This is the third in a series written by current National University’s MFA Creative Writing Program student Fabricio Correa focusing on NU's Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program which has created a welcoming learning environment and an accessible program for active and former military. Three current/alumni students offer their perspectives on being writers with military experience and the value of MFA programs that support their education.
Rachel Napolitano was born in Dallas, TX. She has been the wife of an F-16 pilot since 2011. In her memoir In the Passenger Seat of the Viper: Stories from the Wife of an F-16 Pilot, she talks about her experience in the military community from an insider’s point of view. Her lifestyle requires constant relocation to disparate countries. She lived in places such as LA, Italy, South Korea, and South Carolina, and traveled to exotic locales.
In her memoir, Rachel shares the challenges of being a military wife. Among them were securing a steady job due to the constant moving, the poor means of communication during her husband’s TDY (temporary duty), episodes of sexual harassment, loneliness, and loss of faith. About considering herself as a courageous writer, Rachel says, “I don’t feel brave, but I want to. I’m horrified at the idea of offending someone I care about, but I feel empowered when I read other writers who are truthful, like Stephen King. We’re not perfect, and I think people connect with each other in the blemishes.”
Furthermore, her writing possesses a radiant quality that sheds light even on her saddest moments. When she lost an F-16 pilot friend, she realized she was writing not about being a military wife but about her loss of faith. On this transformation, Rachel reflects, “It was cathartic. It forced me to step back and realize I was writing about something bigger than myself through this experience of loss. I am still uncomfortable admitting my loss of faith because of my upbringing, but once I wrote and rewrote that story, I had to recognize my own truth. By shedding my old faith, I was able to open up to new beliefs of gratitude and kindness, free from doctrine. I chose light instead of dark, something we have to do every day.”
Rachel attended an online MFA program in creative writing at National University “while living in South Korea, visiting family in Texas, and moving my household across the country to South Carolina. If I had been required to be in a physical classroom, I couldn’t have done it.”
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.”
Author Cass R. Sunstein introduces his 2016 book, The World According to Star Wars (HarperCollins) humbly enough:
I’m going to be covering some diverse topics here, including the nature of human attachment, whether timing is everything, how to rank the seven Star Wars movies, why Martin Luther King Jr. was a conservative, how boys need their mothers, the workings of the creative imagination, the fall of Communism, the Arab Spring, changing understandings of human rights, whether The Force Awakens was a triumph or a disappointment, the limits of human attention, and whether Star Wars really is better than Star Trek.
With the exception of that last point, which I still find open to debate, one of the joys of this book is that Mr. Sunstein accomplishes the tasks he sets out in a quick reading, well-documented short book that combines playful romps of unabashed Star Wars fandom with high level reviews of politics, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics, and film critique. The book is engaging for nerfherders and Jedi Knights, alike.
[Guest post by Chris Curtis. Chris teaches psychology at Delta College: www.delta.edu/clcurtis.]