Mighty Pen Project helps vets put past on paper

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

Joe Bruni's writing notebook, labelled as such, is much more than a notebook. It's a hefty three-inch binder, stuffed with his typed and hand-written stories.

A 93-year-old World War II veteran, Bruni has countless stories to tell.

It's why he commutes each Saturday, binder in tow, to the Mighty Pen Project, a 10-week writing seminar for veterans and active military offered by the Virginia War Memorial on the College of William and Mary's campus.

"The veterans that come to the Mighty Pen Project have a reason that brings them there," said David Robbins, the Richmond-based writer and educator who initiated the program.

"My sense is that they come in the door, and they sit at the table, because they have a want or need to do exactly this: to take a thought or recollection and get it on the page," Robbins said.

Since Sept. 14, the 13 members of the class have done just that.

In a community that Robbins said often suffers from silence, they've used writing to find voice.

Beyond names and dates

As the founder of two other writing nonprofits, Robbins said he came from the ethic of identifying communities that could benefit "from telling their stories, from the confidence and the training and the techniques of writing."

Several of his family members served in the military, and Robbins knew a need existed.

He connected with the Virginia War Memorial to start The Mighty Pen Project in Richmond, which Robbins taught this past spring.

Jeb Hockman, communications director for the Virginia War Memorial Foundation, said the project provides a way to preserve history for generations to come. Living, breathing histories – not just words from the pages of a history book.

The Memorial's education director, Jim Triesler, formerly taught high school history. And people would often tell him they disliked history.

"Why do people hate history? Because they say it's just names and dates," Triesler said. "What the Mighty Pen does is it gives stories to those names and dates."

Pete Donnelly, 54, wanted to be more than a name and a date. As an Air Force air liaison officer, Donnelly served three tours in Afghanistan and four in Iraq.

"The whole world was focused on us after 9/11," Donnelly said. Being part of the initial response was such a monumental event, he knew he had to capture it. So he did.

Over a period of years, Donnelly crafted a novel around America's initial response to Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The book, while fictionalized, mirrors Donnelly's own experiences with the invasion of Iraq and other major historical events.

"I wanted to try to capture the story of it," he said.

He joined Williamsburg's Mighty Pen Project to refine the book and learn technical aspects of writing. He said feedback from the class instructor, M. Lee Alexander, a William and Mary professor, has helped.

In time spent writing, Donnelly surprised himself.

"It may have taken writing about it to go back and look at it," Donnelly said. "It almost sets you back on your heels to think about what you actually did, you know, what you had to go through."

"At the time, you don't have time to think about it," he said. "But then you look back at it, and you go, 'Wow, that was something.'"

Unearthing

As Sam Pressler has seen, writing is an unearthing process, whether intended or not, of things more difficult to voice.

"When you use a pen, for example, it kinds of puts a medium between the thought and your mouth," he said. "It becomes tangible when you put it down on paper."

A 2015 graduate of William and Mary, Pressler founded and now directs the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), a nonprofit that coordinated with the War Memorial to bring the Mighty Pen Project to Williamsburg.

Mighty Pen aligned with ASAP's existing goal of offering writing, music and comedy programs to veterans and military families, through partnership with local colleges. Six veterans from ASAP's Hampton Roads Veterans Writing Group have already signed up for the Mighty Pen Project.

Developing the craft, whether writing, music or comedy, is ASAP's first aim, Pressler said. But the process reveals other benefits.

"What it turns into is truly a community of veterans coming together around an area of interest and really supporting one another to reach their personal goals," Pressler said.

The 13 veterans of Williamsburg's Mighty Pen come from a range of military branches and backgrounds.

But they're energized by each other's experiences.

"I learn from the younger as well as the more mature," Bruni said. "It sort of gives more meaning to whatever experiences I've had."

Donnelly recently helped start a veteran-focused publishing company, A15 Publishing, with the aim of capturing veteran stories and assisting veteran authors. He said he's talking to a few class members about publishing their works.

"Now, we're trying to express ourselves and hopefully share it with the American public, so that there is greater awareness of war, and the influence of war and its impact," Bruni continued.

Untold stories

Pressler stressed the equal importance of both process and product.

"We need to understand as a society that only less than one half of one percent of the populaton has served at any given time since 9/11," he said. The statistic creates a civilian-military divide.

Capt. Reinetta Van Eendenburg, 58, joined Williamsburg's Mighty Pen group with a purpose: telling an untold story.

She sought feedback from the class on her book idea, "Waves to Warriors," about female officers in the Navy in the last 30 years. And the class responded positively.

"There's not anything written about them, and there should be," she said. "Since I've been living it, I thought I would write about it."

Van Eendenburg joined the Navy in 1979, just out of college. She turned down a civilian job offer, because she craved a bigger challenge.

She desires to document, through interviews and personal vignettes, the adventures and frustrations of women who joined the Navy, largely untrained, and accomplished good.

"There's stories that are repeated about the first female pilots, the first female ship drivers," she said. "But what about the 99% of us female officers who weren't there. We have stories to tell that I think are as viable, and maybe even more poignant because most of us are average people."

Your voice matters

Bruni was just a teenager when he joined the 4th Marine Division. He risked his life, as many others did, during attacks on the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima. As many others didn't, he survived.

"I had survivor's guilt," Bruni said.

He questioned why, throughout the years, within his writing.

Bruni poured the question into a heart-rending poem after returning home in 1945. In "Ode to Joe," dedicated to a close friend killed on Iwo Jima, he writes: "Your right to survive / As great as mine / Was denied by torn, jaggered shell / That claimed you and others / And spared me to retell."

But, Bruni said, now he's realized.

"Now I know why. I'm supposed to be a spokesman and try to tell it as it is," he said. "To be the spokesman for those who no longer can speak for themselves.

"That's why this writing experience now is doubly important."

Veterans find the Mighty Pen Project, as Robbins said, to express something. Whether they know what that something is, they desire to be heard.

"I think they just want me to sit still, shut my mouth and hear them and see them, and whatever it is that they've got locked inside them," Robbins said. "And I say I want to hear it. Your voice matters."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-275-4934.

Hear their stories:

Veterans from the W&M Mighty Pen Project class will read selections of their writing at an open event. Once made available, tickets can be bought at asapasap.org.

When: Time TBD, Feb. 6, 2016

Where: Muscarelle Museum of Art, 603 Jamestown Road

Armed Services Arts Partnership

ASAP offers a variety of workshops for veterans at William & Mary: 10-week guitar and piano sessions, an eight-week comedy boot camp, a monthly veterans writing group. If interested in the spring 2016 sessions, or to donate, visit asapasap.org.

Virginia War Memorial

The Memorial houses several educational programs, resources and exhibits, with the mission of "honoring our veterans, preserving our history, educating our youth, inspiring patriotism in all." For more information or to donate, visit vawarmemorial.org.

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