Although society praises the men and women who have served in our military, we often neglect the stories they have to share.
According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2014 there were 19.3 million military veterans living in the US with roughly 1.7 million under the age of 35. Out of those 1.7 million veterans, many choose to enroll in secondary education once their military service has ended. At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point there are approximately 325 student veterans enrolled as full time students.
Many of these students face significant challenges reintegrating into the society they have been away from for so long.
Most civilians derive their image of veterans from the media which often focuses on stereotypes—the lone, battle-hardened war hero, the broken and scarred individual who remains a shell of their former selves or the dangerous ticking time-bomb waiting to explode.
In hopes of breaking down these stereotypes, David Chrisinger, a Communication Specialist and Veteran Transition expert along with twenty UWSP student veterans have come together to publish a book of their stories from their military service.
While never serving in the military himself, Chrisinger grew up surrounded by family members who had served. His father and uncle were both in the service during the Vietnam War, and his grandfather saw combat during World War II in the Battle of Okinawa. When Chrisinger’s grandfather returned from the war, alcoholism followed him home and cast a large shadow over his family.
Chrisinger not only saw the effects of war on his family, but also on his longtime high school friend. Late one night after his friend returned home from his second combat deployment with the Marine Corps, Chrisinger’s friend opened up about some of the issues he had been facing since arriving back home.
Chrisinger advised his friend that writing down his memories may be a healthy and therapeutic way to address some of the issues he was going through.
This conversation led to the creation of their website focusing on giving veterans a place to share their story and read the stories of others. The site also raises money for various nonprofit organizations that support veterans transitioning back to civilian life.
With the success Chrisinger and his friend had with their project, UWSP brought in the duo to give a presentation. After the presentation was over, Chrisinger was asked if he would be interested in teaching a class for incoming student veterans.
Chrisinger’s first year seminar class at UWSP called “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life,” aims to assist students in making the difficult transition back to civilian life by providing ways of handling the daily issues they may face. The class helped facilitate interaction between the students and allowed them to realize they were all facing similar challenges.
The lack of structure, discipline and sense of purpose which had been so familiar and comforting in the military caused many of the students to feel lost in a society where these rules did not apply.
Chrisinger said there were two other subjects that frequently came up during class discussions. The first was that most civilians do not truly understand what veterans have been through, and the second was that the image the media presents of veterans always relies on the same stereotypes.
It was this discussion within the class which gave Chrisinger the idea for each student to write an essay about something they wished civilians understood about war, serving in the military, coming home or any other topic they wanted to share.
The class compiled the essays into a single volume and titled it “See Me For Who I Am.” They hope the book will be able to spark a dialogue on how life in the military truly is, and what it is like to come back from war only to feel farther away from home than ever before.
“What I found interesting about the writing is that there are twenty contributors and [their stories] are all different,” Chrisinger said, “You can’t even really compare any of [the essays] because they are so different. I think that is the big takeaway for the civilian reader that might not know very much about military service. It’s just that you can’t have an image of what a veteran is because it doesn’t exist, every single one is different.”
Even family members of the students learned something new when they read the veteran’s essay. Chrisinger said he had parents emailing him that their son never talked about certain topics and were thankful they can now read his essay and begin to understand what he went through.
It is this type of dialogue the essays create which Chrisinger said is key towards helping the students reconnect with their families, friends and people from their hometown.
Brian Castner, a well-known veteran author, wrote the forward and includes a line which Chrisinger believes perfectly sums up what they are trying to accomplish. Castner writes that although the stories in the book are not written by polished writers, it is the student standing up and saying, “Here are my words, where are yours?”
“I think people are going to connect with [the book] for that reason—that it’s not trying to persuade anyone, it’s just saying here’s who I am if you want to know,” Chrisinger said.
Chrisinger wants to help people figure out how to handle these transitions. While doing so, he hopes to give them the tools to connect to others to create a support system they can trust and rely on. He believes whether you are a veteran or civilian, knowing your story and taking ownership over the narrative can help anyone grow as an individual and find peace in their lives.
“The real goal was to help people feel like somebody cared and that somebody wanted them to be successful,” Chrisinger explains. “I think that in a lot of cases that’s all it takes…it’s just making people feel like they belong.”
“See Me For Who I Am” is available to purchase on Feb. 15 and can be found on Amazon. The book release will be Feb. 17 in the Encore from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.