Veterans, families, actors share servicemember stories thanks to Rhinelander native’s book
WJFW, Newswatch 12
Lane Kimble, November 14, 2017
Zach Farris said hello to his family and paced the lobby outside Nicolet College’s theater Tuesday afternoon.
“I ended up arguing with myself for three weeks,” Farris said.
The student and Navy veteran was getting ready to go onstage and share his thoughts about his service, explaining how his understanding of “patriot” and the United States’ mission morphed in his mind during that time. Farris was nervous.
“There’s a side that isn’t so pretty, sometimes… Putting things on paper has always helped me view things a little different,” Farris said.
Onstage, words on paper became opinions shared through Farris’s voice. His message was one of a handful from speakers during the production “See Me for Who I Am,” a collection of veterans’ essays that Rhinelander native David Chrisinger compiled.
“[I’ve worked on it for the] better part of seven years,” Chrisinger said.
Chrisinger started working on the project with childhood friend Brett Foley, who served in the Marine Corps. The author got the stories from veterans he taught at UW-Stevens Point. Chrisinger wants his book to help break down stereotypes civilians have about veterans and vice versa.
“That’s a really powerful experience for veterans, when they realize that there are people who do care about their experiences,” Chrisinger said.
Veterans and family members shared experiences that included forming friendships with Jordanian soldiers while deployed overseas, a servicewoman accused of not seeing “real” combat, and the story of how training for and completing a 50-mile run saved a husband’s and wife’s relationship. Those stories and more flowed from paper to the audience’s ears.
“When people give you their time, that it’s worthwhile, that it’s impactful at least to somebody or that it does something or assists another in another way,” Farris said.
Some stories came from the voices of actors like Mikayla Goetz.
“My only job is to tell stories well, and you can’t do that without completely understanding the human,” Goetz said.
Goetz’s South Carolina-based theater company, Boots on the Ground, got ahold of Chrisinger’s book this year. She directly contacted the people she performs as to make sure the message the veterans hoped for gets delivered accurately.
“We’re all ignorant about each other until we talk, until we tell stories,” Goetz said. “So I just want to listen and to tell more stories about everyone that I can.
“The more that we sit in a room together and listen to someone else tell their story that has to, I believe deeply that that has to change the world.”
Goetz admits sharing those stories takes courage. But the more people like Zach Farris do, the more Chrisinger’s book turns from a collection of stories on paper to unified thoughts in minds.
“Once we figure out a way to tell those stories about the universal human experiences, that’s what really helps bridge the gap,” Chrisinger said.
Chrisinger’s next project builds on this one — helping post-9/11 veterans and their families share their stories.
Theater Group Does Veterans Performance At Nicolet College
Ken Krall, November 13, 2017
The Boots on the Ground theater company will perform at Nicolet College tomorrow presenting its adaptation of See Me for Who I Am, a book on soldiers’ war experiences edited by Rhinelander native David Chrisinger. The book is a collection of 20 first-person essays penned by Chrisinger’s students at UW-Stevens Point. The collection was published in February. Chrisinger says word of mouth led the South Carolina based theater group to his collection… “…..sometime this summer, June or July, I got an email from a woman named Mikayla from a theater groups called “Boots On The Ground”. She explained she had gotten a copy of our book from a friend of a friend. There was some sort of serendipitous finding of it. She said she was really blown away by some of the stories….” Mikayla Goetz says a student veteran coordinator at Coastal Carolina University gave her a copy of the book. The theater group was as impressed as Goetz and got permission from Chrisinger to perform the stories. Goetz says this book and another performance based on a veteran’s experience changed her view of a soldier’s life.. “…with this book, I realized, and it seems so simple, that each service member has a wholly different story, a completely different expeience that can’t be summed up in the one-dimensional ways that we portray them in movies, media and anything that doesn’t encapsulate who these people are….”
The Boots on the Ground theater company will perform at Nicolet College tomorrow presenting its adaptation of See Me for Who I Am, a book on soldiers’ war experiences edited by Rhinelander native David Chrisinger.
The book is a collection of 20 first-person essays penned by Chrisinger’s students at UW-Stevens Point.
The collection was published in February.
Chrisinger says word of mouth led the South Carolina based theater group to his collection…
“…..sometime this summer, June or July, I got an email from a woman named Mikayla from a theater groups called “Boots On The Ground”. She explained she had gotten a copy of our book from a friend of a friend. There was some sort of serendipitous finding of it. She said she was really blown away by some of the stories….”
Mikayla Goetz says a student veteran coordinator at Coastal Carolina University gave her a copy of the book. The theater group was as impressed as Goetz and got permission from Chrisinger to perform the stories.
Goetz says this book and another performance based on a veteran’s experience changed her view of a soldier’s life..
“…with this book, I realized, and it seems so simple, that each service member has a wholly different story, a completely different expeience that can’t be summed up in the one-dimensional ways that we portray them in movies, media and anything that doesn’t encapsulate who these people are….”
Service Members and Writing Fellows from The War Horse Reflect on Visit to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum
9/11 Memorial & Museum, The Memo Blog
Anna Hiatt, November 8, 2017
Everyone who was alive that day, and many who were not yet born, has a story to tell about September 11.
The War Horse is creating a home for these personal stories. In addition to reporting on the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and telling true stories about post-9/11 conflict and its aftermath, the War Horse publishes personal reflections by service members (both active duty and veterans), military families and civilians about war and its effects.
Earlier this year, the War Horse took its inaugural class of writing fellows—most of whom were veterans, some of whom were military spouses—to the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Four fellows and the director of writing seminars reflected on their museum visit in essays for our “Remembering September 11” collection. Additional writers for the story series, which launched on the 15th anniversary of the attacks, have included veterans, spouses, civilians and the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient.
Annie Erling interned at the Holocaust Museum where she interviewed survivors and guided visitors through the museum. The yellow shoes in the 9/11 Memorial & Museum reminded her of the Holocaust Museum’s infamous room of shoes.
Joy Craig stood in rapt silence in front of the TV as the second plane hit, and her job as a Marine Drill Instructor on Parris Island took on a whole new meaning.
Liesel Kershul fell in love with a freshly-minted Marine a year after September 11.
Jenny Pacanowski felt filled with patriotism and devotion to the war cause after the attacks. She joined up and served, but came back wondering, Isn’t there a better way?
David Chrisinger felt removed from the September 11 attacks, until he visited the museum and talked with a witness to the attacks.
Summer of 17: Women Fighting and Writing
Peter Molin, August 4, 2017
“All wars are boyish and fought by boys,” wrote Herman Melville a long time ago, but it’s hard not to notice all the women-authored and women-centric war-writing that has appeared in the summer of 2017. Much of the new work has taken the shape of memoir and journalism, but new fiction and theater also contribute to the feel that something different and exciting is happening. Some of the new work is by “First Wave” women war writers such as Siobhan Fallon and Helen Benedict–familiar names in the war-writing scene–but appearing also are many new writers–a “Second Wave”–describing subjects and representing perspectives previously unheard or overlooked. The new work is appearing in print or being performed on stage, but online venues seem to be the medium of choice for publication and discussion of this up-to-the-moment phenomenon. Much credit goes to a highly motivated-and-resourced new organization called The War Horse, of which a profile of founder Thomas Brennan can be found here. The War Horse in particular has taken upon itself to promote writing by women-veterans, and even more specifically a War Horse writing workshop that took place in New York City in April, led by David Chrisinger, though not limited to women, has been enormously generative of first-person narratives detailing aspects of life in uniform for women in all its variety and implication. Some examples include:
“Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD,” by Army veteran Jenny Pacanowski.
