The Portage County Gazette
Heather McDonald, May 25, 2016
It’s nearly 100 years since the U.S. entered World War I, and though the connection to the area may still have some reach, a couple of residents are working to ensure that those from Portage County who served remain at the forefront.
“We’ve very much forgotten World War I,” said Tim Siebert, president of the Portage County Historical Society. “In talking to people in the community, they don’t know who (these guys) are … and that’s unfortunate.”
Siebert and Sue Koehl, who also is a member of the society, along with a handful of others have entered into an extensive undertaking – two years’ worth of research, documentation, sponsorships and community involvement – to bring the recognition, the culture, the feeling of World War I and the people of Portage County’s contribution to it back to life.
“We don’t talk about it very much, but it still impacts us today,” Koehl said.
The project, which will culminate next spring with a museum-like display at Heritage Park in Plover, ignited with Koehl coming across a collection of letters written by serviceman Carl Jacobs to folks back home here, and she found it so intriguing she contacted Siebert with the question of what to do to share these soldiers’ experiences and insights with the community.
Siebert at the time was conducting his own research into Portage County World War I heroes Admiral Albert W. Grant, General Edward Fenton McGlachlin, Troop I (a voluntary Calvary unit) and Clayton Slack, who was Wisconsin’s first Medal of Honor Award recipient.
The two decided to collaborate efforts, and the project took off.
Throughout the year, there will be various document releases, including up to nine books published (the third was just published), a video documentary put together by University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point staff, posters, displays, lecture series and articles about different segments of Portage County’s involvement in the war.
World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1918, with the United States entering in 1917. Nearly 3,200 Portage County men were on the draft registration list, though not all served. Some received exemptions due to health, farm needs and being essential workers. Still others chose to serve through volunteer efforts such as the Troop I Calvary, Polish Army volunteers, railway mission volunteers, nurses and National Guard volunteers.
According to newspaper reports in May 1919, 60 Portage County residents serving were killed, including those overseas, in camps and deaths caused by influenza.
Statistics aside, what intrigued Koehl and Siebert most through their research is the human and social aspect of the war, and that is what they hope to impart with this project.
“From a community standpoint, it was very impactful,” Koehl said. “This is more of a sociological look at the county. It’ll be focused on the community and what was happening.”
For example, Portage County was an immigrant community at the time, and though patriotic and willing to serve, those in the war had thoughts of the possibility of encountering relatives serving on the other side, Siebert said. And that’s only for those who were legal. “Downtown was a forbidden zone” if immigrants were unregistered, Siebert said.
Teaching German was banned, if a resident spoke against the war or in some way was seen as less than patriotic, he/she was labeled a slacker, and yellow stripes might be found painted on the property trees. The nuns who lived here and provided education to the county students among other missions had to register as illegal aliens due to their Polish descent.
In one instance, Siebert and Koehl said, federal marshals came in and there was a shoot-out because two brothers didn’t want to register for the draft.
Portage County residents had such patriotism that prior to President Woodrow Wilson’s war declaration, 122 county residents had visited Camp Douglas, and 73 men volunteered to be part of the Calvary and had been training on handling a saber and using a bayonet from horse.
More than 4,000 people rallied behind the war efforts that included parading downtown and all 97 cars in the county, children from all school buildings, Weber’s Band and staff and students from the Normal School attended.
Perhaps most poignant are the words of the Portage County residents themselves, in the letters they sent home from the trenches, many of which appear in the fourth book, “From the Boys with the Colors, Voice of Portage County,” a follow-up to the recently published third book, “From the Boys with Colors, McCreedy Brothers Letters.”
“Just a few words to let you know the Boche haven’t succeeded in getting me yet, but believe me, old boy have had any number of scares in the past week,” Sgt. Sidney Eagleburger of Stevens Point, a member of the band in the 127th Infantry in France wrote to his uncle, Claude W. Eagleburger, on Aug. 7, 1918.
“When they are busting around you and still you have to get there and get the wounded, it makes a person think of home,” he wrote. “There is not a person living that can describe the horridness and misery of modern warfare. A man that goes through ‘grist mill’ unharmed in any way and keeps his nerve is a wonderful man, worthy of the best of our old country and when he returns, Claude, it’s wonderful …
“That’s all, and more than once I caught myself wiping my eyes … be sure to let Dad know you heard from me because I have no more time to write to him. Love to all, Sid.”
Eagleburger also describes the first advance, right out in the open, he said, with every man “never a one faltering … fewer men than they started with, but they kept right on and on. It was wonderful and gruesome, too.”
Frank Hyer, son of professor and Mrs. F.S. Hyer and for whom the Hyer residence hall building on the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) campus is named, wrote to his mother from “somewhere in France, Aug. 7, 1918:”
“It certainly has been a wonderful battle, Mother, one you will read about in history. Nothing could stop our advance, not even high explosives, shrapnel, machine guns, nor gas. Lt. Berry and I are still whole, but we lost many of our former best friends. I lost four men out of my platoon, wounded all of them,” wrote Hyer, who served in the Machine Gun Co., 128th Infantry.
“Most of our advance was made so rapidly that the artillery could not keep up with us most of the time. Everyone hands it to the ‘doughboys.’ They did things unknown to any army heretofore. I can certainly tell a tale now, for I have been in it and have felt myself meeting my Maker more than once,” he wrote.
He spoke of towns razed by shell fire, houses wrecked and looted, of Germans employing all the natives in the fields and “in the dirty work connected with the army,” taking the children and leaving old men and women.
“The old people were so glad to see us when we captured the town that they broke down and cried,” he wrote. “… Give me a mirror to look into to convince me that I have lived through it and that is enough. If I’m kicked off now, I’ve at least enjoyed the privilege of going through a period of Hell on Earth for a good cause.”
Hyer also spoke about the wounded, their determination, grit, bravery and adaptiveness.
“Our John Speridakos, a Greek 99 percent pure, would not go back to the rear in spite of two ugly wounds in the chest and one in the hip until we forced him to do so,” Hyer wrote. “He is a first class fighting man. I couldn’t ask for a better soldier.”
And another, in a different company that the group ran into and had “a great ‘gabfest.’”
“I don’t know whether Father remembers ‘Red’ McConnell … when he saw me he stopped, put out his ‘paw’ and yelled, ‘Hello Coke.’ I was nearly overcome by his enthusiasm. He had been hit in the head, along his jaw and on his wrist. He did not know the wound was on his jaw … I asked him what had happened to his foot – another wound that he had not discovered … after bidding me ‘good luck’ … he resumed his whistling and walked off, happy as a lark. The friends I have made in the old company are the best treasure I won.”
It is these images, these lives, that Siebert and Koehl strive to resurrect through this project, in the hopes of giving Portage County insight into its roots.
“It’s been fascinating,” Siebert said.
Collaboration efforts with the community include UWSP Veterans Seminar class taught by David Chrisinger helped select the World War I soldier letters, UWSP Historical Documentaries class taught by Associate Professor Sara Scripps pulled together the documentary (which will be aired in the fall), Sentry Foundation provided financial support for this portion of the project as well as mentoring, the Women’s Club and sponsors for the published books. The books, “Madame Schumann-Heink” put together by Diane Peplinski, the second book “Songs from the Trenches” by Captain C. W. Blackall, and the “From the Boys with the Colors” books are available at the Portage County Historical Society for $10 each. Two more books are planned to be published this summer and another in the fall.
A lecture series also is part of the project with a variety of topics and speakers. The series will be held throughout the year. The first one was in April with Professor Susan Brewer speaking on the role of propaganda in the war.
The New York Post
Erika Prafder, May 23, 2016
When David Chrisinger’s grandfather returned from World War II in 1946, he had transformed into a drunk and a wild man. He eventually died from complications due to alcoholism.
Decades later, Chrisinger, 29, began researching his grandfather and the role he had played in the war — only to discover that in battle, his grandfather’s whole company had been slaughtered.
“He’d had survivor’s guilt and was bitter and angry about things,” Chrisinger says. “I often wonder [whether] if someone had been there for him, maybe he wouldn’t have gone down the path he did.”
Determined not to let other war veterans suffer a similar fate, Chrisinger, a Wisconsin-based communications specialist and veteran-transition expert, has dedicated his life to helping veterans express their experiences on the battlefield and come to terms with what they’ve been through.
The result: “See Me for Who I Am: Student Veterans’ Stories of War and Coming Home” (Hudson Whitman, out now), a new anthology edited by Chrisinger.
The book’s idea was hatched in the midst of Chrisinger’s popular veteran reintegration course, Back From the Front, offered to first-year undergraduate student vets at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“I started teaching it two years ago,” Chrisinger says. “A lot of vets struggle upon entering higher education. Instead of feeling supported, they feel alienated on campus, fighting against media-created stereotypes such as being superhuman, broken, disabled and traumatized, or as dangerous, ticking time bombs.”
‘A lot of vets struggle upon entering higher education. Instead of feeling supported, they feel alienated on campus, fighting against media-created stereotypes.’
– David Chrisinger
Reflective writing and storytelling became an integral and revealing part of Chrisinger’s curriculum.
“When you’re trying to make sense of what you’ve been through, it’s powerful and transforming to put it in writing,” he says.
Remarkably, as more stories were submitted, “the writing was so good and powerful, I felt guilty that I was the only one getting to read it,” says Chrisinger.
One essay that resonated with Chrisinger was penned by Travis Jochimsen, a Midwesterner who served four tours in Iraq.
“His unit captured a financier of a terror cell that had killed Americans,” Chrisinger recalls. “His uncle, a Vietnam vet, had recently passed away, and though close, he’d never rehashed a word of his experiences. Travis said he didn’t want to die without anyone knowing what he himself had gone through. He wanted to tell his story.”
Before seeking out a publisher, Chrisinger talked with his students about the benefits and consequences of telling their stories in a public way. He warned that while sharing their work may help them reconnect to friends and family, it may also make those who read it see the writer in a less flattering light.
Still, the students all agreed they wanted their stories to be heard.“When you share your story, people feel compelled to tell you their own. Some students have had to deal with folks who are going through similar things. It can be tough to deal with other people’s trauma on top of your own,” Chrisinger adds.
Chrisinger hopes the anthology will inspire civilians to step up their roles in helping troops with coming home, he says.
“Instead of saying, ‘Thank you for your service,’ ask them if they were in the military, what job they had, and what they’re doing now. Making people feel validated and appreciated in a real way can do wonders,” he says.
Chrisinger’s admiration and respect for vets drives his efforts to assist them.
“It’s in their blood to be strong leaders and contributing members of a community. That’s why they joined in the first place. They wanted to be involved in something bigger than themselves and have a purpose.”
The Northwoods River News
Brian Jopek, May 9, 2016
David Chrisinger’s grandfather, a World War II veteran who was in combat during the battle for Okinawa in 1945, was one of several members of his family to serve in the U.S. military.
His father and uncle are Vietnam-era veterans.
A Rhinelander native and graduate of Rhinelander High School, Chrisinger didn’t serve in the military.
He took a different path, a path that has led him to the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point where he’s an associate lecturer and teaches a veteran reintegration class.
He’s published a book containing 20 essays written by post-Sept. 11 veterans titled “See Me For Who I Am.”
The essays tell stories, sometimes humorous, other times sad, of college-age veterans, some with deployment experience in either Iraq or Afghanistan or both and some of that experience in combat, trying to make their transition from the military mindset back to that of a civilian.
