By Lorri Drumm, Reem Abou Elenain, Anton Kotelyanskii and Henry Dominguez
Special to the Tribune
“I was coming off the subway and there was a gang fight about two or three blocks down the street. So I heard the shots ringing out and without even thinking, I took a knee behind a car. And I was looking around for the radio man, and I was saying, ‘Where the h--- is this guy? He was supposed to be right here next to me.’ That was my job in the Army (when) I was a lieutenant. Then I kind of shifted my head and laughed at myself. Ugh! You’re in Brooklyn.”
Veteran Matt Gallagher told this story during a recent Skype interview with Professor Alexis Hart’s Scripted by War class at Allegheny College. Hart had asked Gallagher to Skype with her students to discuss the book “Fire and Forget: an Anthology of Iraq and Afghanistan.” He also shared his thoughts about Veterans Day and his experience as a lieutenant in Iraq. “Fire and Forget” is a series of 15 short stories written by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and edited by Gallagher and Roy Scranton. Literature has changed with the times and through wars.
“A big part of these wars is the recurring nature of them,” Gallagher said. “In Vietnam, you went over for 365 days and came back. In World War II, you went over until it was over.”
Gallagher talked about a question-and-answer session he had in a bookstore in Washington, D.C., where a Vietnam veteran writer asked about the lack of redemption in the narratives. There are a lot of redemption scenes in some of the stories, according to Gallagher, but they are not complete.
“There is no kind of ‘full circle’ redemptive narrative,” Gallagher said. “That would’ve been nice to include but probably would have been dry and forced. There’s a reason it’s not there and that’s ’cause writers are still relatively young.
“Some are still in the military,” he said. “Afghanistan is not even over. Given the time ‘Fire and Forget’ was published, it would seem kind of contrived to have a clean, redemptive story. All that said, it doesn’t mean they won’t be coming down the road.”
Gallagher views the relationship between the American society and the contemporary military as an unhealthy one. He used to think that people who say “thank you for your service” to veterans don’t understand what it means to be at war. Even when they are earnest about it, their words don’t mean much to veterans who have seen war first-hand.
“I started to realize that maybe they do mean it,” Gallagher said.
He realized people were being serious and truly trying to understand soldiers. He began having conversations.
“As long as they don’t ask how many people are killed or any other question like that, it is usually a pretty healthy dialogue,” he said.
“Raising awareness is a good thing,” Gallagher said. “I noticed that a lot of time people who don’t know service members themselves had a lot of stereotypes about those service members: They all come from South; they all turned to the military because they didn’t have any other options. I’m not from the South. I joined the military after college.”
If people want to help, they should reach out to veterans they know personally and listen to their stories, Gallagher suggested. Most veterans are willing to share. Gallagher specifically mentioned the Wounded Warrior Project and Words After War as two organizations that provide support for veterans.
Hart, who teaches the Scripted by War class, said she was honored that Gallagher offered to participate in the discussion with her students. They had just completed reading “Fire and Forget.”
“Matt did an excellent job of articulating to the students what distinguishes writing of literary merit and other writing,” Hart wrote in an email. “He discussed the importance of veteran writers being taken seriously in the literary market — even if they are not writing about war.
“I felt it was also valuable for the students to hear directly from Matt how the stories in the collection have the potential to draw attention to the complicated process veterans encounter when transitioning from a combat zone back into civilian life as well as to the peculiar type of combat going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The students have gained new perspectives through the readings and class discussions.
“Overall this class, Scripted by War, has brought to light so many issues about what our veterans (and their families) face as they go into and return from the Global War on Terror,” Miriam Adams, class of 2017, wrote in an email. “I think it is important for people to understand the horrific effects this war has had on our veterans and to get a grasp on the real ‘truths’ of war. I strongly suggest this class to everyone.”
Being exposed to Gallagher’s experience provided the students with space for further reflection.
“I found it sad that the U.S. says ‘support our troops’ while Matt said ‘hire our troops,’” said Rodolfo Palacios, class of 2016. “Although we might have a fluctuating economy, there should be something worked out for these U.S. soldiers so that they can have a job or attend school.”
Upon returning from serving the war effort in 2009, Gallagher went back New York University to earn his master’s degree. Although he missed the camaraderie of the Army, he was set on becoming a writer. This became clear to him after attending a military writing workshop at NYU.
As for Gallagher’s own story, he served in Iraq for 15 months and said he feels it took him about the same amount of time to adjust to being back on U.S. soil.
Lorri Drumm, Reem Abou Elenain, Anton Kotelyanskii and Henry Dominguez are Allegheny College students. They reported and wrote this story for a class assignment in their journalism news writing course.