“Drown Proofing, Khaki Shorts. Some Things About Dive School Don’t Change,” by Coast Guard veteran Tenley Lozano.
“Circumstances, Fortunes, or Misfortunes,“ by USMC veteran Teresa Fazio.
The titles of Pacanowski’s and Lozano’s pieces preview their intriguing storylines; Fazio’s title doesn’t give her story away so readily, but the article describes the author’s post-service trip to India to find meaning in the Sikh tradition of Prasad. Fazio’s not the only female vet with a spiritual bent, either; another War Horse seminar participant (and my former central New Jersey neighbor), Army veteran Supriya Venkatesan, describes her own search for tranquility through Transcendental Meditation in an article titled “I Lived in a Town Where Everyone Meditated Together. Every Day.” Venkatesan already has a list of non-war-related publishing credits as long as your arm on exotic subjects such as bio-hacking, eco-sex, and home-birth, fyi for all aspiring vet-writers searching to break out of rigid identification as a mil-and-war writer.
In the articles I’ve posted, Pacanowski, Lozano, Fazio, and Venkatesan don’t directly address military sexism and toxic military masculinity, but awareness of the difficulty of being a woman in uniform underwrites the ethos and worldview of their writing. Not coincidentally, The War Horse broke the story of the Marine Corps photo-sharing scandal early in 2017—Thomas Brennan’s post-Marine career began as an investigative journalist. Fellow ex-Marine Elliot Ackerman, the author of the novels Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing, profiled Brennan this summer in a telling piece for Esquire titled “Inside the Nude Photo Scandal That Rocked the Marine Corps”—the despair of two proud Marines as they confront the easily-held misogyny of fellow male Marines is palpable. Appearing at almost the same time as Ackerman’s piece was Andria Williams’ story “The List,” a fictional dramatization of a photo-sharing scandal involving two Air Force officers, published on Afghan Post author Adrian Bonenberger’s The Wrath-Bearing Tree web journal. Williams, whose blog The Military Spouse Book Review has long tracked women’s war writing and military family issues, notes that she presciently first drafted her story in 2013, but filed it away thinking it too far-fetched. Little did she know…. the one-two punch of Ackerman’s article and Williams’ story reinforces the impression that the military’s ability to satisfactorily resolve its gender and sexual harassment/sexual abuse issues anytime soon and without outside help is slim, but if identifying the problem is the first step to a solution, then the authors have done their part.
The battle goes on on other fronts, too. On stage, a new play called Bullet Catchers, currently running in New York City, portrays life in an Army unit through the perspective of the women who occupy leadership positions, as well those who serve in the ranks. Bullet Catchers has already elicited at least two shrewd reviews from wise observers of the passing scene: “Bullet Catchers: Women’s Modern Warfare” by Rachel Kambury posted on the New York City Veterans Alliance website and “A Plausible Reality“ by Teresa Fazio, written for Consequence magazine.
Finally (though I’m bound to be forgetting something significant), are the appearance of four books in 2017 by First Wave contemporary war-writing women authors. Already out are Elyse Fenton’s volume of verse Sweet Insurgent and Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages and soon to come are poet Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes and novelist Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season. And finally finally, just published is long-time editor of the Veterans Writing Project journal 0-Dark-Thirty editor Jerri Bell’s and Tracy Crow’s anthology It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan. It’s My Country Too’s historical perspective reminds us that the current perfect storm of First and Second Wave women’s war-writing didn’t appear brand new spun out of whole cloth. Not to push things back to 1776, as Bell and Crow do, but to a more-recent 2016, important precedents began appearing last year when anthologies such as Retire the Colors, edited by Dario DiBattista, and The Road Ahead, edited by Adrian Bonenberger and Brian Castner, offered robust mixtures of powerful stories by both men and women veterans.
So what to make of it all? The first step, it seems to me, is recognizing, respecting, and encouraging the development. The second step is assessing what women’s war-writing has to tell us, both about life-in-uniform for women and masculine traditions and conventions of war-writing. Third, preparing for the backlash, which will inevitably come in the form of sneers about “the feminization of war-writing” and efforts to reestablish its manly basis. Fourth, ever-more precisely disentangling current notions about military culture, war-winning, and fighting ability from their unproductive entwinement with accepted cultural ideas about manhood and patriarchy, so that the military becomes a better place for all Americans to serve, rather than being a big boy’s club, and applies itself more effectively to winning wars, rather than being an endless employment and get-rich opportunity for flag-wavers, war addicts, mercenaries, and profiteers.
After blowing the lid off of the Marines United scandal, The War Horse wants to improve journalism on veterans and trauma
Christine Schmidt, August 1, 2017
The first piece of writing Thomas Brennan ever had published ran in The New York Times. It was a thank-you note to a combat photojournalist who had chronicled Brennan’s wounds in Afghanistan which ultimately contributed to him medically retiring from the Marine Corps with a Purple Heart.
The next few dozen pieces, running in the Jacksonville Daily News in North Carolina, were what Brennan considers clichés of military reporting: quick announcements about the casualties of soldiers overseas — including one for a Marine who was killed at the same base where he served — and profiles of veterans from World War II.
“I was…chasing after dying veterans to tell their story before they were gone forever,” Brennan said. “With today’s technology, we don’t need to wait until my generation is dying to tell our stories.”
So he set out to cover the military and veterans differently. He had written for the Times’ At War blog several times since the thank-you note and started pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. Before he knew it, the next major piece he reported was an explosive exposé about a multi-thousand-member Facebook group called Marines United and the nude photos of female service members exchanged in a scandal that roiled the ranks and had the commandant of the Marine Corps testifying about it to Congress. It was published this March by Reveal by the Center for Investigative Reporting, but also by Brennan’s one-year-old journalism outlet focusing on the enterprise, longform, and investigative sides of the military stories, The War Horse.
“I’ve never been an editor. I’ve never been a development person for a newsroom. I’m a stubborn Marine grunt with a dream,” said the 31-year-old Brennan.
The dream of The War Horse consists of a few tentpoles: holding the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs accountable, bridging the divide between the military and civilians, and developing a community across that divide. Brennan emphasizes collaborating with more established news organizations on coverage about veterans, war, and trauma rather than competing, following the model of other single-topic sites like The Marshall Project.
“There are some military culture sites and military news sites that specifically tailor themselves to veterans…but they’re often putting veterans in one corner and the military in another corner,” Brennan said. “Accountability journalism, longform, and enterprise packages are not their bread and butter.”