In late April, Chrisinger and four of the veterans-turned college students who have essays in the book attended the most recent “Dining with Vets” event at Nicolet Technical College.
“I got involved in veterans issues during my time on the public policy side,” Chrisinger said. “I was working for the Government Accountability Office and with the Veterans Administration.”
He said he also started working with a few non-profit organizations that used writing as a therapy tool for returning veterans.
“I started a project with a good friend of mine who served in the Marine Corps, Brett Foley,” he said. “We went to high school together.”
Foley, with a deployment to Iraq and another to Afghanistan during his time in the Marines, is one of the veterans with an essay in “See Me For Who I Am.”
“He came back in 2010 and was having a tough time initially,” Chrisinger said.
The project began when Foley would tell Chrisinger his story.
“We started a website as a place for other folks to tell their story,” he said. “We got a pretty good following going and decided to do a 50-mile ultra-marathon to raise money for a group called ‘The Mission Continues,’ an amazing non-profit group that puts veterans in leadership positions in their communities.”
They ran the marathon in October 2013, and soon after, Chrisinger said the university approached him about putting together a course geared toward veterans.
“It would incorporate some of the wellness and writing as a reintegration tool,” he said. “I’ve been doing that for the past two years.”
When he first began teaching the class, Chrisinger said he was really nervous about it.
“I was worried the students wouldn’t take me seriously,” he said. “Being a civilian, I thought they’d be like ‘Oh, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ So, I approached it not as ‘I’m going to teach you to transition.’ I’ve never claimed to teach anybody to transition.”
Instead, Chrisinger said it’s really a college success class.
“The things that are going to make them successful in college are the reflective writing, figuring out their story, connecting with each other, that sort of thing,” he said. “The class is really about giving the students the opportunity to figure things out, give them a sort of buffer zone. They build a group of friends they can go through the ranks with hopefully.”
Chrisinger said once the students feel comfortable with each other, and they’ve figured out their story, ways are found to connect them to the university as whole.
“The essays they were writing in class were so good,” Chrisinger said. “I felt it wasn’t fair that only I get to read these. I felt they really had important points to make that I thought other civilians should be aware of.”
He put together 20 of his students who wanted to submit something to put in a book.
“I approached a publisher at 3 p.m. on a Friday,” Chrisinger said. “At 3:30, I received an email from them saying ‘Yeah, we’re on board. Let’s do this!’ That was about a year ago.”
The book “See Me For Who I Am” was released in February of this year.
“The whole gist is, if you could tell civilians a story about yourself, about what it means to be in the military, what it means to serve, what would you tell?” Chrisinger said. “That’s the collection. What’s funny is when a veteran reads the collection, they say ‘Oh, I can totally relate to so-and-so.’ Or ‘I had an experience very similar to so-and-so’ A lot of familiarity.”
On the other hand, he said when a civilian reads it, the reaction is, as one would imagine, different.
“They’ll say things like ‘I had no idea it was like this’ or ‘I never thought about it that way,'” Chrisinger said. “So, I think it’s helping in creating a dialogue between these two groups that don’t always talk.”
He said the “civilian-military divide” is very pronounced on college campuses.
“This is a way to help each other and then connect with their professors and other students,” Chrisinger said.
He described the success of the book as “tremendous.”
“The publisher thought we might sell a thousand or two thousand in the first year,” Chrisinger said. “So, we added an additional print run of 1,000 and we sold out in six weeks. I don’t know if we hit the market at the right time or of people are just thirsting for these stories. It’s gotten a really nice reception.”
That reception has included faculty at other universities.
“I think they want to do right by their student veterans but don’t always know what that right thing is,” Chrisinger said. “They might use it as a guideline or a learning tool because there are all these stereotypes of veterans that if all you do is watch the news and you don’t actually know someone who served, it’s really hard to tell how common things like post- traumatic stress are.”
Certainly, he said, there are those who do struggle.
“People will ask ‘How badly?’ and ‘What can I do to help?'” Chrisinger said. “Or they’ll realize there are people who aren’t struggling and wonder what’s going on there.”
“I always talk about the three stereotypes – the downtrodden, broken vet,” Chrisinger said. “There’s the ‘hero,’ right? The one who can jump over tall buildings. And then there’s this ticking time bomb, the Rambo sort of stereotype. I’ve taught two years, I’ve had 80 students and I don’t have any Medal of Honor recipients, I don’t have any that are going to fly off the handle and bring a gun to school, I don’t have any downtrodden, ‘pity me’ types. I don’t have any of those students.”
He said because of that, there’s clearly a disconnect in what many hear about veterans and what’s actually going on.
“That’s what the book is trying to address,” Chrisinger said. “Here’s what’s going on with these students and here’s what they want you to know.”
He said his oldest student to this point was in his mid-30s and the youngest was right out of the service at around 22 or 23 years of age.
“Most are in that 25 to 26 year old age range,” Chrisinger said. “They did four to six years in the service and got out, maybe took a break, maybe tried another place, it didn’t work out and now they’re here. It’s really geared to the students who are new to higher education so we try to get folks in there who have fewer than 30 credits.”
Despite the successes, the future of the Chrisinger’s course at UWSP isn’t a sure thing.
It will continue during the fall semester this year.
“After that, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the budget,” Chrisinger said. “This class is a first year seminar program and that program has been slated to eventually be cut if the budget doesn’t improve but we’re exploring a couple different options so we could still fund it. We’ve been talking to a couple of non-profit groups who might decide to fund it.”
He said the hard part, though, is figuring where the class fits in the degree structure for a student.
“To get your GI Bill benefits to pay for it, accredited courses have to be part of your plan,” Chrisinger said. “The course has to somehow fit into a requirement and we haven’t quite figured that out.”
Regardless, he said he’s committed for the long haul.
“I’m not going down without a fight,” Chrisinger said. “I’ve seen what a class like this can be for folks so, they’re going to have to drag me out of there if it’s decided to cut it.”
Peter Molin, May 1, 2016
It’s been hard not to notice the recent flurry of writing and art by Wisconsin veterans.
Matthew J. Hefti’s novel A Hard and Heavy Thing, about two childhood friends from Wisconsin tested by battle in Iraq, arrived in January of this year. Kyle Larkin’s short stories “Minarets,” originally published on the Military Experience and the Arts website, and “The Night Before Christmas,” which I have read in manuscript, are two of the best war stories set in-country and focused on the experience of infantrymen I’ve read lately. Just last week, Larkin published a provocative essay on Military Experience and the Arts titled “Post Traumatic Narrative Disorder,” in which he argues that frustration, confusion, and ambivalence, not trauma, might better serve as the defining characteristic of veteran-redeployment stories. David Chrisinger, a veterans program administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, has published an eloquent collection of veteran-student narratives titled See Me For Who I Am: Stories of War and Coming Home and Chrisinger also keeps an affiliated website, also remarkable, called Stronger at the Broken Places: Student Veterans and the Long Walk Home from War. Singer-songwriter Jason Moon has been around longer—I first posted his excellent return-from-war lament “Trying to Find My Way Home” a couple of years ago—but I’ve only recently become acquainted with his organization Warrior Songs, which promotes music by and about veterans, and a recent radio interview sparkled with insights about his own struggle with PTSD and his efforts to help others so afflicted.
Chrisinger is not a veteran, but the works of the other Wisconsin residents I’ve named are born of extensive military experience. Hefti deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan as an Explosives Ordnance Disposal technician, while Larkin and Moon deployed to Iraq as an infantryman and combat engineer, respectively, in the Wisconsin National Guard. Taken together, the Wisconsin warrior artists are mostly interested in the earthy world of fighting men and the crucible of combat, though the narratives collected by Chrisinger represent a broader range of service and viewpoints. Further judging from their work and comments, it appears, sadly, that war and deployment mostly stunned them and then sent them stumbling for years afterwards. A feeling of pride persists, though, an attitude that may be roughly summarized as, “Whatever else you might say, we answered the call, and now it’s our right or obligation to bear witness.” The perceptive Brian Castner, in his forward to See Me For Who I Am, writes that the veteran students anthologized there-in sometimes seem to wear “a sense of superiority on their sleeve,” and then immediately recalibrates the impression to note the authors’ honesty: “’Here are my warts, they say,where are yours?’” All the writing that I’ve seen, both fiction and memoir, also emits a strong sense of Wisconsin place: a tight-knit homogenous culture organized around loyalty to family and community and other sturdy, sensible values, but one in which residents cope with oppressive expectations by drinking heavily and lashing out at ones they love most. “Trying to find my way home,” indeed….
All these sentiments are on display in Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing. The novel’s two protagonists, Levi and Nick, come-of-age in a small town near LaCrosse, where they are the singer and guitar player, respectively, in a popular punk band. Levi is coarse and Nick is sensitive, but both are well on their way to alienation, misanthropy, and alcoholism even before joining the Army in the wake of 9/11. Service in the active Army and then the Guard brings them a few years later to Iraq, where Nick’s truck is blasted by an IED that kills the other occupants and leaves Nick badly injured and pinned inside the wreckage. Levi rescues his friend and then fights off an insurgent counterattack, for which he is awarded a Silver Star. Levi holds himself responsible for the events leading to the IED strike, however, and thus the award he receives feels more like an albatross around his neck than a decoration. Several years later, Levi returns to Wisconsin, and now out of the Army, moves in with Nick and his wife Eris, a cool hometown beauty with trauma issues of her own. Nick, dealing with his wounds, and Eris, trying to stay sober, have crafted lives of rigid conformity and routine to keep themselves straight, at the cost of any youthful promise and happiness. The arrival of Levi, hell-bent on self-destruction and pining for Eris, who has repressed feelings for him, too, quickly undoes the fragile stability.
Much is of interest in A Hard and Heavy Thing. I found the battle scene, for example, exciting, especially since it reflected aspects of my own experience of being trapped in a truck rocked by explosion with casualties onboard. There’s not much of LaCrosse as a social milieu or the Army as a culture, but what Hefti portrays of LaCrosse’s townie bars and family folkways and Regular Army and National Guard distinctiveness intrigues. The novel is narrated in third-person, primarily through Levi’s point-of-view, and a series of bracketed asides reveal that the narrative’s author is Levi himself and the third-person story is an amalgamated love song to Nick/suicide note-mea culpa (adding to the literary razzle-dazzle is a minor character named Matthew Hefti). In neither the main narrative nor the bracketed asides, however, is Levi particularly subtle about what ails him nor observant about the world around him, in part because, by his own telling, he drinks heavily and continuously in the years after his discharge.
In two key aspects of his story, Levi doesn’t just recount his life’s struggle through the fog of alcohol, but is evasive and even disingenuous. Specifically, he is coy about revealing whether he really tried to commit suicide while in the Army (the perception that he did being the cause of his discharge) and whether, at novel’s end, he attempts to seduce or actually does seduce Eris. The ambiguous bedroom scene comes at the end of a long day in which Levi gets drunk with his father and berates him for being a stupid jerk (he’s already grievously insulted his mom and sister), gets even more drunk with Nick and brawls with him in a park, and then arrives at Nick’s house and gets Eris drunk, too. Though everyone he meets tells him he needs help, Levi doesn’t hold himself very accountable for his malaise or the turmoil he causes, even as his narrative constitutes a plea for understanding and forgiveness. Why should he? Lead singer of a popular band, the recipient of a Silver Star, the object of desire of the prettiest woman in town, he’s got what every guy wishes he had.
