Deadly Writers Patrol contributors read excerpts of their writing on May 18 at the one-year anniversary celebration of DryHootch Madison, a local veterans service organization in Dane County.
Every Friday, the group known as the Deadly Writers Patrol meets. Sometimes over sandwiches. Sometimes over pastries. Then they read their stories aloud.
The members of the group are primarily veterans of the Vietnam War, though military personnel from recent decades as well as active service members have contributed to The Deadly Writers Patrol magazine, which is published periodically.
The group is sponsored by the Madison Veterans Center, founded in 1979 to help combat veterans readjust to community life. Its name, says veteran Steve Piotrowski, comes from "the black humor of the servicemen, quite frankly. Hell, the only way we're deadly anymore is by our pens because we're old guys. We're in no shape to be warriors anymore. But we can talk about things and we can still hit targets that are important."
Piotrowski joined the Army three days after he graduated from high school in Amherst.
"At that time you had a choice: get drafted, go to college or join the military," he says. "You were going to be drafted within a year or two ... so I just went in right after high school because I couldn't afford college."
From 1969 to 1970, Piotrowski worked as a radio operator in central Vietnam inside the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade. After his discharge, he went to college, worked as the Portage County veterans service officer and as the veterans and military case worker for former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin).
Piotrowski writes about how soldiers adjusted to life in Vietnam and how they fared upon their return.
"They got so they could do their job well [in Vietnam]," he says. "And all of a sudden they are sent back home without any more effort to help them readjust than there was to help adjust to Vietnam. In fact, less so. They couldn't figure it out. They had a tough time becoming civilians again."
For Piotrowski, writing became a way to think about his war experiences without "just telling war stories."
"When you write, you have to be accurate but descriptive of what happened," he says. "Once it's printed, its printed." Writing, he adds, "helps you focus the experience. You don't just drift around and go 'this happened.' There's a context to it."
Deadly Writers Patrol has one contributor who never served in the military: Craig Werner, who teaches English and African American studies at UW-Madison.
Werner grew up in the military town of Colorado Springs, Colorado. For a time he played in a rock band, performing in bars around town, often in front of Vietnam GIs.
Werner credits President Richard Nixon for keeping him out of the war. By the time Werner received his draft number in 1971, the president was pushing for U.S. military to train South Vietnamese soldiers to take over combat operations as Americans withdrew from the country.
Nevertheless, the war left an impression on Werner. After he became a UW faculty member about 25 years later, a teaching assistant put him in touch with Deadly Writers Patrol. He immediately felt a connection to the group.
"For me, being a part of the group allowed me go back and write about and revisit big parts of my life that had been pretty much submerged in the intervening years," he says.
Werner is completing a novel, which he set in the 1960s. He says the tone of the book was influenced by the lives of Vietnam veterans who returned from the war.
"There was a willingness to be honest about what we are as human beings, about what the country is about. A great deal of that slipped away."
Werner says he has found an invaluable audience at the writers' group. He says members help him place an authentic voice behind his words. Werner is quick to point out there is no single "Vietnam experience," but he does observe common qualities among group members.
"In academia I've been around a lot of people who write a lot," Werner says. "But the kind of community that Deadly Writers Patrol represents, it keeps me honest. The guys won't take any bullshit, and that's a crucial part of good writing."
Werner and fellow Patrol contributor Doug Bradley co-teach a class at UW-Madison that surveys the music of the Vietnam era. One semester, Army veteran Dennis McQuade sat in as an auditor.
McQuade, who grew up in Madison, drafted in December 1965 to serve in the Army's 4th Infantry Division following President Lyndon Johnson's call for a buildup of American forces.
McQuade describes his experiences serving in a mortar platoon as unpredictable, and the memories, fragmented. "Our first guy killed on a night ambush, he stood up to pee," McQuade says. "And one our own guys ... from another platoon, shot him. Killed him. Friendly fire."
Although he was trained to calculate the trajectories of artillery shells, Patrol member Bruce Meredith spent much of his time working with high ranking officers first as a battalion law clerk and then in military intelligence. "I mostly saw the war from above," says Meredith.
"Most of the time, I had pretty cushy jobs," he adds. "And when I came back, I realized the war had helped me. The discipline and hard work gave me confidence, made me a better student. That just didn't seem fair when I saw what the war had done to other veterans."
Trying to make sense of mixed emotions led both men to write. They took courses at Madison Area Technical College. Each carried his own question.
"Why did I survive this and he didn't?" asked McQuade.
"How can I possibly consider myself a Vietnam veteran?" asked Meredith.
Both McQuade and Meredith began writing in order to make sense of their experiences. They say reconstruction of events and conversations that happened 40 years ago is difficult. But the writing group has helped.
"I think one thing you realize when you start writing is that everyone has a different reality," says Meredith. "It's hard to remember exactly what happened." He discovered fiction could be used as a vehicle for sharing powerful truths about war.
McQuade wrote memoirs. Like Meredith, he located truths in his war experiences in factual details that some may consider fictional. However, McQuade found that reconstructing conversations could fill in the gaps incomplete memories left behind.
"The point is to get the emotional truth," McQuade says. "What comes out of it that's important to you, that should be the truth. Not to lie intentionally, but if you don't remember the dialogue of what three people were talking about in Vietnam 40 years ago, you can still get the point of what was happening by writing -- inventing the dialogue yourself."