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Celebrating Kurt Vonnegut's 90th Birthday and Armistice Day 

click to enlarge Andy Jacobs, Jr., with Julia Whitehead.
  • Andy Jacobs, Jr., with Julia Whitehead.

A conflagration of profound, spiritual, creative firepower erupted within the gilded core of the Indiana War Memorial on Sunday afternoon - all because of Kurt Vonnegut.

"Enter with reverence. Leave with pride," a small sign advised visitors as they entered the interior doorway.

Nov. 11, 2012, marked Vonnegut's 90th birthday and Armistice Day, which is a celebration that originally marked the end of World War I hostilities. Today it is commonly expanded into Veterans Day celebrations that recognize the service of U.S. soldiers from all American wars.

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, along with an A-list team of sponsors, offered the event, "Armistice: Veterans Reclaim Armistice Day" to honor their hero by helping others discover the keys that helped Vonnegut release his pain and tell his truths - writing and visual arts.

Within the star-spangled, eagle-guarded interior auditorium, when the time to start arrived, master of ceremonies Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio asked people to sit. That voice, so familiar to millions, rendered an immediate effect: They sat. So did Inskeep.

On stage the face of Thom Steinbeck popped onto a screen. A novelist as was his father, John, Steinbeck also is a Vietnam vet. He offered regrets that health issues because of exposure to Agent Orange during the war prevented him from attending in person. Steinbeck then shared the pain he felt about what he saw and did in the war, compounded by the experience of returning home to a U.S. culture that seemed indifferent and even hostile to him.

He remembered Vonnegut's work as challenging of the status quo, righting injustice and helping the injured heal. Steinbeck set the stage for the hours to come, hours when the memorial honored its original intention that the world's people never forget the horrors of war and the people who endure it.

Inskeep, in his decades in journalism, has interviewed enough of the world's power brokers to fill the entire U.S. naval fleet. And on several tours of duty of his own - Press Corps, first class - he helped listeners overcome the distance between citizens in the homeland and today's active war zones.

[Interesting that notion of listener, it comes into play as the larger theme of healing veterans' trauma through the arts unfolds.]

In the respect of bringing the grassroots stories home from war zones, as a Carmel native, Hoosier Inskeep follows in the steps of Ernie Pyle, the Indiana native who defined excellence for war correspondence by listening deeply to the people in the trenches of World War II.

WWII. Dresden. Vonnegut.

The book that he became a writer to write. Slaughter House Five.

Through the war, Vonnegut became a man who found writing to be a tool capable of translating his traumatic war experiences beyond his own head through the written word, the truth. That's according to his oldest son, Mark, a pediatrician and author raised in Cape Cod, Mass., who told the Armistice audience: "[The writing] is not extra, it's not easy, you will know when you're doing it right - it can save your life."

* * *

Julia Whitehead, executive director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and a former U.S. Marine, remarked that she felt surprised about all the guilt associated with the military: guilt for not serving, guilt for living when others die, guilt of not serving well enough, guilt over what one did while serving.

She read an excerpt of Kipling's poem, Tommy. She said it reminded her of the importance of writing down her feelings:

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an` Chuck him out, the

brute!'

But it's " Saviour of 'is country " when the guns begin to

shoot;

An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;

An 'Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!

- Rudyard Kipling

[Originally published as "The Queen's Uniform", in W.E. Henley's weekly Scots Observer (later to become the National Observer) on March 1, 1890.]

An entire auditorium of guilty people sat, many with a taint, an internal weight, a great need for the cathartic outlets yet to be uncovered.

click to enlarge Dan Wakefield, present at the event, is editor of a brand new book featuring Kurt Vonnegut's letters. - MARC LEEDS
  • Dan Wakefield, present at the event, is editor of a brand new book featuring Kurt Vonnegut's letters.
  • Marc Leeds

Healing through the Humanities.

Expressing one's truths may not be pretty, but to reiterate: it can save one's life.

The Greeks knew this, said Len Mozzi of Dramatic Difference Productions, an adviser to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, as he pointed to the signature masks depicting laughter and tears.

"Theater is about laughing and crying, about what it is to be a human being," Mozzi said. "It helps us live our lives a little better."

He said that Greeks invented theater and, in part, used it to recreate battle scenes for audiences of war-torn soldiers seated by regiment, suggesting that this ancient art form may have helped veterans deal with the trauma of service.

Achilles, in fact, appeared in spirit for Armistice Day via the voice of Dr. Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. Shay's medical work focuses on helping veterans deal with the trauma of service-related stress.

"Recovery always happens in community ... (where) people who've been in war know it's safe to tell their stories," Shay said.

The recipient of the vet's story must hear, believe and remember, Shay continued. "Then the person who heard [must] retell the veteran's story to the point where the vet can say somebody listened, somebody cared."

The listener's academic credentials don't matter; the primary element necessary is the ability to retell the story with emotion, not just the facts, Shay said.

Then he outlined the concept of "moral injury: the most devastating kind of danger people suffer."

It involves: 1) Betrayal of what is right, 2) By a person of authority (or one's self), 3) in a high-stakes situation - war, for example.

"When all three things are present, (so is) moral injury," Shay said. "It destroys the capacity to trust ... [one is] left with the expectancy of harm, exploitation and humiliation."

As all possibility of joyful human life is lost, vets often try to "strike first" in social situations (hurting before being hurt), hide out in their homes - often in the boonies - or create elaborate false identities, "like Odysseus," Shay said.

Certain truths in ethical, social realms are better told though fiction than a more straightforward, factual narrative, he added. To experience and witnesses ugly truth on stage or in a fictional world that feels more true than reality itself can help provide society's beleaguered much-needed catharsis from their trauma or moral injury, "making clean water from muddy water" whether that be in the mind, body, spirit, or all three, Shay said.

