The first time I met Julie Coan, KLRN’s chief operating officer and senior vice president a year ago, she and I had a conversation about what it means when a military veteran trusts you enough to tell you his or her story, and whether any particular response is required. That moment always feels like a sacred one, and the quote that comes to mind for me is one from theologian Paul Tillich, that “the first duty of love is to listen.”
At the time, Coan and KLRN had just initiated what has become an impressive, multi-year array of programming known as “Veterans’ Voices,” starting with “Coming Back with Wes Moore” and “Coming Home: San Antonio,” followed by Jonathan Wei’s
“The Telling Project,” and the launch this coming weekend of “Never Ending Stories.”
The goal is primarily to educate the station’s civilian audience “so that when veterans come home they won’t just disappear back into the community and their lives, but we’ll remember what they did for us,” Coan said.
Separately, the bubbly, genuine Coan enthused about how shows like the wildly popular Downton Abbey “have made public television suddenly cool again,” and that in the "Renaissance" it seems to be experiencing is the opportunity “to tell stories in the way that only public television can tell.”
If public television sees telling stories as its core mission, there are lots of veterans’ stories to be told in San Antonio.
“Military City, USA” is the hub of Bexar County, with its population of 156,545 veterans. Across the state, only Harris County has more veterans, a fact which demographers expect to change by 2020, when Bexar is expected to outpace Harris for the highest population of veterans in the state. Additionally, it is expected to keep those high numbers, as the veteran population of the rest of the state declines, according to numbers provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affair's actuarial department. If every veteran has a story to tell, that’s a lot of potential stories.
On UTSA’s main campus last Friday, dozens of service members and veterans in dress uniforms congregated with family members carrying balloons and bouquets of flowers, celebrating their loved ones' graduations and commissioning as part of the campus ROTC ceremony. More stories.
At a Texas A&M - San Antonio panel of veterans for Women’s History Month in March, several accomplished women veterans with local ties talked about the unique challenges and opportunities provided by their service.
One, Angie Salinas, is a retired Major General of the U.S. Marine Corps, who was the first woman to command the Marine Corps Recruit Station in San Diego, one of two Marine boot camps in the U.S. She was also the first Hispanic woman selected and promoted to the rank of brigadier general and major-general, and only the sixth woman in the history of the Marine Corps selected to the general officer ranks, according to her biography.
Another, retired U.S. Navy veteran Captain Gail Hathaway, is the executive director of Workforce Solutions Alamo, providing resources to local veterans and others.
A third, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Lisa Firmin, commanded an air base in Iraq at Balad, and now serves as the associate provost for diversity and recruitment at UTSA, and the co-chair of UTSA's Veteran Student Advisory Committee. She retired from the Air Force as its highest-ranking Latina. More remarkable stories.
Last year, retired Major General Charles Rodriguez, chief of staff and vice president of strategic initiatives and military community development at Texas A&M - San Antonio, brought a screening of "Service: When Women Come Marching Home" to town, along with Army veteran BriGette McCoy, one of the stars of the movie, and its Emmy Award-winning director, NYU professor Marcia Rock. McCoy and Rock were available for a thoughtful question and answer session after the screening, which because it discussed military sexual assault and homelessness, was eye-opening according to many of the audience members who viewed it. More stories, including some that aren't often heard.
Last month, at the Army Residence Community, KLRN screened Rory Kennedy’s moving documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam,” before an audience of retired service members and their family members, some of whom served in Saigon during the war. Coan led a thoughtful, not-too-probing discussion after the film, and if you were there in the audience that night, you could watch veterans visibly shifting from apprehension to a form of relief approaching comfort about the way their stories were being portrayed in the film, frequently as humanitarians and heroes. More stories, with unexpected elements of surprise.
At UTSA’s downtown campus last week, Marine veteran Eric Alva, a social worker and LGBTQ advocate who sustained the first serious injury of the Iraq war, the loss of his leg, and earned its first purple heart, started work in the field placement office for social work graduate students at UTSA’s College of Public Policy. More exceptional stories.
When the Army listening session about the potential ramifications of ongoing sequestration took place a few weeks ago, a number of civil leaders, including Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff spoke about the importance of San Antonio's military population, including dependents and retirees who've chosen to make San Antonio their home. Both Texas A&M - San Antonio’s Rodriguez and UTSA President Ricardo Romo spoke powerfully about the importance of veterans on their campuses, and the many ways they work to make sure veterans feel at home.
Texas A&M - San Antonio has the free-standing Patriots’ Casa, one of the only campuses in the nation to have its own standalone center for veterans, and UTSA has its own strong program for returning veterans on the college campus. Thousands of veterans and their family members? More impressive stories, of strength and determination, resilience and homecoming.
Last year, when Phil Klay, a Marine veteran of the Iraq war, spoke at the University of Texas Health Science Center-San Antonio a few weeks before winning the National Book award for his collection of short stories about war and its aftermath called “Redeployment,” he talked about the importance of storytelling: “War is too strange an experience to process individually,” Klay said, noting that each of us is involved in the collective war effort, whether we went to fight or stayed behind while others served. Klay suggested that we be interested “first and foremost in veterans as individuals, and not as a category.”
Jonathan Wei is the playwright who envisioned the superb series, “The Telling Project,” where local veterans in cities across the country work with theater professionals to craft a scripted narrative of their own true stories that they can share with civilian audiences of families, friends and strangers. Last year’s production of "The Telling Project: San Antonio," hosted by KLRN, and presented at the Tobin Center, was also the most successful of the Telling Projects to date, according to Coan and Wei.
The San Antonio cast included a mix of veterans and family members, from Vietnam through Iraq and Afghanistan, male and female, white and Hispanic, each with a unique and compelling story to tell. Award-winning local playwright and poet Gregg Barrios was a cast member, telling his story of being an Air Force combat medic in Vietnam, and being back in San Antonio when President Kennedy was assassinated. Later, Barrios was featured in the panel discussion of “Last Days in Vietnam,” viewable online.
Playwright Wei is enthusiastic about what the work of "The Telling Project" can accomplish.
“Service is a core value of veterans,” Wei said, adding that it often becomes the most important part of who veterans are. "It’s a human compulsion to matter” and those who don’t experience that, whether civilian or military, “lead lives that are much less rich, engaged, or satisfying.”
At coffee recently with Dee Bartlett, one of the cast members, at Rosella's Coffee, I wanted to know if the closeness and camaraderie the cast exhibit during rehearsals and performances had persisted after the production ended. Based on what I’d seen on social media, it certainly looked like the cast members’ connections were strong, supportive and vibrant. She assured me that cast members were continuing to “heal out loud,” willingly supporting one another for better or worse, now that they had taken these first very public steps together, in front of an audience.
“Healing out loud” turns out to be a very apt way to describe the phenomenon of what veterans telling their stories can accomplish: for the veterans themselves, and for the community who does more than listen but actually hears them. As Phil Klay says, “Storytelling is one of the most vital responsibilities we have.”
The opportunity for veterans to tell their stories, through productions like KLRN’s Veterans’ Voices, The Telling Project and others, and for civilians to listen and respond, seems like a powerful way to bridge the alleged civilian-military divide. Storytelling and its counterpart, genuine listening, just might turn out to be the thread that veterans can follow to truly come home.
*Featured/top image: Cast members of "The Telling Project: San Antonio." Courtesy photo, KLRN.