We’re meant to understand that these accomplishments don’t mean much to Levi, but an equally dominant impression is that they fuel his self-image as an iconoclastic rogue whose boorish behavior serves as a catalyst for making less honest people own up to truths they’d rather not face. Not especially curious or sympathetic about others, or even very forthright himself, Levi wields his disdain for people, places, and events like a badge of honor. In other words, his “sense of superiority” is in full-on collision with openness about his “warts,” and it’s not just for his family and friends that he’s a handful. Somewhere beyond a hot mess and trouble-with-a-capital-T, Levi’s tough to deal with for readers, too, who are going to have to decide whether they love him or hate him. The same is true of the very aptly titled A Hard and Heavy Thing as a whole. Does it reinstantiate the rapidly coalescing “trauma hero” motif in contemporary war literature, or is it a compelling, realistic, and self-aware narrative about young men who go to war and the damage that ensues? That’s a go-to question important, ethically and aesthetically, not just in Wisconsin, but everywhere, though more sharply defined by Badger State veteran writers and artists than elsewhere.
Matthew J. Hefti, A Hard and Heavy Thing. Tyrus Books, 2016.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Rebecca Forbes, March 3, 2016
In a compelling new collection, See Me For Who I Am, student veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point share their experiences both in combat and back home. Edited by their professor David Chrisinger, the collection allows these veterans to highlight issues like the lessons learned in exploring the history of transition and the realities of being acknowledged as a veteran no matter one’s gender. We spoke with Chrisinger via email about the group’s journey to publication.
How did this collection come about?
This collection came about out of necessity. During the first semester of my veteran reintegration course at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the students confided in me that it was incredibly frustrating to be misunderstood by the civilians they fought to protect. They were concerned that people back home didn’t care to know about them–or didn’t know how to talk to them. They were also deeply troubled by some of the stereotypes that often dominate the 24-hour news cycle: the hero on a pedestal, the downtrodden, pitiable veteran and the ticking time bomb.
That’s when I decided to challenge the students to write their stories, to tell me who they were and what they wanted me to know about serving in the military and coming home from war. Once the essays started rolling in, I realized we had something special. I shared a couple of the essays with some author friends of mine, and they each encouraged me to pitch a collection of the essays to a publisher. I found Hudson Whitman, again through a friend, and sent them an email describing what we were working on. Within an hour, they emailed me back and said they had been looking for a project like ours.
Were your students able to reflect on their experiences writing their stories as they were crafting them or after the book came together? Did this project help them better understand and appreciate one another’s service?
In class we talked a lot about the power of storytelling to not only help the storyteller make sense of the story, but also connect the teller to the listener. We talked about reframing traumatic experiences and to focus on growth. Also, we spoke about narrative identity theory and how those who tell redemptive stories about themselves are also mentally healthier than those who tell stories of failure and regret. We discussed the difference between confessing and confiding. When someone confesses, they spill their guts to someone who simply cannot redeem or forgive them. When someone confides in another person, conversely, they don’t seek forgiveness. Instead they simply say, “This is who I am. Who are you?” Confessions can make the listener feel uncomfortable. The exchange is often awkward. Confidences connect the teller and listener by exposing their shared humanity.
In our book, Chase Vuchetich writes about losing his best friend in Afghanistan to an IED. I’ve never been in combat, and I’ve never had to search for my best friend’s body, hoping that the enemy doesn’t drag him away. But Chase tells his story in such a way that anyone who has ever lost someone they are close to can relate. That’s the power of good storytelling.
Some of the contributors have told me that writing their stories has helped them make sense of their experiences. Some have told me that their stories’ power has been diminished because they put it on paper, gave it dimensions and worked through the details. Instead of constantly rattling around in their heads, their stories are in a book that sits on a shelf. There’s something powerful about that. I’ve also heard that these stories have helped the students reconnect with their parents and significant others. Some of these stories are not easy to talk about with loved ones. Now the students can hand that loved one a book and say, “Here. Read this. This will tell you everything you need to know.”
Did being by and about student veterans imbue the collection with a particular import, whether for you or your students? What have you heard from readers?
Readers from all backgrounds, veteran and civilian, combat arms and non-combat arms, male and female, have responded positively to our collection. I’ve been told that the book makes people cry and then laugh and then think differently about the amazing men and women who serve in the United States military. The veterans who have read this book and shared their thoughts with me have related to a least one of the stories, which goes a long way to convincing folks that they are not alone. Recently, I was tagged in a Facebook post where a veteran who came to our book launch said, “If you are a transitioning veteran, you need to read this book. It will help you understand things about yourself that you may not have otherwise, and it will also help you see that you are not alone in feeling the feelings that you are feeling. I highly recommend it.”
As for civilian readers, I routinely hear about how they had no idea about this or about that. I hear people talk about Ross Petersen’s essay about helping in recovery efforts after the Fukushima nuclear power plant melted down in Japan. Civilians forget sometimes that our military does a lot more than fight terrorists in the Middle East. Above all else, anyone who reads this collection will be struck by the fact that each veteran is as varied as humanity itself, that regardless of background, we’re all in this together.
Emma Fulcher, February 29, 2016
Veteran support programs on campuses nationwide are becoming better integrated in all areas—academics, administrative, career planning, mental health and disability, and social support services, says retired U.S. Navy captain Barton Buechner, Ph.D., an expert on student veteran transitions who teaches in the M.A. in Psychology: Specialization in Military Psychology program at Adler University.
Dr. Buechner, a representative of the Veterans Knowledge Community, recently participated in the National Symposium on Military-Connected Students, which focused on higher-education issues for veterans, National Guard members, reserves, and active-duty personnel. The symposium was the seventh held to address the needs of the more than 2 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who use the Post-9/11 GI Bill to further their education.
We spoke with Dr. Buechner about key takeaways from the symposium, why he is excited that this often-overlooked student demographic is getting attention, and how the Specialization in Military Psychology program at Adler helps provide insights into student veterans. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
What Were the Big Takeaways from the Symposium?
It was exciting to see the progress schools are making in developing integrated programs that engage all aspects of the campus—including student affairs, academics, career services, research, and community resources. There have been concerns that the excitement around support systems for student veterans in higher education will eventually wear off. More schools are realizing this is a student population that brings something unique, and they’re paying more attention to it.
This year, a larger percentage of attendees were not veterans, which seems to be an emerging trend. This could help dispel the myth that it takes a veteran to do this work. Certain elements of faculty are realizing how veterans bring a new dimension to the classroom, both in discussions and in the subjects being taught.
Two of the most popular workshops focused on helping veterans to tell their stories. This is important in ways that are just now being understood. Veterans can gain a lot from higher education, but they also have much to contribute—from their experiences, values, and broadened worldview. All in all, it’s obvious that more preparation and training on military and veteran culture and experiences will be needed.
What Are Military-Connected Students?
The name up to this point has been “student veterans,” but the latest term we’re using is “military-connected students,” which makes a good distinction.
This change expands to address the understanding that:
- First, there are students still serving in the military, so they’re not veterans—they’re still service members.
- Second, there are family members of veterans who are students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, so they are military-connected.
The term “military-connected” serves as a much broader net that encompasses all students who are associated with the military.
What Are Veterans in Transition?
We usually think of transition for veterans as a process by which they adapt to leaving the military, in which they were part of a strongly imprinted group identity, and become an individual civilian again. This is only part of the story, and possibly why even the most well-designed and well-attended transition assistance programs are considered ineffective or a waste of time by most veterans leaving the service.
Thinking of transition as just hanging up the uniform and going out on your own can be an exercise in frustration.
The reality is military-connected students have to discover a new group identity, drawing upon and integrating what they learned in service. Thinking of transition as just hanging up the uniform and going out on your own can be an exercise in frustration. This is where mentors play a critical role.
What Are Student Veterans’ Unique Requirements?
The first need is a social connection on campus, where these students feel as though they have a place, where they feel comfortable enough to branch out and broaden their interests.
Another big, and more obvious, aspect is security: financially and emotionally. If someone isn’t advocating for these students, then nothing else is going to be good. Most military-connected students are worried about other people in their family, besides themselves.
A good mentor can guide students toward opportunities for personal reflection and self-development. Without a good mentor, no one will tell them how important this is.
Why Should Faculty Learn about Communication and Cultural Competency?
Communication is a blind spot for many veterans. The military has its own ways of communicating, which are often direct and shortened. Meaning is carried in shared symbology, and much of what is communicated is unspoken. Many of these conventions simply don’t exist outside of the service, or take different forms that are not recognizable. Veterans have to learn a form of cultural competency or intercultural dexterity that many veteran students don’t think they need, but they really do.
Since few academics have direct experience with the military, they are likely to have many misperceptions about veterans. They could misinterpret the comments and actions of some veterans as disrespectful or even threatening. This can be a major barrier to the education process.
David Chrisinger, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, made this point very effectively in his workshop on writing for veterans. Those who get their impression of veterans solely from the media and movies tend to see veterans in one of three categories:
- Heroes to be put on a pedestal
- Damaged or troubled, and needing our help and sympathy
- Ticking time bombs that should be feared
The truth is more complex than that. For the most part, veterans do not want to be put in any of these categories; they simply want to be listened to and accepted for who they are, flaws and all, as complete human beings.
Perhaps the greatest value teachers, caregivers, and community leaders can provide by becoming culturally competent with respect to veterans, is the ability to listen to their stories without personal judgment, to understand the important lessons about humanity that they can share with us. When we are open to this, we create safe spaces where we can all grow together.
What Are New Developments in Veteran Support Programs?
Schools across the country are becoming more aware that veteran support entails more than just having a veterans support office, veterans lounge, or having the ability to check veteran-friendly campus on a government-provided checklist. The ways to support veterans are expanding. Faculty awareness is rising, and professors are more aware of the valuable perspectives these students bring to their classes. Schools overall are working on how they include and welcome veteran students, and acknowledging the specific values and principles of veteran culture.
Corporate partners and career services are starting to emerge on campuses, targeting veteran students specifically. Companies that are interested in hiring more veterans are engaging with them early on, and helping students make strategic use of their education to best prepare them for their future.
What Are Examples of Partnerships with Off-Campus Community Organizations and Employers?
Part of the movement toward integration of student veteran support programs on campus is to include career services offices, which in turn have relationships with corporations who recruit on campus.
The development in this area is towards creating early connections for veterans with prospective employers through internships and informal information sessions. This helps veterans find mentors who can guide and motivate them towards future roles in various industries, which may include other veterans who have already made the transition.
Some specific cases:
- At the University of Connecticut, Travelers Insurance has been particularly proactive in recruiting veterans. Many employers have extended their recruitment efforts to the campus.
- At a community college in New York, the veteran resources director has joined the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) as a volunteer, and includes campus staff, faculty, and military-connected students in state ESGR employer awareness events.
- At Texas A&M University, USAA insurance, a financial services and insurance company that serves the military market, offers a financial award and recognition to faculty who are particularly supportive of military students.
How Are Female Veterans Supported on Campus, and How Does It Differ from Male Veterans?