In working with veterans, Shay said he "kept hearing the story of Achilles again and again." Among the similar features, a berserk marauding inspired by an experience of moral injury that opened Homer's epic poem and an all-consuming anguish over the death of his closest companion, a fellow soldier, Patroclus, at the hands of Hector or Troy. In revenge, Achilles killed Hector and desecrated his corpse until finally agreeing to release it to his family.

"The Iliad is about war and what matters in the heart of a soldier," Shay said.

People dealing with vets and doctors treating vets need to register the combat history of the soldiers they encounter, Shay said, noting that this essential component of understanding the person's overall health is often left unattended.

With fate's dice rapidly rolling during combat situations, many vets don't know why they are the ones who survived and, sometimes, they had no expectation of living through their various confrontations with possible death.

In the effort to repair moral injury and find health, Shay told Inskeep that the No. 1 step vets can take is getting enough sleep. Families can assist the vet by helping to prioritize regular, deep sleep.

Next, install a solid base of safety, sobriety and self care: "It's a triad often wicked difficult to get into place, but it's the foundation to recovery," Shay said. In their sickness, vets often become preoccupied with themselves, narcissistic and self-obsessed - feelings of self worth will oscillate from "dog shit to grandiose," he added.

Doing things for others, he said, appears to be an essential element of recovery from combat stress.

Shay noted a saying: "There's no one so poor as someone with nothing to give."

But it's not the vet who does all the giving. As Shay noted, families can help facilitate sleep. Mime and puppetry expert Doug Berky offered a lesson on patient support.

Berky moved from character to character, animating physically beyond-life-sized puppets: a tiger, a clouded Japanese soldier home from a taxing war, his wife and an old mountain sage, who offered "The Tiger's Whisker," a moral about the power of patient, loving, courage when handling men (or women) who went off to war but never came home in spirit. The wife, distraught over the irresponsive stranger glowering in isolation within her home, finds the courage, over a series of patient months, to tame a tiger to the point that she can take a whisker - the same courage, she discovers, that is necessary to help her husband emerge from his traumatized shell.

The audience sees the woman apply the gentle wisdom she learned: just setting out a meal and inviting the husband to join. He does not leap from the table; neither had the tiger. But his brow, furrowed so deeply at the beginning of the tale, eased ever so slightly, suggesting that it may take him a while to join the table. But with patient support, he just may get there - just like the tiger did. Berky deserves credit for a nice use of puppet making in the case of the traumatized soldier. At first the soldier seemed rooted and impossible to animate, but with that unexpected brow lift conveyed a weight beginning to lift from his soul.

click to enlarge MARC LEEDS

When Kurt Vonnegut was still just a rich, spoiled Indy boy, his prose, as laid out in the student newspapers at Shortridge High School and Cornell University, was "flat," eldest son Mark said, having read enough of his father's early attempts to have formulated an educated opinion.

"Power only came after the pain" but the old man took a long time to tell his truth, young Vonnegut said. Meanwhile, as a father in need of catharsis, Kurt was "annoying," Mark told Inskeep in an in-depth interview following a brief speech earlier in the afternoon.

Mark was raised "before the money hit" but with edicts, written across the walls even, such as: "Goddamnit, you have to be kind." and "Go love without the help of anything on earth." Mark said he was "incredibly proud" of his father, noting "at no point did he make me less than him."

The art helped the father become "unstuck in time versus stuck in time," the son said.

Vonnegut writing tip: If you get stuck, write a poem and share it.

Vonnegut witticism: No matter what happens ... it's better this way.

Vonnegut craft project: Use rejection letters to line wastebasket.

Eventually, Vonnegut had book contracts and more to offset those rejection letters. An agent, Don Farber, helped Vonnegut. They became best friends in New York City. Farber is a veteran, too. He attended Vets Reclaim Armistice Day. He knows about the bloody mysteries of fate's dice in war. Farber shared his own World War II experience: Fresh into a reassignment away from his unit, the entire group he left behind was killed. He has grappled with that ever since.

Soldiers have no incentive to ask for help for mental trauma, according to retired U.S. Marine Hugo Patrocinio. "It goes contrary to your duty not to let your fellow man down. PTSD makes you part of the problem instead of part of the solution."

But one day a doctor told Patrocinio, who did a lot of fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, that it sounded as if he'd been through a lot.

"I went for my pills, got caught telling the truth and it led to my retirement," Patrocinio said.

"When I found ArtReach and started writing and drawing, something lifted."

For true healing to occur, one must find safety, a place not to be judged, but that allows the flexibility for change, he said. Patrocinio is now an ArtReach Project America veteran peer trainer and training instructor.

Other veteran artists who shared their stories through the day included poet Jason Poudrier and ceramist Ehren Tool, who gives away mugs and installation pieces encrusted with molded images of military symbolism and war to stimulate awareness.

Retired U.S. Congressman Andy Jacobs is a veteran. He fought injustice in Congress for three decades. He excoriated people who would start wars without themselves serving. "War wimps," he called them. Injuries he sustained in the Korean War keep him in bed a lot. He attended Armistice Day.

"America: Where she is right, glory; where she is wrong, courage," he said.

He shared two war stories to illustrate one underlying point: "Even in the savagery of war, there can be humanity."

In short, the karma of a C-ration gifted to an emaciated Chinese POW sliding down Korean Hill 902 in the custody of Jacobs' men paid dividends when Chinese gunners offered a free pass to Jacobs and fellow soldiers carrying a litter with their dead commander out of a battle zone just a few weeks later.

And in a nod to fellow Marine Whitehead, Jacobs concluded his presentation with a thought bite: "The Marine Corps is not what it used to be. In fact, it never was."

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