Tales from the VFW: An Origin Story

by | Aug 10, 2015 | Creative Nonfiction

The author (L) on Mount 501 of the USS California (CGN-36) near the Straits of Hormuz, Persian Gulf, during Operation Desert Strike, 1996.

The author (L) on Mount 501 of the USS California (CGN-36) near the Straits of Hormuz, Persian Gulf, during Operation Desert Strike, 1996.

Bring the Noise

On Wednesdays, I like to sit at the end of the battered horseshoe bar at my local VFW and listen to all the voices flustering back and forth. Wednesdays are member-only days here, so the place is usually packed with all kinds of vets: young and old, happy and solemn, quiet and loud. Okay, mostly loud, which is good for me: after all, I’m here for the stories. To someone walking off the street, I’m sure it sounds like an ordinary, old-fashioned commotion. But to me, it’s worth a lot more than that. We’ve got a 95-year old WWII vet who watched the Enola Gay take off carrying the Hiroshima bomb, sitting next to a young Airman just back from Afghanistan trying to pass her college English class, sitting next to a Vietnam-era Marine who volunteers at the VA hospital and comes back every week with a fresh horror story to tell. The stories are always interesting, and they’re all vital. And that’s just here in Poughkeepsie, on a Wednesday afternoon; there are over six thousand VFW posts around the country, and I imagine each one has stories just as good, and just as loud.

If you sit here long enough, you realize that these are more than just stories. These are lives, and if we’re not careful, these stories will disappear, and the unique lives of our veterans along with them.

How much is a story worth? Sure, we probably hear hundreds of stories every day: your sister complaining your ear off on the phone, the guy ranting in the next cubicle, the stranger on the bus complaining about your sister. We hear so many stories in the course of a day, after a while we only hear the same wall of noise; we forget they are individual time capsules, attached to individual lives. Okay, so how much is each one of these ordinary stories worth?

For sake of argument, let’s say, one crisp U.S. dollar.

So, if any old story is worth a dollar, then how much more is a good story worth? Now it gets tricky. Ten dollars? A hundred dollars? I’m a writer, and I’ll admit good stories are my ultimate weakness, just like some folks have a special weakness for good chocolate, good coffee, or good sex. (Okay, probably everyone has a weakness for good sex, but stay with me here.) Following a good story gives me a high, and I know I’m not alone. So, let’s just say we’d pay a hundred dollars for a really good story. All right, then; so my last question is, how much more is a good story from a veteran worth? You already know I’m a writer so obviously I’m horrible at math, but I think the answer has to be at least seven hundred billion dollars. Give or take a few hundred billion. But seriously, I think if good stories are valuable, then the stories of our American veterans are priceless, because they are a unique part of our history. They can’t be faked or replaced, and I don’t think we hear them nearly enough.

This is how I got the idea for our Tales from the VFW project: sitting on this stool at the VFW every week, listening to local veterans. After a while it became clear that we need to start writing all these stories down; otherwise, we’ll lose them forever. The goal of our project is simple: we want to record the stories of as many American veterans as possible. We want to listen to all kinds of vets, young and old. And everyone knows a picture says a thousand words, so I’ve asked my friend and photographer Chris Motta to join me in traveling the country, as we try to put together a collage of personal narratives, pictures and artifacts from the amazing lives of our war veterans. The end product will be a scrapbook and interactive website, courtesy of the fantastic folks at Atticus Review. We’re excited to get started!

Every Hero Has an Origin Story

In America, we like to believe we’re doing a lot to support our men and women who have served in the armed forces. We talk a lot about honoring our heroes; just walk down any Main Street in America and you’ll see plenty of “We Support Our Troops” signs, flags and bumper stickers, but once you look at recent statistics on the lives of our veterans, it becomes clear we really don’t come close to supporting them enough.

The numbers are sobering.