There are a number of existing news outlets in the military space, some of which focus on breaking news, innovations, and wartime events. But a new tribe of feature-based news organizations has sprung up around the needs of newer generations of veterans. We’ve profiled a few at Nieman Lab: Task & Purpose grew out of a veterans-focused job site and now focuses on issues like benefits and transitions to civilian careers, as well as original feature reporting, including coverage of veterans protesting at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. War on the Rocks publishes content on national security, military lifestyle humor, and even op-eds from John McCain, Barack Obama, and 122 Republican members of the national security community (in an open letter regarding then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s suitability for the office).
According to The War Horse’s annual report, accountability journalism on military and veterans affairs comprises less than 5 percent of all news coverage. Brennan said that The War Horse is unique as a nonprofit newsroom investigating both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veteran Affairs. But they are determined to tell the complete story of veterans and military affairs, both including and beyond investigations.
“Being ‘just investigations’ sends a bad message. It pits us against them — our newsroom against the DOD and the VA. We want to publish the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Brennan said. “That sends a message of fairness and integrity of our reporting.”
It’s through these good, bad, and ugly avenues that The War Horse is trying to transcend the gaps across the government, active military, veterans, civilians, and even the journalism industry. “We’re not stories ‘by veterans, for veterans,’” he added. “We have plenty of veterans writing for us, but it goes back to bridging the military–civilian divide. It’s all part of helping make the conversation start.”
The War Horse launched with $53,300 from a Kickstarter fundraiser in early 2016 and continued to grow after its first story, a multimedia package on service members killed in action, was published that June. Over the next year, they have brought in enough donations and grants that The War Horse is working with a budget of more than $500,000 for the next 18 months. Brennan said about 75 percent of their revenue comes from large-gift philanthropy, such as the Schultz Family Foundation, the John Logan Family Foundation, and the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund. The remaining 25 percent comes from individual donors, including repeat donors from the Kickstarter. Gerry Lenfest, a veteran of the Navy and the founder of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, personally donated tens of thousands of dollars and has acted as a business mentor to the team, Brennan said.
So much support has poured in over the past few weeks that it surpassed the original budget of $250,000 they had planned on for next year. As a new nonprofit, they’re taking advantage of the overwhelming support to integrate sustainability from the outset: “We want to save 5 percent of our annual fundraising to put toward an endowment fund. It may take forever, but I want to make sure the War Horse can continue on in perpetuity,” Brennan said.
Currently staffed by only three people (editor Anna Hiatt, an adjunct journalism professor at Columbia University where she taught Brennan in the master’s program; David Chrisinger as the director of writing seminars; and Brennan himself), the organization has an extensive volunteer network and paid freelancers both with and without military connections. Supporting their journalists who may be covering sensitive and controversial material is a top priority. “Marines United has taught Anna and I that we need to build a newsroom infrastructure that keeps our journalists safe. That’s not cheap,” Brennan said. “If we’re going to be publishing controversial things or if there’s negative online backlash, I want to build a newsroom that can stand behind our journalists and take care of them.”
Mental health in active military and veterans is a serious issue. It’s become a pillar of the protection Brennan pledges for both his journalists and the people that they interview. As a suicide-attempt survivor diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Brennan said he has faced “ignorant” questions from journalists who didn’t understand the impact their questioning could have.
“Even as a veteran, I’m curious about whether or not a veteran has killed someone or been in combat…But in the veteran space, it seems to be okay to hone in on the most traumatic [event when] reporting on our service,” Brennan said. The War Horse has an extensive policy for reporting on trauma listed on their website, both for transparency to potential interviewees and for guidance to other journalists. “The trauma standards are put there so we can be held to a standard, so people know what they’re getting into when they talk to us.”
But it was also journalists along the way, throughout his master’s program at Columbia in 2014-15, who helped him shape The War Horse into the single-topic, concentrated effort it has now become.
“The only thing that has made The War Horse so successful is that every journalist I’ve ever met who has told me, ‘Please let me know how I can help’ — I wasn’t afraid to take them up on that offer,” Brennan said. “The willingness to help has transcended the military–civilian divide.”
Now, The War Horse is continuing its push into telling the stories of recent-generation veterans. They recently launched a series called “Veterans Adding Value” supported by the Schultz Family Foundation to explore the transitions from military to civilian life. The first three profiles, all on female veterans, are meant to signal The War Horse’s journalistic depth beyond investigations such as Marines United.
The organization also recently launched a writing seminar series to encourage veterans to tell their own stories. The War Horse and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University hosted a coalition of military reporters, veteran advocates, educators, and 15 veterans of military operations after 9/11 for a five-day writing seminar in April. More seminars are planned at the University of California, Boulder Crest Retreat, and the Carey Institute for Global Good.
Brennan said The War Horse is always looking for more volunteers, connections, and collaborations. “Our proposition is that we’re not everybody else. But at the same time we want to be complementary, not competitive,” he said. “There’s more room for failure if you try to do everything on your own.”
UWSP Veterans Seminar Expands in UW System
Stevens Point Journal
Sari Lesk, February 13, 2017
A seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point that helps veterans transition out of military life will be available at other campuses in the UW System starting in the fall.
The Back from the Front seminar is open only to first-year students who are veterans or currently enlisted. The course helps the students put the skills they learned in the military to use in the civilian world. Students also study the history of American veterans returning home from war, which helps them process their own experience, according to a news release. The UW system allocated $10,000 to UWSP to help develop the seminar for use at other campuses.
Shauna Holmes, president of the Veterans Club at UWSP, said the course is important for students to help them feel like they have a place at the university when they leave the military.
“Being able to see themselves with other veterans, it helps a lot because that transition is difficult,” she said. “That can help prevent thinking ‘I shouldn’t be here. This isn’t my fit.'”
Holmes said she was not able to fit the course in her schedule as a first-year student but encourages incoming veterans to try to include it. She said veterans who start college should look for a support system to help them through their college experience, such as joining the Veterans Club or befriending another veteran on campus.
“That could be everything to keep you in college and help you get a degree,” she said.
UW System President Ray Cross thanked Rep. Katrina Shankland, whose district includes UWSP, for helping expand the program.
“The UW System is a national leader in offering exceptional educational services to student veterans, and expanding access to the veterans’ seminar to more institutions is a perfect example of our commitment to ensuring our veterans have the best possible experience,” he said in the release.
Students in the course write a 2,000- to 4,000-word personal essay in place of a final exam. Some essays from the course were published last year in a book called “See Me for Who I Am: Student Veterans’ Stories of War and Coming Home.” Proceeds from the book support the Veterans Club at the university.
September 11, 2001: UW-Stevens Point class incorporates 9/11 anniversary into veterans’ class
Holly Chilsen, September 14, 2016
A first-year seminar at UW-Stevens Point uses the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to engage student veterans.
David Chrisinger is an associate lecturer in the history department. His class called “Back from the Front” is going on its third year.
Students spend 16 weeks learning the history of veterans coming home from war and also do a lot of reflective writing.
