Ever since I left the Air Force in 2011, I’ve often endured a strange little question-and-answer dance. You chose to move to Minnesota? Really? Why? While it’s hard to sell the value of community against the prospect of hypothermia, I’ve been warmed enough by the support of the former to ward off the latter.
I chose Minnesota because I knew about the rich literary history, the love of theater, and I wanted to be a part of a community of people willing to devote a portion of their tax dollars to support the arts—an act of generosity of spirit grounded in the belief that imagination can help us understand one another and remind us of the things that bind us rather than what divides us.
I was reflecting on that last month in New York, during a three-week run of my play, “Outside Paducah—the Wars at Home.” The play is part of a bigger project I’ve been involved in—Veterans’ Voices initiative—a project which began here in Minnesota. It’s an effort to reach out to people all across the state and share the stories of veterans as we work to bridge the military-civilian divide.
As an Air Force pilot, my experiences in combat have been limited to flying in and out of war zones. I’ve never endured combat on the ground, but as an English professor specializing in the literature of war and the son of a Vietnam vet, I’ve spent much of my life trying to understand how the experiences of our veterans and their trauma shapes not only their lives, but those of their families and members of their communities as well.
My writing seeks to communicate the stark realities of what it means to be forever altered by war and to help render the emotional truth of those experiences with honesty and clarity. Though I realize that I’m simply one writer and one voice. I needed to connect with other artists, and when I left the military, I wanted to find a place where I would feel valued as a writer—a place where I could envision building a community of creative people willing to give these stories expression. I’d worked with Warrior Writers in Philadelphia, teaching veterans to write about their experiences—vets who were tentative about sharing their stories, but who learned to embrace the power of expression in the safe environment. For many of them, sharing the stories as poetry, fiction, or nonfiction was a cathartic act which worked to help them heal and recognize that they are not alone.
Less than two years after I settled down in Minnesota, I found myself responding to an op-ed in The Washington Post by the writer Sebastian Junger. He said that “Veterans need to share the moral burden of war” by going into the communities and telling people about their experiences. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a clear call to action. I understood that while vets needed to share their stories, most of our citizens weren’t ready to hear what we had to tell them. We needed to lay the groundwork and make veterans comfortable with sharing their stories as we worked to prepare society for the hard truths that were sure to emerge. I had an idea, and if there was ever a state with the commitment, belief, and willingness to transform an idea into reality, it was Minnesota.
My response was to work with the Minnesota Humanities Center and a group of veterans to designate and devote a month to teaching the stories of veterans in high schools, community groups, and colleges. The result was a bill signed by Governor Dayton in 2014 designating October as Veterans’ Voices Month. The goal was simple—to teach the stories of our veterans in an effort to help us recognize the true cost of war on a personal and societal level as the trauma reverberates out across society and down through generations.
The three-week run of my play in New York was part of an effort to expand on this initiative. I reached out to over 40 veteran writers and artists in the Northeast and asked them to share 10 to 15 minutes of their work with the audience before I performed. A few years before, I’d taken part in The Telling Project (in which veterans shared their own stories on stage) at the Guthrie Theater and performed for The Moth with an amazing group of Minnesota veterans, and I understand the power of those personal narratives to connect and touch people.
Much like StoryCorps, I wanted to ground the project in the diverse voices of those who’d served or been touched by the trauma of war, and the response was amazing. I found myself lingering long after the show was over, a beer in hand, talking with audience members who waited around for a chance to chat. They wanted me to know how the performance and the stories helped them understand a father, brother, or sister who’d returned from a war that they were still fighting inside their mind—a war that they struggle with in silence, and one that never goes away.
The performances allowed those people to see their family members, friends, or lovers with a new perspective, and their response was always the same: people need to hear these stories—everyone should hear these stories. And that’s when I was reminded of why I chose to live in Minnesota. No, I don’t ice-fish, and I’m not particularly fond of the cold. But it is something akin to stepping onto a lake at night and feeling connected to the stars and the rich conversations taking place over whiskey in the fishing huts, over microbrews at the bars, and in the amazing restaurants and coffee shops of the Twin Cities. The people of Minnesota are natural storytellers, connected to one another with a bond that recognizes the power of personal narratives and art to help us all discover one another and to expand our own vision of the world.
So when I’m asked about why I live in Minnesota, I always say it’s because it is a place where art is not only embraced, but where art thrives. In the first few years here, I tended to lean on past artists and institutions in the state, and reminded people that this is the land of Dylan and Prince, the Walker and the Guthrie, August Wilson and Garrison Keillor, the Playwrights’ Center and the Penumbra Theatre, Louise Erdrich and Tim O’Brien, First Avenue and The Loft. And now, I can add that it’s because Minnesota is, and always has been, a leader in the humanities. That it is the birthplace of Veterans’ Voices—a place where the community embraces those who have served by hearing what they have to tell us. A community which recognizes that their story is our story.