The first part of this is understanding the unique experience women veterans have in the service. They have been a part of one of the last traditionally all-male institutions to integrate women. Working and serving in a predominantly male environment could indicate why women veterans struggle with serious identity issues. Often, many women veterans feel the effects of “the invisible barrier” from the prior restrictions against women being in combat roles.
Civilian awareness of women veterans is likewise low, and they can easily be overlooked by campus staff. On top of that, the issue of sexual assault remains extremely difficult for victims to talk about, and can exist as an unresolved psychological and social barrier for those who have experienced it.
One way that this plays out on campus is that veteran support centers can often end up being male-oriented, and not inviting or welcoming to women. Early research in the experience of veterans in higher education has not included much on women veterans.
What Advice Do You Have for Schools Who Are Struggling to Set up Veteran Support Programs?
First, schools don’t have to do this alone. Professional associations and their conferences are a good way to connect and learn from what others are doing, and tap into national resources and knowledge.
David Vacchi, national chair of the NASPA Veterans Knowledge Community for the past two years, and the director of Veterans Services at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says, “Most campuses are still supporting student veterans with a single staff member, or just a part-time staff member, but it is never too late to begin programming and support of the successful college experiences of student veterans.”
David is also a strong believer in employing nonveterans to work for campus veterans services offices. This is where Adler’s Military Psychology program can make a significant impact by helping to give nonveterans deep insights into military cultural competency.
“There simply are not enough veterans in higher education to support a veteran-only paradigm for running veterans services, and the skills and connections of existing campus staff members make them equally qualified to support the success of veterans on campus,” according to David Vacchi.
Can Research Provide a Better Understanding of Student Veterans?
Campus-centered student veteran research programs are a fairly new phenomenon, so examples are just now emerging. As is the case with most veteran-related campus initiatives, these efforts are driven by a small number of committed individuals who sought out grant funding and built a program. These centers look at ways to improve degree completion for military-connected students on a local and national level.
One area that could be further expanded is in the coordination and support of high-quality, veteran-led research. Some of the thesis capstone projects we are seeing emerge from Adler’s Military Psychology program are quite promising. Three of our first seven graduates have applied to Ph.D. programs to continue their research focus.
Students are gravitating toward forms of action research around social issues they care deeply about, and also are bringing a perspective of the positive and strength-based aspects of service culture. Topics include:
- The role of campus involvement on the success of student veterans
- Recognizing the differences between moral injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Adaptation from dependence upon military structure in the transition process
- Transformative effects of the presence of women in the combat environment
- Alternatives for post-combat transition using mindfulness, somatics, and positive psychology
- Therapeutic value of agriculture environments
- Equine- and canine-assisted programs, and use of aquatics in post-combat desensitization
Increasing participation by veterans to shape and inform research on their experience is vital for many reasons. Most importantly, it puts the focus of the research on what is significant to veterans, not someone else’s research agenda. The reason for researching should lead to a better understanding of how to best learn from the experiences of veterans. They have a story to tell, and their research will help to tell it in a scholarly and credible way.
February 19, 2016
With humor, honesty, and thoughtfulness, See Me For Who I Am: Student Veterans’ Stories of War and Coming Home confronts civilian perceptions of the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran community. The collection offers powerful stories from 20 young student veterans trying to help bridge the gap that separates them from the American people they fought to protect.
Edited by David Chrisinger, an instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, the book is based on a course he teaches “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life.” The unique course, featured in USA Today College in November 2014, helps new student veterans create a support network and learn skills necessary for college success.
Written for both veterans and civilians, See Me For Who I Am illustrates servicemembers’ shared experiences, explains the fulfillment of combat, and describes what going to war really entails. Their stories challenge stereotypes and helps to create dimensionality beyond news headlines of veterans as “heroes” or “monsters.”
Inspired and enlightened by his students’ passion and perspective, Chrisinger developed the book not only for veteran students looking for an outlet to share their own stories with those who may struggle to understand, but also for civilians as a “glimpse behind the curtain.”
Veterans have historically been an underrepresented population in higher education. While education benefits have increased in recent years, military and veteran students continue to face unique challenges. Higher education has looked to solve these different challenges through a variety of means, including but not limited to: specialized advising services; training staff and faculty on military and veteran issues; increased mentorship opportunities; appropriate use of language & culture recognition; and broadening the acceptance of transfer credit.
“They [student/veterans] care deeply about ‘accomplishing the mission’ and approaching problems from a pragmatic and intelligent perspective,” Chrisinger explains. “They don’t shy away from pain or discomfort, and when things get hard, they seem to get tougher… They may not have known exactly what they were in for when they enlisted, but they did so because they wanted to be a part of something and to serve a purpose.”
According to Chrisinger, “These writers didn’t spill their guts. They ripped open their shirts and said, ‘This is me. This is who I am. Who are you?’”
Red Bull Rising
Charlie Sherpa, February 17, 2016
David Chrisinger is a mil-blogger, veterans-issues activist, and creator of a military-to-civilian reintegration course, “Back from the Front,” at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Related to the latter effort, Chrisinger helped produce and publish an anthology of student essays. The 150-page trade paperback, “See Me for Who I Am: Student Veterans’ Stories of War and Coming Home” was released earlier this week. It is also available as an Amazon Kindle e-book.
The book collects approximately 20 veterans’ stories, written in various voices and styles. While a few aspire to literary gymnastics or even melodrama, most achieve a conversational and approachable tone—perfect for exposing civilian readers to veterans’ insights, without risk of scaring them off.
The content is bookended by some big guns. There is a foreword written by Brian Castner, author of 2012’s “The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows” and the upcoming “All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer.” And there is an afterword by Matthew J. Hefti, author of the 2016 Afghan War novel “A Hard And Heavy Thing”. It is Hefti who writes:
The uncultivated nature of this book is exactly what makes it required reading; that rawness is what sets this book apart from others on the same topic. These college freshmen—often older and worldlier than their peers—are walking straight off the battlefield with the dust still trailing off their boots, the blood still speckling their uniforms, and the gun smoke still stinging their nostrils. There is no irony here; See Me for Who I Am is real talk.The real talk here, admittedly, is from a relatively homogenous cohort of student veterans. An informal sampling of writers’ biographies reveals that these are Midwesterners—most grew up in Wisconsin or graduated from high school there. Declared majors cluster around the strengths of the institution in which they are enrolled: business and information technology, medicine and health, forestry management. Most are male narrators, but there are a few female voices present. While this may accurately reflect the composition of Chrisinger’s reintegration classes, it does point to possibilities for future explorations.
The book illuminates, after all, the types of conversations possible on any campus of learning, if professors and fellow students were to approach incoming student-veterans with open minds and open ears. It would be exciting to see other student bodies, faculties, and administrations adopt “See Me for Who I Am” as the catalyst for initial engagement, then move toward generating and collecting other narratives on their own campuses.
Read “See Me for Who I Am.” Then, look more locally. Seek out more stories. And start talking.
Michael Schnell, February 8, 2016
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.
Stevens Point Journal
February 4, 2016
A book of essays by veterans who are University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point students is about to be published.
“See Me for Who I Am” includes essays by 20 student-veterans at UW-Stevens Point, aimed at undermining stereotypes of military service. “See Me for Who I Am: Student Veterans’ Stories of War and Coming Home” works to bridge a gap that divides veterans from the American people they fought to protect.
A book launch party will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 17 in the Encore Room of the Dreyfus University Center. Sponsored by the Veterans Club, it is open to the public. Several authors will read excerpts from their essays and be available to sign books.
The book is compilation of essays written for a UW-Stevens Point class developed by David Chrisinger. The UW-Stevens Point alumnus began teaching “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life” in fall 2014 as a first-year seminar. The class was open only to veterans, one of few classes like it in the country. First-year seminars help new students learn the skills they need to do well in college.
Chrisinger helped students transition by learning the history of war, running and writing about their experiences. Inspired by veteran Brian Castner, author of “The Long Walk,” members of the class learn to translate military skills to those needed to succeed in life.
Chrisinger originally planned to self-publish the collection as a fundraiser to keep the class going. When he asked author Castner to read the essays and write a foreword for it, Castner said the essays were good enough to be published professionally.
“I started researching university presses that specialize in military-related topics, and I found Hudson Whitman Press out of Albany, New York. I submitted the manuscript last spring, and the editor emailed me back within an hour,” Chrisinger said. The press had been looking for a project like this.
Students’ essays from the first two semesters of “Back from the Front” seminar are in the book, edited by Chrisinger. “With thoughtfulness, humor and honesty, they relive and relate their worst memories, illustrate shared experiences, explain the fulfillment of combat, and show us what going to war really entails,” he writes in the introduction.
“This is as authentic as it gets. These essays reflect the eloquent, powerful voice of the 21st-century American combat veterans’ collective efforts to navigate their way back into a society that offers gratitude and respect, but lacks empathy and understanding,” writes David J. Danelo, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and author of “The Return: A Field Manual for Life after Combat.”
The book will be available at the launch, in the UW-Stevens Point Store and through Amazon on Feb. 15. For more, visit http://hudsonwhitman.com/books/see-me-for-who-i-am/.
December 14, 2015
A Rhinelander high school graduate credits a conversation with ultimately convincing him to help veterans when they come home from the service.
David Chrisinger was up late one night in 2010 when he decided to reconnect with Brett Foley, who had come home from Afghanistan. Foley opened up about his struggles. That conversation led Chrisinger to start a website and organize fundraisers designed to help veterans. He also began writing a blog called Stronger at the Broken Places.
“[The blog’s title] comes from a Hemingway quote: ‘The world breaks everyone, and some are stronger at the broken places,’ so that was the whole focus of the class,” Chrisinger said.
That class is called Back from the Front. Chrisinger is in his second year of teaching veterans at UW- Stevens Point. He helps them transition from the military to society and into college life.
“The important thing is validating those experiences and listening and giving them an outlet to vent if they need to, to build relationships, to create friendships,” he said.
Tyler Pozolinski and Chase Vuchetich are two students who have grown during their time in the class. When Pozolinski came to school at UWSP after his time in the service, he wouldn’t tell people that he was a 23-year-old freshman. Now he’s proud to say he’s a veteran.
“I have no problem telling people, ‘This is who I am; this is what I’ve done,” said Pozolinski.
Vuchetich was hesitant to open up to other veterans on campus. Now, thanks to Back from the Front, that isn’t the case anymore.
“You kind of start talking,” Vuchetich said. “‘Hey, you want to go have a beer after class?’ ‘Yeah, sure,’—and then, before you know it, you’ve got a really good group of guys and we hang out all the time now.”
Pozolinski and Vuchetich will be published in Chrisinger’s new book, titled See Me for Who I Am. The book collects 20 essays written by soldiers. The essays detail their experiences both on and off the battlefield. Pozolinski tells the readers about the lessons he learned from a recurring nightmare.
“After a while the dream started to go away, and I started to figure out what the dream meant was that nobody could help me fight my battles or beat my demons but myself,” he said.
Vuchetich’s essay is about how his parents and high school coaches prepared him for the Marines.”[I] remember going to Marine Corps boot camp being like ‘That was a breeze compared to football practice,” he said
The book will be out in February. You can read more about the book and preorder a copy by visiting the links below.
The Stevens Point Journal
November 9, 2015
November 6, 2015
Student-Veterans at U-W Stevens Point are cutting up their old uniforms as a way to write about their experiences.
It is part of their class called “back from the front,” which helps them transition from military life back to civilian life.