Chrisinger said many of his students were in elementary school when the 2001 attacks happened.
“It’s not so much me telling them what they need to know about 9/11, it’s facilitating their own research and their own discovery and their own understanding and helping them make sense of what they went through, through a historical lens,” Chrisinger said.
He said for some of his students, 9/11 was a big reason why they joined the military.
His class also discusses if the tactics used in the war that followed are working and if they think the U.S. is on the right course or not.
Young vets are breaking the silence on the realities of war
The New York Post
Erika Prafder, May 23, 2016
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 drives 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.”
“See Me For Who I Am”: Essays by Veterans for Everyone
The Northwoods River News
Brian Jopek, May 9, 2016
David Chrisinger’s grandfather, a World War II veteran who was in combat during the battle for Okinawa in 1945, was one of several members of his family to serve in the U.S. military.
His father and uncle are Vietnam-era veterans.
A Rhinelander native and graduate of Rhinelander High School, Chrisinger didn’t serve in the military.
He took a different path, a path that has led him to the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point where he’s an associate lecturer and teaches a veteran reintegration class.
He’s published a book containing 20 essays written by post-Sept. 11 veterans titled “See Me For Who I Am.”
The essays tell stories, sometimes humorous, other times sad, of college-age veterans, some with deployment experience in either Iraq or Afghanistan or both and some of that experience in combat, trying to make their transition from the military mindset back to that of a civilian.
In late April, Chrisinger and four of the veterans-turned college students who have essays in the book attended the most recent “Dining with Vets” event at Nicolet Technical College.
“I got involved in veterans issues during my time on the public policy side,” Chrisinger said. “I was working for the Government Accountability Office and with the Veterans Administration.”
He said he also started working with a few non-profit organizations that used writing as a therapy tool for returning veterans.
“I started a project with a good friend of mine who served in the Marine Corps, Brett Foley,” he said. “We went to high school together.”
Foley, with a deployment to Iraq and another to Afghanistan during his time in the Marines, is one of the veterans with an essay in “See Me For Who I Am.”
“He came back in 2010 and was having a tough time initially,” Chrisinger said.
The project began when Foley would tell Chrisinger his story.
“We started a website as a place for other folks to tell their story,” he said. “We got a pretty good following going and decided to do a 50-mile ultra-marathon to raise money for a group called ‘The Mission Continues,’ an amazing non-profit group that puts veterans in leadership positions in their communities.”
They ran the marathon in October 2013, and soon after, Chrisinger said the university approached him about putting together a course geared toward veterans.
“It would incorporate some of the wellness and writing as a reintegration tool,” he said. “I’ve been doing that for the past two years.”
When he first began teaching the class, Chrisinger said he was really nervous about it.
“I was worried the students wouldn’t take me seriously,” he said. “Being a civilian, I thought they’d be like ‘Oh, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ So, I approached it not as ‘I’m going to teach you to transition.’ I’ve never claimed to teach anybody to transition.”
Instead, Chrisinger said it’s really a college success class.
“The things that are going to make them successful in college are the reflective writing, figuring out their story, connecting with each other, that sort of thing,” he said. “The class is really about giving the students the opportunity to figure things out, give them a sort of buffer zone. They build a group of friends they can go through the ranks with hopefully.”
Chrisinger said once the students feel comfortable with each other, and they’ve figured out their story, ways are found to connect them to the university as whole.
“The essays they were writing in class were so good,” Chrisinger said. “I felt it wasn’t fair that only I get to read these. I felt they really had important points to make that I thought other civilians should be aware of.”
He put together 20 of his students who wanted to submit something to put in a book.
“I approached a publisher at 3 p.m. on a Friday,” Chrisinger said. “At 3:30, I received an email from them saying ‘Yeah, we’re on board. Let’s do this!’ That was about a year ago.”
The book “See Me For Who I Am” was released in February of this year.
“The whole gist is, if you could tell civilians a story about yourself, about what it means to be in the military, what it means to serve, what would you tell?” Chrisinger said. “That’s the collection. What’s funny is when a veteran reads the collection, they say ‘Oh, I can totally relate to so-and-so.’ Or ‘I had an experience very similar to so-and-so’ A lot of familiarity.”
On the other hand, he said when a civilian reads it, the reaction is, as one would imagine, different.
“They’ll say things like ‘I had no idea it was like this’ or ‘I never thought about it that way,'” Chrisinger said. “So, I think it’s helping in creating a dialogue between these two groups that don’t always talk.”
He said the “civilian-military divide” is very pronounced on college campuses.
“This is a way to help each other and then connect with their professors and other students,” Chrisinger said.
He described the success of the book as “tremendous.”
“The publisher thought we might sell a thousand or two thousand in the first year,” Chrisinger said. “So, we added an additional print run of 1,000 and we sold out in six weeks. I don’t know if we hit the market at the right time or of people are just thirsting for these stories. It’s gotten a really nice reception.”
That reception has included faculty at other universities.
“I think they want to do right by their student veterans but don’t always know what that right thing is,” Chrisinger said. “They might use it as a guideline or a learning tool because there are all these stereotypes of veterans that if all you do is watch the news and you don’t actually know someone who served, it’s really hard to tell how common things like post- traumatic stress are.”
Certainly, he said, there are those who do struggle.
“People will ask ‘How badly?’ and ‘What can I do to help?'” Chrisinger said. “Or they’ll realize there are people who aren’t struggling and wonder what’s going on there.”
“I always talk about the three stereotypes – the downtrodden, broken vet,” Chrisinger said. “There’s the ‘hero,’ right? The one who can jump over tall buildings. And then there’s this ticking time bomb, the Rambo sort of stereotype. I’ve taught two years, I’ve had 80 students and I don’t have any Medal of Honor recipients, I don’t have any that are going to fly off the handle and bring a gun to school, I don’t have any downtrodden, ‘pity me’ types. I don’t have any of those students.”
He said because of that, there’s clearly a disconnect in what many hear about veterans and what’s actually going on.
“That’s what the book is trying to address,” Chrisinger said. “Here’s what’s going on with these students and here’s what they want you to know.”
He said his oldest student to this point was in his mid-30s and the youngest was right out of the service at around 22 or 23 years of age.
“Most are in that 25 to 26-year-old age range,” Chrisinger said. “They did four to six years in the service and got out, maybe took a break, maybe tried another place, it didn’t work out and now they’re here. It’s really geared to the students who are new to higher education so we try to get folks in there who have fewer than 30 credits.”
Despite the successes, the future of the Chrisinger’s course at UWSP isn’t a sure thing.
It will continue during the fall semester this year.
“After that, we don’t know what’s going to happen with the budget,” Chrisinger said. “This class is a first-year seminar program and that program has been slated to eventually be cut if the budget doesn’t improve but we’re exploring a couple different options so we could still fund it. We’ve been talking to a couple of non-profit groups who might decide to fund it.”
He said the hard part, though, is figuring where the class fits in the degree structure for a student.
“To get your GI Bill benefits to pay for it, accredited courses have to be part of your plan,” Chrisinger said. “The course has to somehow fit into a requirement and we haven’t quite figured that out.”
