Front & Center with Charlie Sherpa

“Charlie Sherpa” is the online pseudonym of Randy Brown, a retired Iowa National Guard soldier, freelance journalist, and man behind the successful Red Bull Rising blog. Brown started the blog in 2009 when his unit, the Iowa National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division, was gearing up to deploy to Afghanistan in 2010. When a paperwork shuffle resulted in his retirement instead of his deployment, Brown went to Afghanistan anyway, as a civilian journalist with his old unit.

In addition to being loyal and dedicated, Brown is very funny, priding himself on nearly always having a joke or humorous insight at the high-ready (Check out his post comparing a Forward Operating Base to a Dude Ranch). His military-themed poetry and non-fiction have appeared in both of the literary journals I’ve discussed this week, as well as several others. He is also encouraging to other military writers. He didn’t just agree to do this interview, he provided me with a number of other leads and contacts and even blogging tips. Today, he’s sharing all of those attributes with you as we talk about straddling the civilian-military divide, veterans as authors, and how veteran writing is impacting veteran stereotypes.

Me: For the twenty years that you were a citizen-soldier, you were also a civilian journalist and newspaper and magazine editor. How would you say these dual career paths influenced and enhanced each other? 

Randy: I had the best of all worlds. After graduating from journalism school, I was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, and trained in tactical mobile telecommunications equipment. That meant I was more of a “messenger” while in uniform, rather than “media.” I was glad to have a different job during my monthly drills and annual periods of active-duty for training.

Still, there were a couple of times that it got confusing for other people. In 1993, covering major river floods as an Eastern Iowa newspaper reporter, for example, I encountered other members of my National Guard battalion slinging sandbags in order to save a small town. The site commander was so tired, it took him a few minutes to understand why I wasn’t on the line, in uniform, helping out.

There was also the time in 2001 that I was called up for flood duty. I was then editor of Better Homes and Gardens-brand how-to magazine. I showed up to the flood operations center armed with a couple of striped fabric swatches. In between taking unit reports, I was calling textile companies on my personal cell phone to get product information – still trying to make a magazine deadline. I joked with fellow soldiers that we should be shopping for more decorative sandbags. Stripes, you know, are very slimming.

Later in my military career, I was placed on temporary full-time active-duty as a stateside Lessons-Learned Integration analyst. I came to understand the role as similar to that of an internal beat reporter, or a “how-to” magazine writer. I was fluent in the organization and culture and I had a security clearance. People knew me, and, more importantly, knew that I wasn’t there to get anyone in trouble. I was there to document and share stories of success, and how to replicate them.

In 2010, when a paperwork snag prevented me from deploying to Afghanistan with my former unit, it was relatively easy to continue in similar roles as a civilian. Downrange, I reconnected with my former colleagues as an embedded civilian freelancer. I was still out to tell their stories.

Me: In addition to being an experienced civilian journalist, you’ve been heavily involved in the military-veteran writing community. You have, of course, been writing a mil-blog for almost five years, but you’ve also attended veteran writing conferences and even presented workshops at a few, published your own work, and reviewed the work of others. What trends have you seen in veteran writing and where do you see it going?

Randy: I aim for a center-mass between two extremes: One is the “writing is necessary for healing” trope. A lot of well-meaning writing instructors inadvertently reinforce the “all veterans are broken” stereotype. I say, “Writing can be therapeutic, but it ain’t therapy.” If you need help processing traumatic experiences, writing it out can be a start, or even a parallel activity, but you should also seek the support of medical experts, peers, family, and friends.

The other is the pitch that “each writer-veteran could be the next Tom Clancy.” No one should plan to get rich off writing veterans’ lit, or promise others that it’s anything more than a rewarding avocation. Too many grunts are chasing the Great American War Novel, or think they’ll get rich by selling movie rights to their life stories. Do the work. Keep writing. Everything else is gravy, frosting, or hot sauce. Take your pick.

What’s in between? Working writers like me. Sometimes, we get a paycheck for our journalistic- or opinion-writing. Sometimes, we get the satisfaction of publishing in a literary magazine an insightful essay or poem. Maybe the reward is as simple as documenting our experiences for our family and friends, so that they can learn from our mistakes … and our victories.

I think there’s a growing number of opportunities for writer-veterans to explore this literary terrain. Venues such as “The Pass in Review,” “Line of Advance,” the Veterans Writing Project’s “O-Dark Thirty,” and the Military Experience & the Arts’ “As You Were” reward creativity and quality of expression, rather than just veteran-status. This isn’t “writing for healing.”