The students will make “combat paper” as they call it from the shredded uniforms.
“They spent a lot of time in the uniforms and the uniform can represent who they were when they were in the military and now they are someone different,” said associate lector David Chrisinger.
The cut-up uniforms will go into a paper-making machine. Then the vets will write about what it has been like for them to transition from the military to life as a college student.
The Stevens Point Journal
November 6, 2015
“Angry, violent and dangerous are some of the adjectives that are commonly used to describe veterans. I wish I could say they were wrong, but they’re not – at least not completely. … I was a combat engineer in the Army, and without those attributes, I might not be here today.”
So begins an essay by Aaron Lewis, who served as a combat engineer in the U.S. Army. He is among student-veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point whose essays are about to be published in a book, “See Me for Who I Am.”
The journey from veteran to author is a compelling story in itself.
In fall 2014, David Chrisinger began teaching “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life” at UW-Stevens Point. First-year seminars on a host of topics help new students learn the skills they need to do well in college. This one was open only to veterans, one of few classes like it in the country.
Chrisinger, a UW-Stevens Point graduate who developed the class, helps his students transition by learning history, running and writing about their experiences. Inspired by veteran Brian Castner, author of “The Long Walk,” members of the class learn to translate military skills to those needed to succeed in life.
“When David talked about the way writing can help, I thought, ‘Yeah, right,’” Lewis said. “But it worked.”
For Lewis, that became a 30-page chronicle of his late teen years, joining the Army at age 21 to pay for college. He learned how to arm and disarm lands mines and to detect minute details in an ever-changing foreign landscape. Deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, his job was route clearance – detecting improvised explosive devices (IED).
Just one IED hit his vehicle – and the explosion changed his life. His level of terror made him super-aware, and always on edge. He became angry, violent, frustrated and guilty that his only comfort was terrifying someone else.
Discharged in 2009, anger became his baggage. Two years later, Lewis was on the edge of committing suicide. “The good thing about hitting rock bottom is the only way to go is up,” he said.
He enrolled at UW-Stevens Point in the fall of 2014. Discipline and planning honed in the military has helped in college. He achieved a 3.97 grade point average his first semester. Now 30, Lewis, is majoring in accounting and plans to marry fianceé Jennifer Barlow next summer.
“My life has really turned around. I’m very happy with where I’m going,” Lewis said
Writing his essay for class helped Lewis let go of hate and anger and put it in the past.
“I realized my strengths, things I’ve had to overcome that made me who I am,” Lewis said. “Putting it on paper, I have my peace. It’s just a story now. I feel like I have a fresh start in a whole new story.”
The thought of being published “is kind of terrifying,” Lewis said. He’s shared personal thoughts and challenges, which he hopes will help veterans going through similar experiences and help civilians understand more about those who serve.
Chrisinger originally planned to self-publish the collection as a fundraiser to keep the class going. When he asked author and veteran Castner to read the essays and write a foreword for it, Castner said the essays were good enough to be published professionally.
“I started researching university presses that specialize in military-related topics, and I found Hudson Whitman Press out of Albany, New York. I submitted the manuscript last spring, and the editor emailed me back within an hour,” Chrisinger said.
The press had been looking for a project like this.
The 20 essays are by students in two semesters of the “Back from the Front” seminar. Several stories inspired prints by UW-Stevens Point student artists as part of a Veteran Print Project in spring 2015. The images will be featured in the book and website, http://hudsonwhitman.com/books/see-me-for-who-i-am.
“See Me for Who I Am” aims to undermine stereotypes of military service. “With thoughtfulness, humor and honesty, they relive and relate their worst memories, illustrate shared experiences, explain the fulfillment of combat, and show us what going to war really entails,” Chrisinger writes in the introduction.
The book will be published Feb. 15, 2016.
The Pointer, Mary Knight
September 8, 2015
The Carlsten Art Gallery is displaying The Veteran Print Project, a collaborative exhibit between University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point student artists and veterans.
Art students from professor Robert Erickson’s spring printmaking class worked with veterans from the First-Year Seminar “Back from the Front: Transition from the Military to Civilian Life” to create pieces for the exhibit.
“It’s a conversation both for the veterans, where they can have their stories be told, but it is also for the art students because many of them, while they may know some veterans, have never actually talked to a veteran about their experiences,” Erickson said.
The FYS course, taught by assistant history lecturer David Chrisinger, is specifically for veterans and focuses on helping acclimate them to campus life and be successful in college. Chrisinger said he had the idea to have students work with artists early on.
“I approached Professor Erickson over winter break last year with this idea, and he was on board right away,” Chrisinger said.
The Veteran Print Project is a Wisconsin-based organization founded by veteran Yvette Pino. Chrisinger met her three years ago and was inspired by the organization. Once he began teaching the course, he thought it was a great opportunity to incorporate The Veteran Print Project at UWSP.
Each veteran from the class was paired with an art student whom they exchanged stories of their time in the military. The printmaking students then recreated the stories in each design they made.
“They were not only testifying to their story but bearing witness to it. There’s something very profound about having experiences filtered through someone else’s lens,” Chrisinger said.
The collaboration is beneficial for the student artists and veterans, Chrisinger said, by making the veterans feel a sense of belonging on campus and giving the artists a new perspective on military life.
“It was a very interesting project for me to do. I found that once I applied my method of printmaking to the story, the image unfolded,” said Emily Kuchenbecker, printmaking student.
The Veteran Print Project has been on display throughout the summer and will continue to be until Sept. 14. A closing reception for the exhibit will take place the same day at 4 p.m. and is open to the public.
“I think one of the more rewarding ideas is to see the art students grow. To see them grow like that and to understand something, is incredibly rewarding. It just broadened their world,” Erickson said.
The Carlsten Gallery, located inside the Noel Fine Arts Center, is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 1-4 p.m. Prints are also on display in the Kenosha Public Museum and Edgewood College in Madison.
With the help of art students, Chrisinger continues work with vets
The Northwoods River News, Andy Hildebrand
May 28, 2015
When Rhinelander native DavidChrisinger began his work with veterans in 2013, his goal was simple. He wanted to help his boyhood friend Brett Foley transition from the military back to civilian life. At first that took the form of late-night emails and phone calls, simple conversations. Over time, as he read more and more about the immense challenge returning home can be for veterans, Chrisinger began to see his own family history, most notably his grandfather, through a new light.
Two years, a 50-mile run and countless hours of research and fundraising later, Chrisinger is more dedicated than ever to the cause.
He teaches a class at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point geared toward helping veterans adjust to college. Chrisinger considered the class’s first semester, which took place last fall, a huge success. Entering the spring semester, he knew he wanted to add an extra piece to his class that would help tie it all together. That’s when an idea struck.
“I met Yvette Pino, the founder of the Veteran Print Project, when Brett Foley and I were fundraising for The Mission Continues (an organization that helps veterans use the skills they learned while serving after they return home),” he said. “Yvette had gone through The Mission Continues and she was the only fellow that lived in Wisconsin, so I met up with her at one of her shows in Madison. She told me about the things her project was doing and what their mission was.”
Chrisinger knew it was an ambitious idea and would take a lot of coordination on his part, but there was no question the result could be incredibly rewarding.
“It’s a really cool idea,” he said. “It’s pairing veterans with artists. The veteran tells a story and then the artist illustrates that story with a fine art print. I saw some of the examples that she and other artists had done, and I thought it was such an interesting way of connecting people and also documenting the stories and the history.”
He contacted Pino and told her what he had in mind. She immediately agreed to lend a hand and just like that, the ball was rolling. Next, Chrisinger had to reach out to some of his contacts at the university.
“I reached out to the print-making professor at UWSP and I pitched him the idea,” he said. “Little did I know, his wife, who’s also a professor in the history department, has done lots of functions like this in the past. They were both really excited about this idea.”
Now that he had all of his ducks in a row, the only task that remained was to pitch the idea to his students, which Chrisinger said made him most nervous.
“A few weeks into the semester, I had Yvette visit my class,” he said. “She pitched her program and her idea. I was pleasantly surprised by how interested the students were. At first I thought they might think, ‘Oh great, I have to talk to some 21-year-old artist and I don’t want to do that.’ Maybe they hadn’t even told their families these stories yet. We had to pitch it as an opportunity to connect with someone on campus and in the end, they’ll get this really cool print.”
Next, the pair made a trip across campus to fill in the art students.
“Yvette visited the artists and told them about the program,” he said. ”I think they were nervous about it. These are really important stories and they could be really hard to tell. It’s a big responsibility and they were worried about doing the stories justice.”
At least some of their nerves were put at ease when the two groups finally met up so the veterans could tell their stories.
“We arranged a meeting between the students and they talked for an hour or an hour and a half,” Chrisingersaid. “Some people even got to be decent friends in that time and exchanged numbers. Some of the students brought pictures of themselves when they were in the service, or brought some kind of memento they had come home with. They told all sorts of different stories about what happens at war and what happened when they came home. They talked about funny things that happened and sad things that happened. They talked about moments when they really thought they had proven themselves. They told a variety of stories.”
When the meeting was over, both groups returned to their regular schedules. While the young artists worked on their renderings of the stories, Chrisinger said his class was learning how to put them on paper.
“Three months went by and all this time the art students had been working on the prints and trying to figure out how to illustrate the stories,” he said. “In the meantime, I was teaching my students how to write their story. The story they ended up telling the artists, we wanted to put down on paper.”
In early May, the two groups met again, this time to unveil the work they had done. Chrisinger said it was fascinating to see the different ways the artists chose to illustrate the stories and the reactions from the veterans.
“On Monday, May 5, we did the reveal, when the artists showed their prints to the veterans for the first time,” he said. “There was some really amazing work done. The way we facilitated it was we hung up all the prints and each artist came forward in front of the group to explain what they were trying to accomplish with the print and what they were trying to illustrate, the things they picked up on and the things in the veterans’ stories they found most interesting. With some of the prints, you weren’t really sure what they were going for, but then you’d hear the story and completely understand.”
The final products were impressive and the veterans were eager to take them home, but Chrisinger said the true prize was the relationships they built and the way the project made them feel more connected to campus.
“My students were really proud of the prints that they got,” he said. “They were asking when they could take them home and where they could get them framed. I think it was a really cool experience all the way around. The veterans learned people do care about them and their stories. When you get out of the military and you feel isolated and alone, you’re not with your guys anymore, it’s really easy to think no one cares and no one is paying attention. We’ve been at war for a long time now. This reminded them that people actually do care and want to listen to what they have to say.”
It wasn’t just a meaningful experience for the veterans, however. Chrisinger said the project helped educate all parties involved.
“It was also a benefit to the artists, because a lot of them don’t know veterans or have a veteran in their family,” he said. “It opened up their eyes to some of the things (the veterans are) going through and have experienced in a way watching the news or reading an article can’t really do.”
It was a memorable way to cap off Chrisinger’s second semester teaching the class and he hopes it may play a role in its viability. With budget cuts looming, he said he’s afraid the Veteran Print Project may be the final work he does at UWSP.
“Some people from (UWSP) came and that was great because other people on campus get to see what we’re doing,” he said. “Our class is on the chopping block because of the budget cuts happening in the UW system, so it was great to show people what an amazing experience it was for the students. It was encouraging to see all the support for what we were trying to do. You can see it in my students that they feel more comfortable and better connected on campus. All the research shows that if people feel comfortable somewhere, that’s where they’ll stay. Our main goal is to help these guys get an education, graduate and go out to be productive members of society.”