Regardless, he said he’s committed for the long haul.
“I’m not going down without a fight,” Chrisinger said. “I’ve seen what a class like this can be for folks so, they’re going to have to drag me out of there if it’s decided to cut it.”
UWSP student-veterans book to launch Feb. 17
Stevens Point Journal
February 4, 2015
A book of essays by veterans who are University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point students is about to be published.
“See Me for Who I Am” includes essays by 20 student-veterans at UW-Stevens Point, aimed at undermining stereotypes of military service. “See Me for Who I Am: Student Veterans’ Stories of War and Coming Home” works to bridge a gap that divides veterans from the American people they fought to protect.
A book launch party will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 17 in the Encore Room of the Dreyfus University Center. Sponsored by the Veterans Club, it is open to the public. Several authors will read excerpts from their essays and be available to sign books.
The book is compilation of essays written for a UW-Stevens Point class developed by David Chrisinger. The UW-Stevens Point alumnus began teaching “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life” in fall 2014 as a first-year seminar. The class was open only to veterans, one of few classes like it in the country. First-year seminars help new students learn the skills they need to do well in college.
Chrisinger helped students transition by learning the history of war, running and writing about their experiences. Inspired by veteran Brian Castner, author of “The Long Walk,” members of the class learn to translate military skills to those needed to succeed in life.
Chrisinger originally planned to self-publish the collection as a fundraiser to keep the class going. When he asked author Castner to read the essays and write a foreword for it, Castner said the essays were good enough to be published professionally.
“I started researching university presses that specialize in military-related topics, and I found Hudson Whitman Press out of Albany, New York. I submitted the manuscript last spring, and the editor emailed me back within an hour,” Chrisinger said. The press had been looking for a project like this.
Students’ essays from the first two semesters of “Back from the Front” seminar are in the book, edited by Chrisinger. “With thoughtfulness, humor and honesty, they relive and relate their worst memories, illustrate shared experiences, explain the fulfillment of combat, and show us what going to war really entails,” he writes in the introduction.
“This is as authentic as it gets. These essays reflect the eloquent, powerful voice of the 21st-century American combat veterans’ collective efforts to navigate their way back into a society that offers gratitude and respect, but lacks empathy and understanding,” writes David J. Danelo, veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and author of “The Return: A Field Manual for Life after Combat.”
The book will be available at the launch, in the UW-Stevens Point Store and through Amazon on Feb. 15. For more, visit http://hudsonwhitman.com/books/see-me-for-who-i-am/.
Rhinelander graduate makes impact on veterans transitioning to college life at UWSP
December 14, 2015
A Rhinelander high school graduate credits a conversation with ultimately convincing him to help veterans when they come home from the service.
David Chrisinger was up late one night in 2010 when he decided to reconnect with Brett Foley, who had come home from Afghanistan. Foley opened up about his struggles. That conversation led Chrisinger to start a website and organize fundraisers designed to help veterans. He also began writing a blog called Stronger at the Broken Places.
“[The blog’s title] comes from a Hemingway quote: ‘The world breaks everyone, and some are stronger at the broken places,’ so that was the whole focus of the class,” Chrisinger said.
That class is called Back from the Front. Chrisinger is in his second year of teaching veterans at UW- Stevens Point. He helps them transition from the military to society and into college life.
“The important thing is validating those experiences and listening and giving them an outlet to vent if they need to, to build relationships, to create friendships,” he said.
Tyler Pozolinski and Chase Vuchetich are two students who have grown during their time in the class. When Pozolinski came to school at UWSP after his time in the service, he wouldn’t tell people that he was a 23-year-old freshman. Now he’s proud to say he’s a veteran. “I have no problem telling people, ‘This is who I am; this is what I’ve done,” said Pozolinski.
Vuchetich was hesitant to open up to other veterans on campus. Now, thanks to Back from the Front, that isn’t the case anymore.
“You kind of start talking,” Vuchetich said. “‘Hey, you want to go have a beer after class?’ ‘Yeah, sure,’—and then, before you know it, you’ve got a really good group of guys and we hang out all the time now.”
Pozolinski and Vuchetich will be published in Chrisinger’s new book, titled See Me for Who I Am. The book collects 20 essays written by soldiers. The essays detail their experiences both on and off the battlefield. Pozolinski tells the readers about the lessons he learned from a recurring nightmare.
“After a while the dream started to go away, and I started to figure out what the dream meant was that nobody could help me fight my battles or beat my demons but myself,” he said.
Vuchetich’s essay is about how his parents and high school coaches prepared him for the Marines.”[I] remember going to Marine Corps boot camp being like ‘That was a breeze compared to football practice,” he said,
New book features essays by student-veterans
The Stevens Point Journal
November 6, 2015
“Angry, violent and dangerous are some of the adjectives that are commonly used to describe veterans. I wish I could say they were wrong, but they’re not – at least not completely. … I was a combat engineer in the Army, and without those attributes, I might not be here today.”
So begins an essay by Aaron Lewis, who served as a combat engineer in the U.S. Army. He is among student-veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point whose essays are about to be published in a book, “See Me for Who I Am.”
The journey from veteran to author is a compelling story in itself.
In fall 2014, David Chrisinger began teaching “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life” at UW-Stevens Point. First-year seminars on a host of topics help new students learn the skills they need to do well in college. This one was open only to veterans, one of few classes like it in the country.
Chrisinger, a UW-Stevens Point graduate who developed the class, helps his students transition by learning history, running and writing about their experiences. Inspired by veteran Brian Castner, author of “The Long Walk,” members of the class learn to translate military skills to those needed to succeed in life.
“When David talked about the way writing can help, I thought, ‘Yeah, right,’” Lewis said. “But it worked.”
For Lewis, that became a 30-page chronicle of his late teen years, joining the Army at age 21 to pay for college. He learned how to arm and disarm lands mines and to detect minute details in an ever-changing foreign landscape. Deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, his job was route clearance – detecting improvised explosive devices (IED).
Just one IED hit his vehicle – and the explosion changed his life. His level of terror made him super-aware, and always on edge. He became angry, violent, frustrated and guilty that his only comfort was terrifying someone else.
Discharged in 2009, anger became his baggage. Two years later, Lewis was on the edge of committing suicide. “The good thing about hitting rock bottom is the only way to go is up,” he said.
He enrolled at UW-Stevens Point in the fall of 2014. Discipline and planning honed in the military has helped in college. He achieved a 3.97 grade point average his first semester. Now 30, Lewis, is majoring in accounting and plans to marry fianceé Jennifer Barlow next summer.
“My life has really turned around. I’m very happy with where I’m going,” Lewis said
Writing his essay for class helped Lewis let go of hate and anger and put it in the past.
“I realized my strengths, things I’ve had to overcome that made me who I am,” Lewis said. “Putting it on paper, I have my peace. It’s just a story now. I feel like I have a fresh start in a whole new story.”