Of course, the real trick will be to increasingly engage civilian audiences with this “veterans’ lit,” so that we can do some good in the world, rather than hide it behind the FOB walls. We need to take veterans’ lit to the people. Otherwise, we’re just shouting into the same horseshoe formation.

Me: We’ve all run into stereotypes about military veterans. One common one for Post-9/11 veterans, of course, is that we’re all, without exception, broken. What’s the most common misconception about veteran writers that you’ve encountered and have you seen it change at all?

Randy: Here’s an editorial quirk of mine: I prefer to avoid adjectives with the word “veteran.” Too often, particularly by news media, they’re incorrectly and/or divisively applied. “Wounded veteran”? “Injured Veteran”? Why reinforce the stereotype? I’m particularly sensitive to new reporters and editors who lazily insinuate connections between military service and violent crime.

“Decorated veteran”? Anyone with a National Defense or good-conduct medal can be said to be “decorated.” “Combat veteran”? Sometimes necessary, but also can degrade the service of those who served during the Cold War, or who sacrificed life, job, and family to deploy to a non-combat job. We are all veterans. We shouldn’t let others divide us.

On a similar track, Travis Martin at the Military Experience & the Arts once noted that I tend to use people-centric language when writing about veterans. That’s probably a holdover from writing about Americans with Disabilities Act issues, which sensitized me to write “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people.” Extending that word-logic, I try to write about “people who happen to be veterans.” I’d like to think that people—including writers and artists—might not be limited or stereotyped by labels.

Me: A couple of months ago, you wrote a post called “Revisiting Iraq on the Blogs – and the Big Screen TV.” In it, you talk about drawing conclusions on how the current situation in Iraq relates to the way we view the war we fought there. You said that you would “argue that the conversation [about war] is more important than the individual conclusions.” How important would you say works by military and veteran authors and artists are in jumpstarting and/or shaping this conversation?

Randy: As a citizen-soldier, I want to believe in the validity of the so-called Abrams Doctrine. The “Total Force” concept presumably means that our country cannot be roused to a large war without participation by its legislators, its electorate, and its military reserves. After the unpopular Vietnam War, Creighton Abrams thought that placing combat power in the National Guard and reserves would catalyze voter opinions, because, once citizen-soldiers started being called up for future wars, the electorate would either have to buy in, or put on the brakes.

Unfortunately, after two wars in Iraq (and counting), and another in Afghanistan, I might have to file Abrams Doctrine right alongside “Happy Gas and Unicorns.” The civilian-military divide is as large as ever. The mobocracy is too easily manipulated and enflamed by the media, and too easily distracted by creature comforts. You know the saying, “The U.S. military went to war. Americans went to the shopping mall”? Now, we don’t even do that. We just kvetch on Facebook.

My own hope is that veterans engaged in arts and literature can somehow retroactively engage civilians in a conversation: This is what you asked of us, through our elected officials. This is what we did in your name, through the military for which you paid. This is what we did on your behalf, as your representative and symbols and fighters in the world.

Me: You’ve covered a number of resources for veteran writers on your blog and even have a “Get Published” section dedicated to that topic. Is there one piece of I-learned-it-the-hard-way advice that’s not available on your blog that you’d be willing to share with aspiring or budding military/veteran writers?

Randy: One of the as-yet unnumbered Sherpatudes is “Everyone has their own war.”

There are writers who get into passionate religious arguments about what literary forms can best reveal the truth(s) of war. They’re looking for the Next Great American War Novel, something that will definitively capture these times and experiences. There are writers who argue that non-fiction, memoir or journalism can’t possibly encompass the totality of war in scope and imagination. Of course there are just as many who balk at the idea that one would make stories up – reality is gruesome enough. There are writers who say that the good poetry ended with World War I.

All of these people are wrong.

Here’s the only truth about war: There are no truths, only stories. “Everybody has their own war.” Everyone has their own experiences, and eyes-on what happened. Everyone has their own fight, their own roads, their own tools.

If you’re writing about military experiences and get stuck, try another form or format. Use another tool in your kit, or develop a new one. At a writing workshop for veterans in 2011, the group was prompted to write a poem. I hadn’t written a poem since I was in school. Ten minutes later, I had crystallized an emotional moment in Afghanistan that I’d struggled to otherwise put on paper. Darned if it wasn’t a poem. I still define myself as a reporter of facts, but I’m open to expressions and explorations in all forms.

The lesson-learned? Darned if I’m not a poet, too.

© 2014, Sarah Maples. All rights reserved.

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