- Associated Press - Friday, February 5, 2016

ELKO, Nev. (AP) - Talking about the experiences of war can be difficult for veterans, but writing about it could be the first step.

Cowboy poet Vess Quinlan used January’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko to bring veterans together to share their experiences of war. Quinlan, who is not a veteran himself, said that he received some war poems from some Vietnam veterans who thought he’d be able to relate to their stories because of Quinlan’s writing about his experience with polio.

Quinlan said one of the biggest challenges to getting the veterans to open up is them trusting him.

“It takes an hour before people start understanding what we’re doing and that we’re not there to get anything from them,” he said during a short break from the workshop. “Just now, one of the guys is starting to talk. It’s taken all this time before he started saying what was really going on.”

Quinlan also mentioned that there is a fear among the veterans who attended his workshop that the others in the room won’t understand or be able to relate to their experiences.

A big part of the lack of dialogue after the Vietnam war was the nation’s attitude toward the war. Bill Jones said he had trouble talking to his own family about the war after he returned.

“When I came back it was best not to say anything,” said the Vietnam veteran and cowboy poet. “It was best not to say you had been to Vietnam. America was against it for the most part. My own family didn’t want to talk about it.”

Jones went on to say that the writing process he embarked on after attending one of Quinlan’s workshops helped him make peace with the things he did and experienced in Vietnam.

“I wrote about a lot of my experiences over there. Combat is a very life-changing event. After you’ve been in combat you look at life a little bit differently,” he said.

Ken Rodgers, who also served in Vietnam, said that the writing helped him come to terms with what had happened to him during his tour of duty.

“Combat’s one of those things that’s hard on your soul. When you come back from that it takes a while to learn how to deal with that,” he said.

Rodgers said he hasn’t written a whole lot about his time in Vietnam but mentioned that he found another outlet to discuss his time in the service.

“I made a documentary film about my experience,” he said. The film: “Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor” was released in 2011.

“We had 66 guys killed in a siege and lots of guys wounded. It was a lot of bad firefights, so it was memorable.”

Rodgers said like the writing others do to examine their military past and tell their stories, his film allowed him to deal with his past without being overwhelmed by it.

“It allows you to inspect your experience from further away. It’s not so emotional,” he said.

Vietnam veteran Smoke Hubbard said he considers himself lucky that he didn’t find it too difficult to transition to civilian life after he retired from the military, but said he still didn’t feel welcome when he came home.

“I definitely felt isolated, I definitely didn’t feel welcomed home,” he said. “It was very different from the way vets are treated today and I’m really happy to see the way our vets nowadays get respected.”

Because his experience in Vietnam didn’t scar him as deeply as it did others, Hubbard said that his writing about the war tended to focus on the humorous side of his service.

“The things I’ve written so far are more humorous things that happened,” he said. “I haven’t really dug into the deep emotion that come with the combat experience.”

Hubbard recalled a time where his operations officer refused to wear all of his armor while aboard the helicopter. Hubbard remembered that the officer said there is nothing you can do if a bullet has your name on it. To which one other solider replied, “You should be concerned about the bullets that say ‘to whom it may concern.’”

“It got a laugh at the time, and it was some good philosophy too,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard said he is fairly new to the poetry writing process but hoped the workshop would give him and his fellow veterans the ability to tell their stories in a way that an audience can relate to them.

“I’m hoping through this group to get a chance to learn about the writing craft,” he said. “It’s one thing to have stories; it’s another to tell them in an interesting way.”

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Information from: Elko Daily Free Press, https://www.elkodaily.com

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