The thought of being published “is kind of terrifying,” Lewis said. He’s shared personal thoughts and challenges, which he hopes will help veterans going through similar experiences and help civilians understand more about those who serve.
Chrisinger originally planned to self-publish the collection as a fundraiser to keep the class going. When he asked author and veteran Castner to read the essays and write a foreword for it, Castner said the essays were good enough to be published professionally.
“I started researching university presses that specialize in military-related topics, and I found Hudson Whitman Press out of Albany, New York. I submitted the manuscript last spring, and the editor emailed me back within an hour,” Chrisinger said.
The press had been looking for a project like this.
The 20 essays are by students in two semesters of the “Back from the Front” seminar. Several stories inspired prints by UW-Stevens Point student artists as part of a Veteran Print Project in spring 2015. The images will be featured in the book and website, http://hudsonwhitman.com/books/see-me-for-who-i-am.
“See Me for Who I Am” aims to undermine stereotypes of military service. “With thoughtfulness, humor and honesty, they relive and relate their worst memories, illustrate shared experiences, explain the fulfillment of combat, and show us what going to war really entails,” Chrisinger writes in the introduction.
The book will be published Feb. 15, 2016.
A picture is worth a thousand words
The Northwoods River News, Andy Hildebrand
May 28, 2015
When Rhinelander native DavidChrisinger began his work with veterans in 2013, his goal was simple. He wanted to help his boyhood friend Brett Foley transition from the military back to civilian life. At first that took the form of late-night emails and phone calls, simple conversations. Over time, as he read more and more about the immense challenge returning home can be for veterans, Chrisinger began to see his own family history, most notably his grandfather, through a new light.
Two years, a 50-mile run and countless hours of research and fundraising later, Chrisinger is more dedicated than ever to the cause.
He teaches a class at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point geared toward helping veterans adjust to college. Chrisinger considered the class’s first semester, which took place last fall, a huge success. Entering the spring semester, he knew he wanted to add an extra piece to his class that would help tie it all together. That’s when an idea struck.
“I met Yvette Pino, the founder of the Veteran Print Project, when Brett Foley and I were fundraising for The Mission Continues (an organization that helps veterans use the skills they learned while serving after they return home),” he said. “Yvette had gone through The Mission Continues and she was the only fellow that lived in Wisconsin, so I met up with her at one of her shows in Madison. She told me about the things her project was doing and what their mission was.”
Chrisinger knew it was an ambitious idea and would take a lot of coordination on his part, but there was no question the result could be incredibly rewarding.
“It’s a really cool idea,” he said. “It’s pairing veterans with artists. The veteran tells a story and then the artist illustrates that story with a fine art print. I saw some of the examples that she and other artists had done, and I thought it was such an interesting way of connecting people and also documenting the stories and the history.”
He contacted Pino and told her what he had in mind. She immediately agreed to lend a hand and just like that, the ball was rolling. Next, Chrisinger had to reach out to some of his contacts at the university.
“I reached out to the print-making professor at UWSP and I pitched him the idea,” he said. “Little did I know, his wife, who’s also a professor in the history department, has done lots of functions like this in the past. They were both really excited about this idea.”
Now that he had all of his ducks in a row, the only task that remained was to pitch the idea to his students, which Chrisinger said made him most nervous.
“A few weeks into the semester, I had Yvette visit my class,” he said. “She pitched her program and her idea. I was pleasantly surprised by how interested the students were. At first I thought they might think, ‘Oh great, I have to talk to some 21-year-old artist and I don’t want to do that.’ Maybe they hadn’t even told their families these stories yet. We had to pitch it as an opportunity to connect with someone on campus and in the end, they’ll get this really cool print.”
Next, the pair made a trip across campus to fill in the art students.
“Yvette visited the artists and told them about the program,” he said. ”I think they were nervous about it. These are really important stories and they could be really hard to tell. It’s a big responsibility and they were worried about doing the stories justice.”
At least some of their nerves were put at ease when the two groups finally met up so the veterans could tell their stories.
“We arranged a meeting between the students and they talked for an hour or an hour and a half,” Chrisinger said. “Some people even got to be decent friends in that time and exchanged numbers. Some of the students brought pictures of themselves when they were in the service, or brought some kind of memento they had come home with. They told all sorts of different stories about what happens at war and what happened when they came home. They talked about funny things that happened and sad things that happened. They talked about moments when they really thought they had proven themselves. They told a variety of stories.”
When the meeting was over, both groups returned to their regular schedules. While the young artists worked on their renderings of the stories, Chrisinger said his class was learning how to put them on paper.
“Three months went by and all this time the art students had been working on the prints and trying to figure out how to illustrate the stories,” he said. “In the meantime, I was teaching my students how to write their story. The story they ended up telling the artists, we wanted to put down on paper.”
In early May, the two groups met again, this time to unveil the work they had done. Chrisinger said it was fascinating to see the different ways the artists chose to illustrate the stories and the reactions from the veterans.
“There was some really amazing work done. The way we facilitated it was we hung up all the prints and each artist came forward in front of the group to explain what they were trying to accomplish with the print and what they were trying to illustrate, the things they picked up on and the things in the veterans’ stories they found most interesting. With some of the prints, you weren’t really sure what they were going for, but then you’d hear the story and completely understand.”
The final products were impressive and the veterans were eager to take them home, but Chrisinger said the true prize was the relationships they built and the way the project made them feel more connected to campus.
“My students were really proud of the prints that they got,” he said. “They were asking when they could take them home and where they could get them framed. I think it was a really cool experience all the way around. The veterans learned people do care about them and their stories. When you get out of the military and you feel isolated and alone, you’re not with your guys anymore, it’s really easy to think no one cares and no one is paying attention. We’ve been at war for a long time now. This reminded them that people actually do care and want to listen to what they have to say.”
It wasn’t just a meaningful experience for the veterans, however. Chrisinger said the project helped educate all parties involved.
“It was also a benefit to the artists, because a lot of them don’t know veterans or have a veteran in their family,” he said. “It opened up their eyes to some of the things (the veterans are) going through and have experienced in a way watching the news or reading an article can’t really do.”
It was a memorable way to cap off Chrisinger’s second semester teaching the class and he hopes it may play a role in its viability. With budget cuts looming, he said he’s afraid the Veteran Print Project may be the final work he does at UWSP.
“Some people from (UWSP) came and that was great because other people on campus get to see what we’re doing,” he said. “Our class is on the chopping block because of the budget cuts happening in the UW system, so it was great to show people what an amazing experience it was for the students. It was encouraging to see all the support for what we were trying to do. You can see it in my students that they feel more comfortable and better connected on campus. All the research shows that if people feel comfortable somewhere, that’s where they’ll stay. Our main goal is to help these guys get an education, graduate and go out to be productive members of society.”
Whether he’s allowed to continue his work in the classroom or not, there’s little doubt Chrisinger’s dedication to veterans will go on in some way or another. Just as it started years ago, the mission continues.
