Veterans’ Writing Group

In the words of Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho, “Writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things.”

Michelle Ruesink, assistant director of Student Support Services, presents the SDSU Veterans Affairs Department of the Year Award to the Department of English, represented by department head Jason McEntee, Amber Jensen, and Charles Woodard at the annual Governor’s Day.

Michelle Ruesink, assistant director of Student Support Services, presents the SDSU Veterans Affairs Department of the Year Award to the Department of English, represented by department head Jason McEntee, Amber Jensen, and Charles Woodard at the annual Governor’s Day.

Many people might wonder what is worth sharing, what thoughts, experiences and opinions do people want—and need to hear? At South Dakota State University, many professors and faculty think that more of us need to hear about war experiences. But it is not just the public that needs to be educated. War veterans also need to have an outlet to express their feelings and experiences.

A cooperative effort among various departments at SDSU have realized this great need and joined forces to bring about a response to this challenge: the on-campus Veterans’ Writing Group. This group met between five and 10 times a semester to read, write and discuss prose and literature. Adjunct instructor of modern languages Amber Jensen handles much of the day-to-day communications and operations for the group. She said that she was led to assist in starting the group because of personal experience.

“My husband served in the military, and I began to write to help cope with some of the hard adjustments we were going through as a family,” Jensen said. Jensen’s husband served eight years ago in Afghanistan, and she said that she still finds healing and peace when writing her thoughts on paper.

“For me, writing allows me to see my story in a different perspective,” Jensen said. “It allows for me to have more control and to really understand what I think and feel.”

She is not the only one who values reading and recording veterans’ memories and experiences. Distinguished English Professor Charles Woodard served in the Vietnam War as an infantry officer, and he agrees that expressing war experiences is about the most important thing that we can do as a culture. He said that he likes to say, “if you don’t own the memory, the memory will own you.”

“The writing group seeks to reach out to SDSU veterans of all kinds and encourage them to find the right words to express their negative experiences and turn them into positive energy,” Woodard said. “Positive energy will propel them forward instead of allowing the negative energy to bring them down.”

The group meetings regularly draw 10 to 15 veterans. It has been therapeutic for many vets, and Woodard experiences this firsthand.

Woodard, who writes both prose and creative nonfiction about his war memories, said that the group really focuses on all types of writing as well.

The Veterans’ Writing Group met between five and 10 times a semester to review and discuss the various works.

The Veterans’ Writing Group met between five and 10 times a semester to review and discuss the various works.

“The Veterans’ Writing Group is really open to writers of all abilities and interests,” said Woodard. “We don’t put too many stipulations on what one should write or how often. It’s there for the veterans, and so they get to decide what they want to do. We do not expect anyone to be seeking publication or pursuing an English degree.”

While none of these writers may be seeking an English degree, the English department does sponsor the group. Jason McEntee, English department head, provides funding to the writing group, which allows them to buy refreshments for their monthly meetings and events.

McEntee feels a connection with veterans, and this can be seen in one of his current outreach projects where he facilitates the Literature and Medicine Series at the VA Hospital in Sioux Falls. He is also on a presidential task force for veterans’ affairs and performs research looking into the narratives of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars.

“I have been involved with the VA Hospital for four or five years and have been keenly interested in veteran novels and research for many, many years,” McEntee said.

He says that the idea for an on-campus writing group came about late last spring semester during the Great Plains Writers’ Conference. The theme of the conference focused on “coming home,” and veterans’ return and re-entry to everyday life after their tours.

A group of faculty thought that SDSU could get involved with war veterans, who might be looking for a creative outlet in the Brookings area.

Funding for this group is provided through the South Dakota Humanities Council and interested participants can find the group on select Mondays throughout the semester at the Veterans Resource Center in the SDSU Veterans Resource Office in the University Student Union.

Seth Conley

Leave a Reply