Since my book launch on May 17, 2014 I’ve experienced the joy of sharing conversations about my book with many book clubs and at schools and libraries. At a recent event at the Groton Public Library, several Vietnam Veterans were in the audience along with people who said they had protested the war back in the sixties. Everyone expressed a need to talk about that time and the long silence that followed. Telling our stories is a healing experience and I’m happy that my book, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, seems to resonate with so many and stimulate the joy of sharing and hearing each other’s memories about a difficult time in our nation’s history. By talking about not just the bad times, but also the good times, people begin to feel more whole.  Remembering the goodness of some people during dark days seems to trigger a greater sense of happiness in the brain. Writing about these experiences can also have profound healing effects. There are no rules. Write whenever you want and however you want. Only you know and can tell your story. And, hearing your story might help others to remember their’s.

Musings on Memoir

In memoir, a self is speaking and rendering the world. The real subject is your consciousness in the light of history. The objective is to be personal and impersonal all at once. In a sense it is to be a witness and a storyteller. The hallmark of memoir is the expression of both Now and Then. It is a kind of shuttling back and forth between the past and present, interrogating the experience back then and expressing what that experience means to us now. We can also think about this as the “I” that was then and the “I” that is now. Or, imagine that your present self is having a conversation with your much younger self. Memoir begins with a kind of intuition of meaning. The event itself usually happened years ago and a memory, a scene, lingers. I remember weeping in a kitchen in a lonely apartment in a foreign country in 1968 and devouring a box of graham crackers – a big box.  Whenever the memory came back, I was uncomfortable. When I eventually described the scene by writing about it, the events before and after came flooding back and I started to get closer to the story. Memories survive on fleeting things – a wisp of a fragrance, a plaid shirt your father wore, a song that reminds you of another song. These details are the starting point for the deeper story.. Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and who you are today. It is mental and emotional time travel and sometimes it might involve actual travel. The memoirist Patricia Hampl wanted to understand who she was as a free-thinking […]

What is Memoir?

    Beginning a memoir project is like being an explorer of unexcavated territory, except that territory is within you. You are an anthropologist, a psychologist and a sky diver all at once without leaving your writing table. You take risks on the journey as you delve deeper and deeper into the ravines of memory, but the journey itself is your challenge, a way to stretch yourself and grow as a writer. A memoir is a story that is true. It can consist of looking back at a single summer, or the span of a lifetime. It is some aspect of life, some theme about which you want to reflect so it becomes a process of unearthing memories and then turning them over and over like a stone embedded with fossils. The more we look the more we see. There are two basic ingredients in a strong memoir. The first is honesty. The memoirist makes a commitment to tell the emotional truth. Sometimes when the writing is not coming easily, it is often because we’re avoiding what needs to be written. It’s not about baring secrets – it’s simply telling the emotional truth about what you’ve chosen to write about. Russell Baker told the story of writing a complete manuscript – 450 pages – of a well-researched and documented family story. He included a slew of facts about his family’s genealogy and history. But in the end he realized that, although he was accurate in the reporting of facts about his family, he had been dishonest about his portrayal of his mother. He said, “I had been unwilling to write honestly… and that dishonesty left a […]

A Tribute to Nurses in War and Peace

    As we recognize the anniversaries of the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II, it is chilling to realize that nurses were also at the battlefront, but barely noticed. I grew up surrounded by nurses in a nursing home that my family owned and operated. The patients were mostly elderly people who had the usual physical and mental problems related to aging, but we lived in a rural area and my mother’s skills as a Registered Nurse also made her the go-to person for situations that were considered minor emergencies around the village – cuts, burns and even broken bones and head injuries. I can see my mother calmly cleaning and dressing a bloody wound caused by broken glass and, on another occasion, carefully positioning a child’s possibly broken leg after a fall from a tree. Eventually a doctor would become involved, but watching my mother and her colleagues in action day after day offered me firsthand knowledge that nurses, even in civilian life, were unsung heroines. There is no comparison of what civilian nurses did to the horrors and chaos of serving as a nurse in a war zone, but nurses in military settings have done their job quietly and largely unnoticed, as well. Thousands of women serving as nurses put their lives in peril on the battlefield over centuries and yet little is known about their experiences in war or exactly how many participated. Even appropriate financial remuneration has been meager and long in coming. Only at the end of the twentieth century did nurses’ […]