Veteran Print Project mixes art and military service
The Stevens Point Journal
May 22, 2015
Nicholas Kuehn was 10 years old when terrorists flew into the twin towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
“That was the day I decided to join the Army,” Kuehn said
Kuehn was just a kid, watching cartoons at the time. But his resolve remained firm. At age 17, the Wausau native enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served in the 1-35 AR, the 1st Battalion 35th Armored Regiment, in Fort Bliss, Texas.
Kuehn, now a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, shared that memory earlier this year with Grace Ballweg, one of 21 student artists. Ballweg of Platteville expressed the story in a print that showed dark towers with a brightly colored screen of cartoon characters between them.
It was part of a Veteran Print Project involving students in two courses at UWSP in the spring semester.
Many returning veterans who are new to college take a first-year seminar titled “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life.” By studying the history of veterans coming home from war, students learn how to translate skills they developed in the military to skills they need to succeed in college – and life.
David Chrisinger, a UWSP graduate who developed and teaches the class, asked Art and Design Professor Bob Erickson about adding a new component in the spring semester. His veteran-students were paired with students in a printmaking class. The veterans each shared an experience, and the student artists created a visual representation of it.
The art was revealed and explained to students and supporters earlier this month. It will be exhibited at the Edna Carlsten Gallery in the Noel Fine Art Center beginning May 28.
Ballweg’s print captures the “all-American experience” of a TV screen with a colorful airplane on a decidedly dark moment Sept. 11, when many children and adults watched planes, hijacked by al-Qaeda terrorists, fly into the World Trade Center towers. Ballweg’s print captures the innocence of childhood surrounded by the stark reality of that day, with the towers portrayed in dark chalk.
“This is an exercise in trust,” said Yvette Pino, of the Wisconsin-based Veteran Print Project. “The veteran has to put trust in the artist to tell their story. The artist has to trust they’re getting it right,” said Pino, an Iraq war veteran who found the intersection of storytelling and art a healing place for veterans.
When Tyler Pozolinski came to UWSP, he wasn’t interested in associating with anything related to veterans. He told people he lived in California for a few years, but not at a U.S. Marine Corps base. That changed when the Neenah native took Chrisinger’s “Back from the Front” class and began writing about his military experiences.
He shared a recurring nightmare with his artist partner, Emily Sikora. He described being alone in a village that lay in ruins after battle, followed by darkness pierced with a bright light and familiar voices spewing hateful comments.
Sikora created a small print on a large sheet of paper to convey his isolation and a gray color scheme to convey darkness. Multiple swirls represent the overwhelming chants that surrounded him. A Native American headdress is a symbol for his troop, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines.
“When I think of that dream that’s exactly what I see,” Pozolinski said.
“We study the history of war trauma to show American veterans have always found ways to be stronger at the broken places,” Chrisinger said. He and several veterans have shared reflections on a website strongeratthebrokenplaces.com.
Following the Carlsten Galley exhibit, the UWSP Veteran Print Project will be on display at the Kenosha Public Museum from July 4 to Nov. 11.
Veterans starting college share stories through art project at UWSP
Larry Lee, May 4, 2015
The stories of veterans are being told through a special art project. A veteran’s history class has teamed up with printmakers in the art department to visually tell the stories of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the history class. It’s called “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life.”
David Chrisinger is the Adjunct Instructor of History. He teaches former veterans turned college students about the history of veterans coming home from military service, as they did.
Chrisinger says the veterans and the art students really connected, and the results affected everyone involved. “There’s something also really valuable about someone else caring enough about your story to spend weeks creating a beautiful piece of art it illustrate it, and that’s what Bob Erickson’s print making students have done. You know, they’ve literally put sweat and tears into these prints.”
The reveal of the prints will be to a limited audience at UW Stevens Point Tuesday, May 5th. Chrisinger says the prints will go on display in the Fine Arts Center near the end of the month, and also at the Kenosha Public Museum starting July 4th. Other locations are also being considered.
Chrisinger says his student veterans are writing the details of their military experiences to accompany the prints. “My students are also writing their story, so we’re going to have prints and an artist’s statement of what they were trying to accomplish with their print, but we’ll also have the story to go along with it, and our plan is to possibly find a publisher who might be interested in publishing the images and the stories as like a coffee table kind of book.”
David Chrisinger was not a veteran himself, but saw firsthand through friends and family how difficult it can be for veterans returning from deployment or combat to civilian life. “My dad and my uncle both served during Vietnam, and my grandfather actually fought at the battle of Okinawa during the 2nd World War, and he had a pretty difficult transition to put it mildly, so I’ve seen what can happen when people don’t process the things that they go through.” He also says, “My best friend was in the United States Marine Corps, and when he came back from Afghanistan in 2010, we reconnected, and that put me on the path towards teaching this class. It was the work that we did together.”
The class for veterans on the history of veterans has been highly successful and growing, but may be a casualty of UW System budget cuts. Chrisinger says UWSP officials could only guarantee them one more fall semester, as adjunct professor cuts will probably eliminate the class.
UWSP class addresses veterans back-to-school transition issues
Larry Lee, December 8, 2014
That first semester in college is different for many veterans, and a new UW Stevens Point class is addressing veterans back-to-school issues.
David Chrisinger is a UW-Stevens Point graduate that developed a veterans-only class called Back From The Front. He says he was inspired to do this after seeing how a friend from Rhinelander struggled to return to civilian life after serving in the military. “The kinds of issues that a 17 or 18-year-old is going to have to grapple with when they start college are very different than what a student veteran will grapple with, so I put together this class to help the students acclimate to the university, to connect with each other, and to learn how to be successful here.”
Chrisinger says the experiences freshmen out of high school have are vastly different from freshmen out of the military, and they discuss how to apply what they’ve learned in uniform to the new task of completing an education. “One thing that we work on in our classes is to show that they can use their experience to enlighten the class and to add a very valuable voice to certain discussions, and to use their experiences to make their experiences in college that much better.”
Much of the class is focused on the history of war, writing and running to help transition from military life to college life. “This first semester, what we really wanted to do was to give the students a place where they could connect with each other, and we could build an environment where the students felt comfortable and safe enough to talk about their experiences and to deal with the sorts of issues and challenges that many of them face coming back to the university.”
Chrisinger also has another class with seniors in the information technology fields. He says the two groups have even worked together on a project, and learned about each other in the process. “There are computer programmers, web developers, web designers, and we actually did a final project in that class where they redesigned the website that we use in my veterans class, and so we talked about a lot of the veteran issues and veteran challenges and the veteran population in that class.”
All college students go through a “first-year seminar” aimed at helping students think critically, adapt to the academic community and campus life, and take responsibility for their education, career choices and personal development. Chrisinger says the veterans entering college that make the transition a little difficult, but they also have a huge head start in some important areas. “Something I had not thought about was how advanced these students would be in certain areas. You know, they have incredible critical thinking skills. They do know how to get their work done. They do know the discipline. They pay attention. They show up to class early, you know, all of those things that a professor dreams about, they’re doing that stuff.”
UW Stevens Point is considered a “military friendly” campus, and has about 300 veterans enrolled in a wide variety of degree programs.