Whether he’s allowed to continue his work in the classroom or not, there’s little doubt Chrisinger’s dedication to veterans will go on in some way or another. Just as it started years ago, the mission continues.
The Stevens Point Journal
May 22, 2015
Nicholas Kuehn was 10 years old when terrorists flew into the twin towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
“That was the day I decided to join the Army,” Kuehn said
Kuehn was just a kid, watching cartoons at the time. But his resolve remained firm. At age 17, the Wausau native enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served in the 1-35 AR, the 1st Battalion 35th Armored Regiment, in Fort Bliss, Texas.
Kuehn, now a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, shared that memory earlier this year with Grace Ballweg, one of 21 student artists. Ballweg of Platteville expressed the story in a print that showed dark towers with a brightly colored screen of cartoon characters between them.
It was part of a Veteran Print Project involving students in two courses at UWSP in the spring semester.
Many returning veterans who are new to college take a first-year seminar titled “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life.” By studying the history of veterans coming home from war, students learn how to translate skills they developed in the military to skills they need to succeed in college – and life.
David Chrisinger, a UWSPgraduate who developed and teaches the class, asked Art and Design Professor Bob Erickson about adding a new component in the spring semester. His veteran-students were paired with students in a printmaking class. The veterans each shared an experience, and the student artists created a visual representation of it.
The art was revealed and explained to students and supporters earlier this month. It will be exhibited at the Edna Carlsten Gallery in the Noel Fine Art Center beginning May 28.
Ballweg’s print captures the “all-American experience” of a TV screen with a colorful airplane on a decidedly dark moment Sept. 11, when many children and adults watched planes, hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists, fly into the World Trade Center towers. Ballweg’s print captures the innocence of childhood surrounded by the stark reality of that day, with the towers portrayed in dark chalk.
“This is an exercise in trust,” said Yvette Pino, of the Wisconsin-based Veteran Print Project. “The veteran has to put trust in the artist to tell their story. The artist has to trust they’re getting it right,” said Pino, an Iraq war veteran who found the intersection of storytelling and art a healing place for veterans.
When Tyler Pozolinski came to UWSP, he wasn’t interested in associating with anything related to veterans. He told people he lived in California for a few years, but not at a U.S. Marine Corps base. That changed when the Neenah native took Chrisinger’s “Back from the Front” class and began writing about his military experiences.
He shared a recurring nightmare with his artist partner, Emily Sikora. He described being alone in a village that lay in ruins after battle, followed by darkness pierced with a bright light and familiar voices spewing hateful comments.
Sikora created a small print on a large sheet of paper to convey his isolation and a gray color scheme to convey darkness. Multiple swirls represent the overwhelming chants that surrounded him. A Native American headdress is a symbol for his troop, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.
“When I think of that dream that’s exactly what I see,” Pozolinski said.
“We study the history of war trauma to show American veterans have always found ways to be stronger at the broken places,” Chrisinger said. He and several veterans have shared reflections on a website strongeratthebrokenplaces.com.
Following the Carlsten Galley exhibit, the UWSP Veteran Print Project will be on display at the Kenosha Public Museum from July 4 to Nov. 11.
Valeria Sistrunk, May 5, 2015
U-W Stevens Point Senior, Lanea Zagrzebski, said she was nervous at first about talking to her partner, Trey Hess, for their semester-long Veteran Print Project.
“I didn’t really know what to expect going into it, and I don’t think he knew what to expect either,” said Zagrzebski, “But we hit it off right away, we had a really good relationship. We met multiple times throughout the project.”
In an effort to make transitioning from the military to civilian life a little easier, veterans enrolled at UWSP were paired with students in a print making class.
Veterans shared personal stories from their military experiences, which were then turned into visual artwork by their partners. “I just wanted to create something that would represent his values, and his family the best I could; and his service,” said Zagrzebski.
“I was kind of skeptical at first,” said Zagrzebski’s partner, Hess, “But once I sat down and talked to her she showed me a sketch of what it was, and I really liked it.”
Veterans shared their stories at the beginning of the semester, but had to wait three months to see their art interpretation for the first time today.
“I just think this is a real good experience,” said Hess, “A real good project for veterans to participate in, and I’m glad they had this class to put this out there.”
The artwork will be on display at the University’s Fine Arts Building May 28th, and will remain open to the public until Veterans Day.
Larry Lee, May 4, 2015
STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAU) – The stories of veterans are being told through a special art project. A veteran’s history class has teamed up with printmakers in the art department to visually tell the stories of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the history class. It’s called “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life.”
David Chrisinger is the Adjunct Instructor of History. He teaches former veterans turned college students about the history of veterans coming home from military service, as they did.
Chrisinger says the veterans and the art students really connected, and the results affected everyone involved. “There’s something also really valuable about someone else caring enough about your story to spend weeks creating a beautiful piece of art it illustrate it, and that’s what Bob Erickson’s print making students have done. You know, they’ve literally put sweat and tears into these prints.”
The reveal of the prints will be to a limited audience at UW Stevens Point Tuesday, May 5th. Chrisinger says the prints will go on display in the Fine Arts Center near the end of the month, and also at the Kenosha Public Museum starting July 4th. Other locations are also being considered.
Chrisinger says his student veterans are writing the details of their military experiences to accompany the prints. “My students are also writing their story, so we’re going to have prints and an artist’s statement of what they were trying to accomplish with their print, but we’ll also have the story to go along with it, and our plan is to possibly find a publisher who might be interested in publishing the images and the stories as like a coffee table kind of book.”
David Chrisinger was not a veteran himself, but saw firsthand through friends and family how difficult it can be for veterans returning from deployment or combat to civilian life. “My dad and my uncle both served during Vietnam, and my grandfather actually fought at the battle of Okinawa during the 2nd World War, and he had a pretty difficult transition to put it mildly, so I’ve seen what can happen when people don’t process the things that they go through.” He also says, “My best friend was in the United States Marine Corps, and when he came back from Afghanistan in 2010, we reconnected, and that put me on the path towards teaching this class. It was the work that we did together.”
The class for veterans on the history of veterans has been highly successful and growing, but may be a casualty of UW System budget cuts. Chrisinger says UWSP officials could only guarantee them one more fall semester, as adjunct professor cuts will probably eliminate the class.
Avery Jehnke, December 11, 2014
Transitioning to college life is challenging. This semester, instructor David Chrisinger taught a First Year Seminar class designed to smooth the transition for one group of students in particular.
‘Back From the Front: Transition From the Military to Civilian Life’ is open to new-to-campus veterans who need to fulfill their FYS credit.
Like every FYS class, ‘Back From the Front’ is intended to give students skills they need to be successful in college. Chrisinger’s class is tailored for a group with more life experience than the average freshman.
The class focuses on examining how veterans in past wars handled returning. Students spend time discussing personal experiences and writing about them as a way to organize thoughts.
“A lot of veterans are skeptical when they come here,” Chrisinger said.
Chrisinger is pleased at how the semester has progressed and is proud of his students.
“They already have the skills they need to do well,” Chrisinger said. “There have been a lot of individual- level successes. I’m just really thrilled that the students are receptive to it.”
Kyle Nowak said he took the class to put himself in an uncomfortable position because he does not like doing military-related things.
“One of the challenges is being a couple years older than most college freshmen,” Nowak said. “It is like I am getting a late start, but at the same time I have a lot of life experience.”
Student Joshua Thunder said someone recommended he take the class because it would be a good resource for him.
Thunder said he is not interested in the non-academic skills college provides because he feels his military experience makes him a well-rounded person.
“I just want to gain more job skills and forget about the other things that college really has to offer,” Thunder said.
Thunder said one of the perks of being a student veteran is the GI Bill.
“I don’t necessarily have to work a job to support my wife and I while I am in school,” Thunder said. “This really has helped during my first semester because I do not think I would have stayed in school or done very well if I was trying to juggle it with a job.”
Chrisinger said he was not sure where the semester would go when it began. A class project developed naturally is now the final project for the course.
Each student will write an essay about his or her transition from military to college life and the essays will be published in a collection with a foreword written by acclaimed Iraq War author Brian Castner.
The collection will be available for purchase on Amazon and proceeds will benefit the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Veterans Club.
“The goal is to put a face on veteran experience at this university,” Chrisinger said. “They’ve come to own their own stories.”
“The course helped me be less shy and helped me open up a little, which I definitely attribute to the class and the writings we did,” Nowak said.
“This course has helped me connect with other veterans who I may not have talked to otherwise,” Thunder said.
Chrisinger is impressed with the stories and the way the students are telling them. He hopes to have his students collaborate with other groups in the future so student veteran stories can be told in unique ways.
“When this class ends, it is over,” Chrisinger said. “The collection will help tell the story of veterans at UWSP.”
Avery Jehnke, December 11, 2014
Veterans, students, faculty and community members gathered in the Laird room Dec. 3 to hear author Brian Castner speak about challenges men and women face upon returning from war.
Castner’s book, “The Long Walk: Story of War and the Life That Follows” details his own experience as commander of two Explosive Ordinance Disposal units in Iraq. The book is critically acclaimed and has received several awards thanks to Castner’s vivid, honest accounts of war and enduring struggles following.
Castner was invited to speak on campus by David Chrisinger, who teaches a First Year Seminar class specifically designed to help veterans transition to college life. His students read Castner’s book this semester.
“The only reason I am here is because I wrote a book,” Castner said. “I think I had a very average experience in Iraq.”
Castner said all veterans are alike no matter which war they served in.
“Homecoming is a unifier,” Castner said. “The war is so different everywhere. No one story defines it, but we all came home.”
Most of the presentation was focused on the issue of troubled homecomings for veterans and reasons civilians have difficulty understanding the problem.
“A troubled homecoming is far from new,” Castner said.
Castner said veterans from wars throughout history have had mental and physical difficulties in their lives after war.
“Our homecoming is troubled in a very different way,” Castner said.
Misrepresentation of veterans and a divide between civilians and military were two reasons Castner talked about why current homecomings are so troublesome.
Castner said negative associations with veterans and their struggles often stem from media. Although they are important issues, one cannot read a news article about veterans without mention of issues like post traumatic stress disorder, suicide and the backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Another point Castner made during the presentation was that many civilians are out of touch with what is happening in the war. There is a void between veterans and communities in parts of the country that have less military presence.
At the end of the presentation, audience members asked questions and shared comments.
A student asked Castner how a person should talk to a veteran who shares their experiences.
“Be educated to talk with them a bit,” Castner said.” Not every veteran is a ticking time bomb. If we stay up on current events, you can keep up with the war.”
Castner said it is important to thank veterans and ask them what they did while deployed.
Alex Maes attended the presentation as part of a requirement for a communication course.
“I was always under the impression you could say thank you to veterans,” Maes said.
Maes said his views on speaking with veterans have changed after hearing Castner’s presentation.
“They really just need someone to talk to,” Maes said. “I would be more forward having to talk to someone,” Maes said.
Adam Lemons, a veteran and representative of an organization called Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, attended the presentation and agreed with what Castner said.
“It was very close to the mark of the sentiment of many veterans like myself,” Lemons said. “People should do their due diligence. It is important to get conversation started.”
