“See Me For Who I Am”: Essays by Veterans for Everyone

The Northwoods River News
By David Chrisinger
09 May 16

By Brian Jopek

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 a whole.

The book

“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.”

Three stereotypes

“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.”

Course’s future

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 of 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.”

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