Right now, there are about 22 million veterans in the United States, but only 36% of those vets receive any VA benefits. Times are getting tougher for veterans: according to US Census data, the poverty rate for veterans has increased almost 9% in the last ten years, with the youngest veterans (those serving after 9/11) experiencing the highest poverty rate of all. Food stamp use among veterans has risen 62% since 2009. And it’s even more sobering to know about 25% of our homeless population are veterans; on any given night in America, between 130,000 and 200,000 homeless veterans are out on the street. Surprisingly, 89% of these homeless vets received an honorable discharge. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 70% of homeless veterans suffer from some kind of substance abuse, and 45% suffer from serious mental illness, primarily PTSD. And the problems our veterans are experiencing won’t get better anytime soon; our post-9/11 veteran population is expected to increase by 45% by the year 2017. That’s a lot of young men and women returning home from combat, only to struggle. Clearly, we are failing our veterans. We think we’re doing a lot but in reality, our service men and women need much more from us than merely hanging a sign in our window, or cheering at ballgames.

vet parking onlyListening to our veterans is an important way we can all work together to honor them. Storytelling can be incredibly powerful and therapeutic, especially for vets. Being able to tell your own story is an act of empowerment in itself. Here at Tales from the VFW, we want to meet as many veterans as we can across the United States, and listen to their tales and memories.

One thing we’ve learned so far by being on the road is that the stories of younger veterans are perhaps in the most danger of disappearing, even more than those of older generations. Telling your story can be a form of therapy, but unfortunately there is a stigma attached to showing weakness among veterans recently returned from war. Too often, our young vets return without an outlet to relate their experiences. We think their stories are just as priceless as a story from a WWII bomber pilot. We’re not trying to make a movie; we want to record all kinds of veterans’ narratives, from young and old, male and female.

Our criteria for this project is simple: we want to record stories that are important to the veterans telling them. That’s it.

What makes a Veteran a Veteran?

What’s your definition of a veteran? Think for a minute. Is a veteran only someone who serves as a uniformed member in a branch of the military, or can a nurse who treats vets every day at the VA hospital be considered a veteran, as well? Can the family of a service member stationed overseas be considered vets, too? Their stories seem to be just as important in understanding what it means to be an American veteran. The more I think about veterans, the more I’m likely to include those who surround and share the experiences of service men and women into my definition. One thing we’ve learned while undertaking the Tales from the VFW project is, the definition of a veteran may be harder to pin down than we first thought. That’s why in our project, we won’t limit ourselves to listening to folks who strictly have served in the military. We’ll also listen to all kinds of other folks – VA doctors, caregivers, social workers, local pastors, wives, husbands, dependents – who know what it means to be a veteran, because their lives are connected intrinsically with the lives of veterans. Their experiences in working with veterans may be just as significant, and to us, that makes their stories just as valid.

We Want YOU

We know there are a lot of folks who are just as excited about supporting veterans as we are, and we truly welcome everyone’s input as we build this story community from the ground up. We want to include everyone, and we want to hear everyone’s ideas on how to make the Tales from the VFW project even better. Right now, we’re asking for your help in two ways.

First, we need your help in connecting with veterans. Do you have a veteran in your life who has stories you love to hear? Are you a veteran yourself who would like to share your experiences? Contact Dan Cafaro, our publisher and chief creative guru at Atticus Books, and we’ll try to get back to you as soon as we can. We’re looking forward to getting back out on the road soon, and we might be coming to your town!

Second, we realize that our goal of traveling across the country to meet veterans will cost money, as well as time. That’s why we will be starting a Kickstarter campaign this fall, to allow Chris and me to travel the country and listen to as many veterans as possible. All funds received from our fundraising efforts will go directly to the costs of the project, and any extra funds we have left over will be donated to veterans’ programs like the VFW and Wounded Warriors Project. We feel a little weird asking folks for help financially to get this project going, but we also realize that help will be nothing less than vital. Look for details on our Kickstarter campaign, coming soon!

And Our Story Continues…

We’re excited to get this party started! We hope you’ll check back often here on the Tales from the VFW webpage, courtesy of Atticus Review, for regular blog posts, updates on the project, and all kinds of helpful news and notes as we cross the country. We hope you will consider supporting our project and become part of our story community.

We hope to see you on the road!

About The Author

Tommy Zurhellen

Tommy Zurhellen is author of the three novels of the award-winning Messiah Trilogy from Atticus Books. He earned his MFA from the University of Alabama and currently teaches writing at Marist College. A U.S. Navy veteran, he is a Life Member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 170 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.