Young vets are breaking the silence on the realities of war

The New York Post
By David Chrisinger
23 May 16

By Erika Prafder

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 drive 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.”

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