Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh: The Story Whisperers

The Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh started out quietly enough. First, a few vets gathered for breakfast once a month. Eventually, there was a trip planned to visit a monument in Washington, DC. Stories that had been bottled up for as much as fifty years began to pour out on that bus trip. Stories of what war was really like. Everyday should be Veteran’s Story Day. I believe in the healing power of telling true-life stories, especially the ones that are hardest to tell. Not only is it good for the teller, but the world needs first person accounts in order to know what actually happened during calamitous events. One of the great qualities of the recent PBS Vietnam War series, created for television by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, was the relentless telling of stories by people who lived through it on both sides. The stories were often brutal, but we need to hear them. Third person summaries that supposedly supply facts cannot do justice to the horror and terror – or the exhilaration for some – of war. A group of less well-known documentarians in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, have been collecting and recording the oral histories of veterans and survivors on podcasts for several years. Kevin Farcas, founder, and Todd DePastino, historian, have reached out to find veterans of all wars and produced a unique archive of stories captured in a warm conversational style. In 2016, in his 90th year, Gene McShane was recorded describing what it was like to land on Omaha beach in Normandy having been […]

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 […]

Remembering Memorial Day

The Legacy of Vietnam   May, 2017, marks the 48th anniversary of my husband’s death in Vietnam. I don’t like to pin it down to May 17 (1969) because of the peculiarities of the time difference between where I lived at the time in Connecticut and where he died in Southeast Asia. The 8000 miles between us made it seem that we were days apart. Perhaps when managing this kind of tragedy, we play with anything that offers freedom from exactitude. The Life-Cycle of Grief Each year, remembering this event takes on a different shape in my inner world as it reverberates through wherever I am in the present. This “anniversary” is the only aspect of the experience of his loss that is locked in time, irreparably, so I note the similarity of the weather, then and now, and who I am, today. I remember that it was finally spring, trees were blossoming, and I remember the commencement of the grief process back then as I reabsorb this moment from long ago, again. Each year at this time I pay more attention than usual to my life navigation and where I’ve sailed from that lightning bolt of catastrophe. The most important thing I’ve done in all the years since his death was to understand the experience of war and loss by writing about it. Richard Hoffman says about writing difficult stories that you can never entirely redeem the experience, but you can make it beautiful (human) enough that there is something to balance it. When we restore balance, we integrate our experience and feel our own truth. It becomes manageable. Writing […]

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 […]

National Nurses Week 2015: Celebrating Those Who Care

  During National Nurses week 2015, from May 6 – 12,  we acknowledge and celebrate the excellence and dedication of those who choose the nursing profession. 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 many emergencies around the village – cuts, burns and even broken bones, head injuries and emotional problems. 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 might become involved, but watching my mother and her colleagues in action day after day offered me firsthand knowledge that nurses, always women in those days, were unsung heroines. Nurses in war zones and military settings have done their job quietly and largely unnoticed as well, putting their lives in peril on the battlefield for centuries. 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’ pay, both in military and civilian life, begin to become commensurate with the risks and responsibilities of their jobs. Many women served as nurses during the Revolutionary War, but they are barely mentioned in history books. The Second Continental Congress, heeding George Washington’s advice […]

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 […]

The Unexpected Blessings of Book Publishing

I am grateful for a year of blessings. My book launch on May 17, 2014 was beyond my wildest dreams. More than 100 people came and crammed into Bank Square Books in Mystic, CT. Since then, the bookstore has sold more than 120 copies (not bad for a small town!) and I was honored to present my book to President Obama at the White House on Memorial Day. The book continues to be one of the top sellers on Amazon. I believe that the success of my book is related to the fact that many people need to hear and speak about those years during which the Vietnam War ravaged our spirits in this country. Because I am telling my story of how I became a widow at age 23 in 1969, and how I survived and eventually met, in 2006, the men who served with my husband, people are responding to me with their stories. I am honored to hear them. The power of stories and storytelling for healing is amazing. Bless this year, and all of you. An excerpt from Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War: “I like to think that a rough-cut wisdom sustained me through my earlier life when I arrived at the beginning of adulthood, met incomprehensible tragedy and thought I had nothing left to live for. Sorrow does leave footprints, but healing is the courage just to continue, to begin again and again – many times over. I’m still standing, still believing. Hope works from within, rebuilding, even when we feel hopeless. It […]

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.

Lost for Words: Can Writing be Healing?

How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They describe themselves as being “lost for words,” as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint feelings with precision. Some people eventually find their voice by writing poems, essays and memoirs, or keeping a journal.  For those who are visually oriented, the voice may speak through a painting or a photograph. The body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around experiences for others to hear and see. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal is a continuous, or discontinuous, process. For others even the mental recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge long after, perhaps during another life-changing event that dredges up old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to the Desert Storm conflict in the early 1990s. “It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.” Sometimes the burden of owning the story is so great that there is a need to fictionalize and tell it as if it happened to someone else. It can take months or years to become comfortable with the telling.  Whatever the starting point, be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time, reflection and […]