Academic Program Director Frank Montesonti wrote to NewPages about the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at National University to share the interesting stories of some of National University’s military students/alumni. He notes, "About a fifth of our MFA program is active or former military, and some students have even taken our program while deployed overseas. I thought it would be nice to tell a couple of their stories while highlighting how military friendly our program is."
This second in a three-part series was written by current National University’s MFA creative writing program student Fabricio Correa. Read the first story here.
Weston Ochse '09
Weston Ochse spent thirty years in the military. The first five years was as a communications specialist who carried the combat radio. Then he transferred to intelligence where he stayed for the remainder of his career. He performed humanitarian operations in Bangladesh, was deployed in Afghanistan, and near cannibalized in Papua New Guinea. His intense military experience helped him carve indelible characters.
Weston has been praised for his positive depiction of soldiers with PTSD, both at peace and at war. Weston writes, “Too often a PTSD sufferer is the crazy in the grocery store or the sniper on the tower. Such negative depictions do little to further the cause of PTSD. Those examples are extreme and represent what can happen if society fails a person. I’d rather write about a PTSD sufferer and describe how they got PTSD and what they are doing to deal with it. There’s a lot we can learn from such things.”
In Papua New Guinea, Weston lived one of the most challenging experiences. “It was me and six rascals. They all had machetes and hungry looks. All I had was a smile. I managed to talk them out of killing and eating me by talking about American television. They liked our TV. It’s probably what saved me.”
Weston attended an MFA program at National University. A writer of more than 26 books in multiple genres, he has won the Bram Stoker Award for his first novel, Scarecrow Gods, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for his collection of short stories, Appalachian Galapagos, as well as won multiple New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.
Weston says of war stories, “too often, those who write military fiction glorify the violence, creating nothing more than gun porn for the mouth-breathing crowd. The best ones write about the architecture of the human soul, and how war changes it, both for good and bad.” Weston delves deep into his stories to reveal what is under the surface. “It’s important to understand that each soldier, sailor, airman, or marine is someone’s mother, sister, brother, father, son, etc. They are not one-dimensional characters. They are all too real, and it’s important to relate how war changes them to those who haven’t experienced war.”
This is a guest post from National University’s MFA creative writing program student Fabricio Correa:
Military stories have engrossed readers and viewers worldwide, ranging from iconic films like A Thin Red Line to visceral books such as Black Hawk Down. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenwriting – no matter the genre – we are shaken by the grit of reality and the hero’s quests for victory or survival.
A powerful tool in shaping the thoughts of a military fiction writer is a creative writing workshop. It provides a means to hone their writing craft and become part of a writing community.
Active-duty military and veterans can take advantage of many benefits in applying for a MFA program. National University accepts the GI Bill, the Fry Scholarship, the Spouse and Dependents Education Assistance, and the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program, and offers tuition reduction for active-duty military members. The MFA program has rolling admissions and is entirely online. This flexibility allows veterans as well as active duty service members to pursue a graduate degree.
Over the next several weeks, NewPages will feature three alumni who share their experiences in the military and at National University’s MFA in creative writing, a military-friendly MFA program entirely online.
Susan Caswell has been in the Army for twenty years, eighteen and a half on active duty. She was a direct commission as a chaplain. Most of her work is of a non-religious nature. She provides counseling to deal with combat and financial stress, relationship and medical issues, among other sensitive cases. Most of the service members are between the ages of 18-24, extremely young and away from the safety of their homes.
Susan is a writer of non-fiction. She says, “I write essays about experiences that haunt me. I feel some release when the experience is honored by putting it to paper.” Her short story “Three Hours and Forty-Nine Minutes” encapsulates the vulnerability of extreme situations. The story was featured in the GNU 2016 Summer Edition. “The feedback from my peers is invaluable. They help me understand what they can connect with, and what needs to be elaborated.”
The intensity of her experience can be felt in the nail-biting excerpt “A memory surfaces from my third deployment. I was in a chapel service in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2012. The sirens sounded just as the sermon started. Without missing a beat, Chaplain Vaughan reminded the congregation, ‘Lie down on the floor and protect your head with your hands.’”
As for the military writer being a powerful contributor to our society, Susan says, “I think my writing provides a window into the war. I write about the experiences that may not be reported in the press. People tell me that they have new insight into the war after reading my work.”