Veteran Authors Are Reclaiming The War Story

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Stacia Zachary, a U.S. Air Forces Central Combat Camera combat correspondent, takes notes as she covers Joint Terminal Air Control Airmen from the 807th Air Support Operations Squadron, Forward Operating Base Lagman as they make sure a dirt landing zone in the Zabul province of Afghanistan was safe for a C-130 Hercules to land while providing the aircrew with any pertinent information via radio communications.
Photo by Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz

As we retreat from over a decade of war, the proliferation of war-themed novels and short stories are coming to the forefront, many of them written by veterans. Such authors empower veterans to reclaim the narrative that previously has been mostly controlled by civilians and journalists throughout the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. These personalized, fictional accounts are important as we draw down from the Middle East, because the narrative is already shifting. Whereas veterans were once cast as heroes defending freedom and democracy, now they are pegged as victims ravaged by unpopular wars in hostile and misunderstood environments.

On Memorial Day, Phil Klay, a Marine veteran who recently released his debut short story collection “Redeployment,” wrote an op-ed describing the pity he receives from strangers due to his veteran status, as if all veterans’ experiences are not only similar, but also crippling. Although many veterans’ stories deal with moral struggles in combat, as well as trouble readjusting to civilian life, they more often than not depict these struggles in a measured tone, rather than in the character of a blood-thirsty veteran constantly on the verge of violently snapping, another stereotype played out in the media lately. Many people assume veterans were tricked into going to war and left damaged by it, and fail to understand not only the varying motives for joining the armed forces, but also the range of experiences overseas.

In his short story, “Ten Kliks South,” Klay tackles the notion of collective responsibility for warfare in a war that less than 1% of the American population served in. Darkly humorous --- a trademark of combat arms soldiers and Marines --- the story follows a conversation between artillerymen let down by their first, anticlimactic fire mission, in which they don’t quite know the end result of their shells’ impact. Divvying up hypothetical kills among the nine crew members, the Marines soon begin to dilute their personal responsibility. They joke about how the Marines at the ammo supply point should share the burden, to which one sergeant sarcastically responds, “Why not the factory workers who made the ammo ... or the taxpayers who paid for it?” In the end, the narrator feels conflicted about what he expected from combat:

Jewett gives a little shrug. “I don’t know,” he says. “I still don’t feel like I killed anybody.”

And as dumb as Jewett’s being, it dawns on me that I don’t either. I look around the table. Jewett’s fucking it up for everybody. And he’s fucking it up for me too. So I turn to him. “It’s supposed to feel good.” I say. “It feels good.”

For many civilians, time in the military, especially overseas, is reduced to their preconceived notions of what combat is. They don’t consider the camaraderie, the downtime spent bored, the dark humor. While Klay captures those emotions in his collection of short stories, Iraq War veteran Brian Van Reet highlights the civil-military divide itself in his short story, “The Window.” In it, he follows a soldier between deployments road tripping with his fiancée. At a restaurant, they overhear a man and woman dismissively talking about the woman’s brother joining the Marines. The soldier, Staff Sergeant Fitzpatrick, and his fiancée later see the couple at the motel and drink with them. Fitzpatrick senses the inevitable direction the conversation is heading, spurred by the woman:

“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

Fitzpatrick said no, drawing the word out in polite cautiousness, beginning to guess what might be coming. He experienced a twinge of déjà vu; something like this had happened several times before, but never with such a casual acquaintance. Blame the booze. He crunched an ice cube between his teeth and resigned himself to being a natural curiosity.

“Did you ever, you know… kill anyone?” she said. “Over there.”

Fitzpatrick’s fiancée chides him for not only answering the woman, but telling this stranger something the fiancée didn’t know. She never asked, he said. This dialogue represents not only the disconnect between a veteran and the stranger --- who asks the one question that always seems to be the first question civilians ask or are at least thinking --- but also between the veteran and his fiancée, who knew as little about her fiancée’s experience as this stranger.

These emerging veteran authors, and many others who follow, will help form a well-rounded portrayal of active-duty service members and veterans for those outside of the military community. Veterans should no longer be reduced to stereotypes, nor should they only be represented by voices not their own. As Klay wrote in his Memorial Day op-ed: “War subjects some of its participants to more than any person can bear, and it destroys them. War makes others stronger. For most of us, it leaves a complex legacy.”

Ramiro G. Hinojosa, a political research analyst in Austin, Texas, served in Iraq from 2006-07 with the 82nd Airborne Division. He is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. His nonfiction writing has appeared online at Tin House’s The Open Bar, Guernica Daily, and Stars & Stripes.


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Marine Maj. Jose J. Anzaldua Jr. spent more than three years during the height of the Vietnam War. Now, more than 45 years after his release, Sig Sauer is paying tribute to his service with a special gift.

Sig Sauer on Friday unveiled a unique 1911 pistol engraved with Anzaldua's name, the details of his imprisonment in Vietnam, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" accompanied by the POW-MIA flag on the grip to commemorate POW-MIA Recognition Day.

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Marine Maj. Jose Anzaldua's commemorative 1911 pistol

(Sig Sauer)

Born in Texas in 1950, Anzaldua enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam as an intelligence scout assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 23, 1970, he was captured during a foot patrol and spent 1,160 days in captivity in various locations across North Vietnam — including he infamous Hỏa Lò Prison known among American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton" — before he was freed during Operation Homecoming on March 27, 1973.

Anzaldua may have been a prisoner, but he never stopped fighting. After his release, he received two Bronze Stars with combat "V" valor devices and a Prisoner of War Medal for displaying "extraordinary leadership and devotion to his companions" during his time in captivity. From one of his Bronze Star citations:

Using his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he was diligent, resourceful, and invaluable as a collector of intelligence information for the senior officer interned in the prison camp.

In addition, while performing as interpreter for other United States prisoners making known their needs to their captors, [Anzaldua] regularly, at the grave risk of sever retaliation to himself, delivered and received messages for the senior officer.

On one occasion, when detected, he refused to implicate any of his fellow prisoners, even though severe punitive action was expected.

Anzaldua also received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism in December 1969, when he entered the flaming wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that crashed nearr his battalion command post in the country's Quang Nam Province and rescued the crew chief and a Vietnamese civilian "although painfully burned himself," according to his citation.

After a brief stay at Camp Pendleton following his 1973 release, Anzaldua attended Officer Candidate School at MCB Quantico, Virginia, earning his commission in 1974. He retired from the Corps in 1992 after 24 years of service.

Sig Sauer presented the commemorative 1911 pistol to Anzaldua in a private ceremony at the gunmaker's headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire. The pistol's unique features include:

  • 1911 Pistol: the 1911 pistol was carried by U.S. forces throughout the Vietnam War, and by Major Anzaldua throughout his service. The commemorative 1911 POW pistol features a high-polish DLC finish on both the frame and slide, and is chambered in.45 AUTO with an SAO trigger. All pistol engravings are done in 24k gold;
  • Right Slide Engraving: the Prisoner of War ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor and "Major Jose Anzaldua" engravings;
  • Top Slide Engraving: engraved oak leaf insignia representing the Major's rank at the time of retirement and a pair of dog tags inscribed with the date, latitude and longitude of the location where Major Anzaldua was taken as a prisoner, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" taken from the POW-MIA flag;
  • Left Side Engraving: the Vietnam War service ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor engraving;
  • Pistol Grips: anodized aluminum grips with POW-MIA flag.

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