Larry Lee, December 8, 2014
That first semester in college is different for many veterans, and a new UW Stevens Point class is addressing veterans back-to-school issues.
David Chrisinger is a UW-Stevens Point graduate that developed a veterans-only class called Back From The Front. He says he was inspired to do this after seeing how a friend from Rhinelander struggled to return to civilian life after serving in the military. “The kinds of issues that a 17 or 18 year old is going to have to grapple with when they start college are very different than what a student veteran will grapple with, so I put together this class to help the students acclimate to the university, to connect with each other, and to learn how to be successful here.”
Chrisinger says the experiences freshmen out of high school have are vastly different from freshmen out of the military, and they discuss how to apply what they’ve learned in uniform to the new task of completing an education. “One thing that we work on in our classes is to show that they can use their experience to enlighten the class and to add a very valuable voice to certain discussions, and to use their experiences to make their experiences in college that much better.”
Much of the class is focused on the history of war, writing and running to help transition from military life to college life. “This first semester, what we really wanted to do was to give the students a place where they could connect with each other, and we could build an environment where the students felt comfortable and safe enough to talk about their experiences and to deal with the sorts of issues and challenges that many of them face coming back to the university.”
Chrisinger also has another class with seniors in the information technology fields. He says the two groups have even worked together on a project, and learned about each other in the process. “There are computer programmers, web developers, web designers, and we actually did a final project in that class where they redesigned the website that we use in my veterans class, and so we talked about a lot of the veteran issues and veteran challenges and the veteran population in that class.”
All college students go through a “first-year seminar” aimed at helping students think critically, adapt to the academic community and campus life, and take responsibility for their education, career choices and personal development. Chrisinger says the veterans entering college that make the transition a little difficult, but they also have a huge head start in some important areas. “Something I had not thought about was how advanced these students would be in certain areas. You know, they have incredible critical thinking skills. They do know how to get their work done. They do know the discipline. They pay attention. They show up to class early, you know, all of those things that a professor dreams about, they’re doing that stuff.”
UW Stevens Point is considered a “military friendly” campus, and has about 300 veterans enrolled in a wide variety of degree programs.
Veterans interested in what UWSP has to offer, including the Back From The Front classes, can go online to uwsp.edu or call Ann Whipp at 715-346-3237. She can also be emailed at Ann.Whipp@uwsp.edu.
Wisconsin Public Radio
December 3, 2014
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is offering a new seminar this semester to help veterans transition into civilian life as students.
“Back From the Front: Transitioning From the Military to Civilian Life” was created by David Chrisinger, an associate lecturer at the school. About four years ago, Chrisinger’s friend returned home from his second deployment in the Middle East and opened up about everything he was dealing with back on the home front.
“I had never confronted the after-effects like this,” Chrisinger said. “I didn’t know the issues he was dealing with. I read everything I could. There were a few books that really made me understand better, or at least empathize.”
The two continued to work together to raise awareness and money for veteran service organizations.
After giving a lecture at Steven’s Point, which enrolls roughly 300 military veterans, Chrisinger was asked if he could create a class around the concept. He spent last year putting together a syllabus, and the mission continued.
“Part of new curriculum design here at Steven’s Point is to take a first year seminar — a class to teach freshman students how to be successful in college,” Chrisinger said. “They found that this was not helpful for non-traditional students in general, and veterans in particular, because the things that veterans are dealing with are very different than what the average 17-or 18-year-old is dealing with.”
The Stevens Point Journal
Stevens Point Journal Media, November 27, 2014
A veteran whose book has inspiredothers in the militaryboth locally and across the world will speak at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Dec. 3.
Brian Castner, author of “The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows,” will present at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3, in the Laird Room of the Dreyfus University Center. His talk will focus on bridging the gap and finding common ground between the military and civilians. The public may attend free of charge. A book signing will follow, with copies available through the University Bookstore both before and after the talk.
Castner will also speak to students in a UW-Stevens Point first-year seminar course for veterans and have lunch with the Veterans Club. “The Long Walk” inspired much of the structure of the course, says instructor David Chrisinger.
“Castner coped with his experiences in war by learning history, running and writing,” he said. “Those activities helped him gain perspective, and that’s what we’ve done as part of the course.” Chrisinger said that some of his students identify closely with Castner and many have also found it healing to put their thoughts on paper.
“The Long Walk” tells of Castner’s struggle to survive modern combat in Iraq and his personal tale of confronting the new person he had become upon returning to his family. It was an Amazon Best Book of 2012 and a Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection in 2013. His writing has appeared in various national and regional publications, including Wired magazine, Newsweek, The New York Times and Gary Trudeau’s “The Sandbox” anthology, an online forum for dispatches by Iraq and Afghanistan service members.
Castner served as an explosive ordnance disposal officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1999 to 2007, deploying to Iraq. After leaving the active military, he served as a consultant and contractor, training soldiers and Marines prior to their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lives near Buffalo, N.Y., with his wife and four sons.
The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point develops special class for veterans
Nina Bourne, November 12, 2014
The transition of veterans from active duty life to that of a civilian student is very important to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and in order to help the adjustment process a special class was created. In order to prevent veterans from struggling with their new college experience, the class was created just for them in hopes of helping them adjust to student life. The course is filled with their peers and fellow service members who are able to understand where they are coming from on this new journey.
The class is called, “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life” and is intends to do just that. It is often hard for veterans to switch gears from seeing combat for months on end to civilian life. The change in lifestyle can be a real struggle according to veterans, which may be intensified by a major change, like enrolling in college.
David Chrisinger, professor and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point alum, said “It can be really intimidating or anxiety-inducing for new student veterans to be on campus and surrounded by 18 year olds. It’s easy to feel alienated and isolated.”
The “Back from the Front” course was designed by Chrisinger after he witnessed his friend struggle with his return to civilian life. He says, “I had seen what happens when they fall through the cracks. That was motivation for me – to be someone to help.”
The course will help students students work on goals, let them hear about other veteran’s experiences and even has the occasional field trip on the books when students need a bit of support from their fellow vets.
The response from students is positive and the class seems to be a success. Chrisinger says that students often tell him that if it wasn’t for the veterans course, they would have left school long ago. He sums it up the reason behind the class by saying, “When you feel you don’t belong you might quit or leave. Here at the university we want them to feel included.”
USA Today College
Brooke Metz, November 11, 2014
Most college freshmen are required to take a seminar, but at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, 12 students are fulfilling that first-year requirement in a unique way: with a class specifically designed for veterans.
“Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life” strives to do exactly what the class name implies — help veterans make the transition from service to life as civilians.
After years of seeing war first-hand, being far from home and serving with soldiers who become closer than their own siblings, veterans often struggle with the return to everyday life. And that strenuous change is magnified even further when veterans enroll in college.
“It can be really intimidating or anxiety-inducing for new student veterans to be on campus and surrounded by 18-year-olds,” says professor and UWSP alum David Chrisinger. “It’s easy to feel alienated and isolated.”
“Back from the Front” was designed by Chrisinger after seeing his friend struggle to adjust to civilian life upon his return from serving in Afghanistan. Chrisinger had seen similar struggles in his own family, particularly in his grandfather, who suffered with alcoholism after serving in the Pacific in World War II.
“I had seen what happens when they fall through the cracks,” Chrisinger says. “That was motivation for me — to be someone to help.”
In the class, students build on their research and writing skills as they explore history and learn more about other veterans through guest lectures, readings and discussions. This week’s focus is resilience and post-traumatic growth.
Another goal of the class is to get students engaged with the community. For example, everyone in the class has to attend a UWSP sporting event. And when one student expressed concern over crowds at the events, they decided to all attend a game together.
“To learn from each other is the biggest goal I have for this class,” Chrisinger says. “Learning from out there, learning from each other and putting it into a narrative so it makes sense to them.”
So far, the class seems to be working. Freshman Chase Vuchetich, who served as an infantryman in the Marine Corps for four years, says the class made him more excited about school.
“I stopped doubting my abilities as a student,” says Vuchetich, who is now studying business. “I started to see that there were opportunities that I would never have anywhere else.”
In addition to discussions and presentations, students also write several essays throughout the semester. Chrisinger plans to use those essays in a collection for publication.
“When I was in high school, I was a C student in English, so I thought no way could I ever be published,” says Vuchetich, 23. “He does things for us that make me think, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know I could do that.’”
Thanks to the success of “Back from the Front,” the course will be offered again next semester. According to Chrisinger, UWSP will welcome 25 new vets to campus second semester, and the veterans seminar will have a full class.
Chrisinger says one student told him he would’ve dropped out of school if not for the veterans course. The student said the class’s tight-knit community was what he needed to feel like part of the university.
“When you feel you don’t belong you might quit or leave,” Chrisinger says. “Here at the university we want them to feel included.”
Elizabeth Schilder, November 10, 2014
Tuesday is Veterans Day. As we prepare to honor those who have served our country, one UW-Stevens Point alum is working to help our vets transition back into not only civilian, but college life.
“Back From the Front” isn’t your typical freshman seminar. This class is comprised of all veterans brought together by instructor David Chrisinger.
“What we do in this class is show them that they already have the skills they need to be successful in college,” he explained.
Chrisinger started the program after helping his friend transition back to civilian life after serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
“I realized in that moment that I didn’t know what post 9-11 veterans were going through,” Chrisinger said. “I lived nine years while we’re at war largely oblivious.”
Following that realization, Chrisinger dug in reading up on what had helped veterans of previous wars make the transition back home successfully.
“What I wanted to do in this class is show how veterans throughout American history have dealt with coming home from war.”
While the lessons are helpful, Chrisinger told NewsChannel 7 he thinks his students get even more from class discussions.
“I think a lot of us have kind of made friends in here,” student Joshua Thunder said. “Compared to my other classes, I mean I talk to people, but it’s not the same.”
“This class, they’ve shown me that you can be broken and resilient. You can be wounded and strong,” Chrisinger said.
It’s that strength they’ll continue to depend on moving forward on the home front.
“They see this class as their chance to show they have what it takes to be leaders in their communities.”
In the next four years, more than one million vets will be making the transition back to civilian life. But, as of now, Chrisinger said he only knows of four other schools besides UWSP that offer a class like this to help vets make that transition.
The Northwoods River News
Andy Hildebrand, November 10, 2014
A year ago, Rhinelander High School alums David Chrisinger and Brett Foley, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, completed a 50-mile ultramarathon to raise money for charity and awareness of the immense challenge veterans face when trying to transition back to civilian life.
It all started with late night chats between the two friends, but for Chrisinger, before long, working with veterans had blossomed into a full-blown passion.
He pored over book after book and article after article, learning as much as he could about the process veterans go through when their time in the service is over.
Now, a year after completing the marathon and many more since he first started working with Foley, Chrisinger has continued learning and started teaching.
“Before the 50-mile run that was last October, Brett (Foley) and I got invited by a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to come and talk to his class,” he said. “The class was on running and the meaning of life. It was kind of perfect for us because we were raising money and talking about veterans (transitioning) out of the military. There was an administrator in the general education department who came to watch.”
Afterward, the administrator came up to Chrisinger and asked if he could turn the presentation into a class for student veterans. “The idea certainly intrigued me,” he said.
From there, Chrisinger turned his attention to what he does best – research.
