New book features essays by student-veterans

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
By David Chrisinger
06 Nov 15

“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 have helped in college. He achieved a 3.97-grade point average in 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,

“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.

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