“I started looking around to see if other universities had classes like this,” he said. “I found a couple and I talked to the professors who taught them. I devoured all these different books and research articles about veterans in college, the sorts of things they struggle with and the things they need more help with. I put together a proposal for the class, went through the review process and it was approved, thankfully.”
The class is called “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life” and its objective is to prepare incoming veterans to succeed at UWSP. Chrisinger said all freshmen at the university must take an introductory course, but the courses available aren’t necessarily great fits for veterans.
“The class is situated in this program at the university called a first year seminar,” he said. “All the freshmen have to take one. There’s different topics that they’re centered around. There’s one on ‘Lord of the Rings’ and there’s one on the history of The Beatles. They’re supposed to be fun topics and a lot of what is taught in the course is how to be successful in college. They’re seen as a foundation level class that prepares you to be successful and help you graduate. They were having trouble with non-traditional students in general and veterans specifically who just weren’t relating to the material. A lot of it is geared toward 18-year-olds. Veterans have significantly more life experience than that.”
Chrisinger knew he needed to shape his syllabus in a way that would appeal to veterans and make the transition to college life easier while still teaching the skills needed to succeed in class. As it turned out, that meant he would wind up doing much of the work himself.
“I really struggled to find a single book that talked about all the things I wanted to talk about in the class, so I ended up just writing a lot of the articles that I’ve assigned,” he said. “We also have assigned a book called “The Long Walk” by Brian Castner, who’s an Iraq War veteran. He was an explosive ordinance disposal technician and its a very powerful book about coming home from war and transitioning into civilian life.”
Castner provided a focus for the class to rally around, and it involved one of the lessons Chrisinger learned from Foley years ago.
“One of the things Castner did was write about his experiences, and that’s something I found really helped Brett (Foley) too,” he said. “I’m having the students do a lot of reflective writing in the class, and for their final exam, they’re actually writing a paper between eight and 12 pages. The topic is transitioning out of the military and into civilian life. What’s cool is, we’re going to compile all those essays and put them into an edited collection and sell it through Amazon as a fundraiser for the veteran’s club on campus.”
Later in the semester, Castner will visit the class. He will also give a campus-wide talk about bridging the gap between civilians and the military.
With his syllabus in place and the semester drawing near, Chrisinger said he didn’t know how the students would react.
“I was nervous about the class,” he said. “I didn’t know if they were going to buy into it or if I was going to be a joke to them. For the first couple days, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t tell. Then they really started to loosen up and open up. One of the students told me afterward they were sizing me up a little bit. They didn’t know what to expect. They realized it was a safe place and they could be themselves without feeling awkward or strange or judged. I think they appreciate that.”
Little by little, Chrisinger got to know his students through class and their assigned writing. Exercise was another approach Castner focused on in his book, so with a 50-mile ultramarathon already in his back pocket, Chrisinger formed a running group with his class. They meet in the evenings a couple times a week. It’s not mandatory, but many of the students attend.
Chrisinger worked other assignments into the class that encourage the veterans to venture outside their comfort zones and into campus life. At first, it was easier said than done.
“The students also have these four out-of-classroom experiences they need,” he said. “They have to go to a varsity sporting event, an academic club, a non-academic event and a veteran’s group. I thought the varsity sport would be the one everyone did right away, but nobody was doing it. After class one day, a student came up to me and said, ‘You know, I can’t speak for everyone, but crowds are kind of tough for me.’ I didn’t even think of that. It didn’t even cross my mind.”
Instead of scrapping the assignment, Chrisinger decided to turn it into a field trip of sorts.
“So I thought, what if we all did it together,” he said. “I ended up having the class over to my house and we made chili and a campfire. We had lunch and then walked over to the Pointers football game. We all sat together. It was a nice day and a good game. They connected with each other outside of class, and I think that’s what that class has been successful at. They’re connecting with each other and they’re forming friendships.”
As the semester wore on and the group got closer, Chrisinger discovered he was learning too. Despite all of his research and prior work on behalf of veterans, interacting with the class and watching them grow opened his eyes.
“I was a little bit surprised how adamant they all were about how they didn’t regret being in the military,” he said. “It’s something they’re very proud of, even if they had bad deployments or they lost their best friend, which did happen to one student. They had these terrible experiences and suffered through these situations. I have one student who was in Washington D.C. on 9/11 and was doing Pentagon rescue. That’s awful. He was digging through the rubble and pulling body parts out. None of them regret it though and they’d do it all again. They’re proud of their service and they’re proud they served their country.”
It was an important lesson for Chrisinger to learn. The class is meant to help veterans with the transition to college life at UWSP, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t very capable students.
“I wouldn’t say I didn’t expect this, but I was pleasantly surprised that these students are very strong critical thinkers,” Chrisinger said. “They’ve had a lot of life experience and they have a lot of skills they can bring to the university that they didn’t think applied. They thought because they haven’t taken a test since high school it would be tough, but they have the hard work and critical thinking skills that the military supplied them with. They’re beginning to see how to apply those skills at the university.”
That’s been Chrisinger’s goal all along. He wanted to help his students find a way to fit back into civilian life. Finding the best way to teach that was a work in progress though.
“They don’t want to be seen as victims,” Chrisinger said. “They signed up for it. They knew what they were getting into. They did their jobs the best they could and now they want to go to school. Maybe in the back of my mind I thought maybe I was going to have people who were traumatized and people who were suffering. I just didn’t know what to expect. A lot of what I was doing in the beginning was showing different ways how veterans through history have overcome their suffering in different ways. The students appreciated hearing those stories and seeing these different models, but they wanted to choose their own path. That’s become the theme of the class. You have to find your own way home.”
It’s been the latest step in a long journey of discovery for Chrisinger. His class is reaping the rewards of year of research. What started as way to help a struggling childhood friend has grown into much more.
“When I first started working with Brett (Foley), part of what motivated me to help him was to try to better understand what my grandfather had been through in World War II,” Chrisinger said. “He had come him from the Pacific and was not what we picture the greatest generation being like. He was an abusive alcoholic. He let his family down in a lot of different ways. When I started working with Brett and started reading about past generations of veterans, I started to better understand what my grandfather had been through and how little help there was out there for them. That’s what’s so encouraging about the post-9/11 generation of veterans. There are so many great groups out there looking to provide support to veterans.”
For vets hoping to continue their education at UWSP, that support is readily available in Chrisinger. He’ll teach again next semester with same goal in mind, helping heroes find their own way home.
The Stevens Point Journal
This is Chase Vuchetich’s first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and he believes he’s already taking the most important class of his college career.
Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life is helping him and 11 other veterans learn how to translate skills they developed in the military to skills they need to succeed in college — and life.
When you’ve faced life-or-death situations, what once seemed important fades to insignificance.
Vuchetich enjoyed playing football at Park Falls High School, from which he graduated in 2009. When the Green Bay Packers played in the Super Bowl in 2011, he remembers trying to get the score on his smartphone while he was at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
Then he spent seven months in Afghanistan.
Now, he says, “I couldn’t care less about professional athletes. They don’t put their lives on the line for anyone. They shouldn’t be anyone’s heroes.”
He knows something about heroes. He served with the Bravo Co. 1st Battalion 5th Marines from 2009 to 2013. Of the 50 Marines in his platoon, three were killed in action and 28 were wounded. The men of 1/5 remain his closest friends.
He lived the simplicity and singularity of combat: the camaraderie of putting his Marine brothers above his own life, of being involved in something that mattered deeply, feeling the loneliness after military service comes to a screeching halt.
Veterans often have what those who fought in the Civil War called “soldier’s heart” — nostalgia for combat.
“How can you miss something so horrible?” Vuchetich said. “After hundreds of years of war, the one thing that doesn’t change is the desire to go back.”
This is just one topic he and others talk — and write — about in class.
David Chrisinger, a UWSP graduate who developed the class, leads students to cope by learning history, running and writing about their experiences.
That is what veteran Brian Castner did. He wrote “The Long Walk,” which inspired this class, one of dozens first-year students can take at UWSP to learn the skills they need to do well in college.
“Military veterans have always experienced challenges coming home from war. They’ve also always found ways to overcome those challenges,” Chrisinger said.
The military trains with “crawl, walk, run,” and Chrisinger follows the same step-by-step process. His students must attend four different kinds of campus events — an athletic event, for example — and write reflections. They join clubs and examine what it’s like to be with civilians.
Students write about feelings, about what bothers them — such as assumptions about post-traumatic stress disorder plaguing all veterans, or perceptions that everyone in the military is like the troubled fictional character Rambo.
“Whatever’s wearing on me, I write about it,” Vuchetich said. “David’s the first one to tell me I can write and be published. He has a genuine interest in helping us succeed.”
“Chase is a great student and a fabulous writer. He has a real shot of doing some amazing things,” Chrisinger said.
Veterans have experiences and critical thinking skills most first-year students don’t have, Chrisinger said. They talk about using those skills, about resiliency and growth through trauma. “What made them good in the military can make them good in college,” he said.
“They are figuring out how to manage their past and grow. Becoming educated is their next mission. They want to be leaders. They want to do great things.”
The class, and Chrisinger, have been like therapy to Vuchetich. “This class makes me feel like I’m doing something important in life again.”
He also credited Ann Whipp, UWSP’s veteran services coordinator, who helps with academic advising, financial aid and other support. “Ann has gone above and beyond my expectations,” Vuchetich said. “David and Ann, their whole goal is to set us up for success.”
Emily Showers, October 23, 2014
The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Veterans Club is proud of this year’s 5k Ruck Run held Oct. 18. Runners were happy to support veterans.
This year, they donated money raised to Never Forgotten Honor Flight, an organization that takes veterans to war memorials.
Amanda Jennings, the social media organizer for the UWSP Veterans Club, was happy to spread the word about the third annual run.
She said many people were enticed by the cadences played while tabling in the Dreyfus University Center.
“A lot of people want to help out and participate,”Jennings said. “I know people who said they could not participate in the actual run, but they want to help with the set up and take down.”
Joshua Fager, the president of the Veteran’s Club, said it is amazing how so many people want to support veterans.
“Anyone can walk 3.1 miles. Most people are going that distance by walking to and from class,” Fager said. “This is nothing compared to what veterans have to do.”
Fager stressed that many veterans made sacrifices so participants could enjoy the freedom to go on a run.
Leah Lueck participated in the run for a veteran in her life and personal reasons. Lueck said she began a weight loss journey last September, and her running time has improved ever since.
“My grandfather passed away 9 years ago, and he was a veteran of the Air Force. I had my heart set on running in the Veteran Run 5k in honor of him,” Lueck said.
Lueck triumphed when she crossed the finish line in 25 minutes and 30 seconds, a record for her. She said the strongest feeling she felt crossing the finish line was accomplishment.
David Chrisinger teaches a First Year Seminar Class to veteran students and decided to participate in the run to connect with students outside the classroom.
Throughout the run, he was pushing his two sons in a stroller, but was amazed by one of his students.
“My favorite part of the run was following one of my students, Matt, who decided to run the 5k with a 40-pound ruck on his back,” Chrisinger said. “ I was so impressed with his strength and endurance.”
Chrisinger ran in many larger runs like a 50 mile ultramarathon, so he is not a stranger to competition. He said the Veterans Run had a different vibe about it.
“With 29 runners, there wasn’t much jockeying for position, which is pretty common in larger races,” Chrisinger said. “There was this sense not so much that we were racing each other, but that we were all in it together, going for a run for a good cause.”