Veterans interested in what UWSP has to offer, including the Back From The Front classes, can go online to uwsp.edu or call Ann Whipp at 715-346-3237. She can also be emailed at Ann.Whipp@uwsp.edu.
UW-Stevens Point seminar helps veterans transition to college life
Wisconsin Public Radio
December 3, 2014
Photo: Tony Alter (CC-BY)
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is offering a new seminar this semester to help veterans transition into civilian life as students.
“Back From the Front: Transitioning From the Military to Civilian Life” was created by David Chrisinger, an associate lecturer at the school. About four years ago, Chrisinger’s friend returned home from his second deployment in the Middle East and opened up about everything he was dealing with back on the home front.
“I had never confronted the after-effects like this,” Chrisinger said. “I didn’t know the issues he was dealing with. I read everything I could. There were a few books that really made me understand better, or at least empathize.”
The two continued to work together to raise awareness and money for veteran service organizations.
After giving a lecture at Steven’s Point, which enrolls roughly 300 military veterans, Chrisinger was asked if he could create a class around the concept. He spent last year putting together a syllabus, and the mission continued.
“Part of new curriculum design here at Steven’s Point is to take a first year seminar — a class to teach freshman students how to be successful in college,” Chrisinger said. “They found that this was not helpful for non-traditional students in general, and veterans in particular, because the things that veterans are dealing with are very different than what the average 17-or 18-year-old is dealing with.”
Veterans transition to college, civilian life with freshman seminar
USA Today College
Brooke Metz, November 11, 2014
Most college freshmen are required to take a seminar, but at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, 12 students are fulfilling that first-year requirement in a unique way: with a class specifically designed for veterans.
“Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life” strives to do exactly what the class name implies — help veterans make the transition from service to life as civilians.
After years of seeing war first-hand, being far from home and serving with soldiers who become closer than their own siblings, veterans often struggle with the return to everyday life. And that strenuous change is magnified even further when veterans enroll in college.
“It can be really intimidating or anxiety-inducing for new student veterans to be on campus and surrounded by 18-year-olds,” says professor and UWSP alum David Chrisinger. “It’s easy to feel alienated and isolated.”
“Back from the Front” was designed by Chrisinger after seeing his friend struggle to adjust to civilian life upon his return from serving in Afghanistan. Chrisinger had seen similar struggles in his own family, particularly in his grandfather, who suffered with alcoholism after serving in the Pacific in World War II.
“I had seen what happens when they fall through the cracks,” Chrisinger says. “That was motivation for me — to be someone to help.”
In the class, students build on their research and writing skills as they explore history and learn more about other veterans through guest lectures, readings and discussions. This week’s focus is resilience and post-traumatic growth.
Another goal of the class is to get students engaged with the community. For example, everyone in the class has to attend a UWSP sporting event. And when one student expressed concern over crowds at the events, they decided to all attend a game together.
Chase Vuchetich: “I started to see that there were opportunities that I would never have anywhere else.” (Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point)
“To learn from each other is the biggest goal I have for this class,” Chrisinger says. “Learning from out there, learning from each other and putting it into a narrative so it makes sense to them.”
So far, the class seems to be working. Freshman Chase Vuchetich, who served as an infantryman in the Marine Corps for four years, says the class made him more excited about school.
“I stopped doubting my abilities as a student,” says Vuchetich, who is now studying business. “I started to see that there were opportunities that I would never have anywhere else.”
In addition to discussions and presentations, students also write several essays throughout the semester. Chrisinger plans to use those essays in a collection for publication.
“When I was in high school, I was a C student in English, so I thought no way could I ever be published,” says Vuchetich, 23. “He does things for us that make me think, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know I could do that.’”
Thanks to the success of “Back from the Front,” the course will be offered again next semester. According to Chrisinger, UWSP will welcome 25 new vets to campus second semester, and the veterans seminar will have a full class.
Chrisinger says one student told him he would’ve dropped out of school if not for the veterans course. The student said the class’s tight-knit community was what he needed to feel like part of the university.
“When you feel you don’t belong you might quit or leave,” Chrisinger says. “Here at the university we want them to feel included.”
UWSP offers special class for veterans
Elizabeth Schilder, November 10, 2014
Tuesday is Veterans Day. As we prepare to honor those who have served our country, one UW-Stevens Point alum is working to help our vets transition back into not only civilian, but college life.
“Back From the Front” isn’t your typical freshman seminar. This class is comprised of all veterans brought together by instructor David Chrisinger.
“What we do in this class is show them that they already have the skills they need to be successful in college,” he explained.
Chrisinger started the program after helping his friend transition back to civilian life after serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
“I realized in that moment that I didn’t know what post 9-11 veterans were going through,” Chrisinger said. “I lived nine years while we’re at war largely oblivious.”
Following that realization, Chrisinger dug in reading up on what had helped veterans of previous wars make the transition back home successfully.
“What I wanted to do in this class is show how veterans throughout American history have dealt with coming home from war.”
While the lessons are helpful, Chrisinger told NewsChannel 7 he thinks his students get even more from class discussions.
“I think a lot of us have kind of made friends in here,” student Joshua Thunder said. “Compared to my other classes, I mean I talk to people, but it’s not the same.”
“This class, they’ve shown me that you can be broken and resilient. You can be wounded and strong,” Chrisinger said.
It’s that strength they’ll continue to depend on moving forward on the home front.
“They see this class as their chance to show they have what it takes to be leaders in their communities.”
In the next four years, more than one million vets will be making the transition back to civilian life. But, as of now, Chrisinger said he only knows of four other schools besides UWSP that offer a class like this to help vets make that transition.
Finding their own way home
The Northwoods River News
Andy Hildebrand, November 10, 2014
A year ago, Rhinelander High School alums David Chrisinger and Brett Foley, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, completed a 50-mile ultramarathon to raise money for charity and awareness of the immense challenge veterans face when trying to transition back to civilian life.
It all started with late night chats between the two friends, but for Chrisinger, before long, working with veterans had blossomed into a full-blown passion.
He pored over book after book and article after article, learning as much as he could about the process veterans go through when their time in the service is over.
Now, a year after completing the marathon and many more since he first started working with Foley, Chrisinger has continued learning and started teaching.
“Before the 50-mile run that was last October, Brett (Foley) and I got invited by a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to come and talk to his class,” he said. “The class was on running and the meaning of life. It was kind of perfect for us because we were raising money and talking about veterans (transitioning) out of the military. There was an administrator in the general education department who came to watch.”
Afterward, the administrator came up to Chrisinger and asked if he could turn the presentation into a class for student veterans. “The idea certainly intrigued me,” he said.
From there, Chrisinger turned his attention to what he does best – research.
“I started looking around to see if other universities had classes like this,” he said. “I found a couple and I talked to the professors who taught them. I devoured all these different books and research articles about veterans in college, the sorts of things they struggle with and the things they need more help with. I put together a proposal for the class, went through the review process and it was approved, thankfully.”
The class is called “Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life” and its objective is to prepare incoming veterans to succeed at UWSP. Chrisinger said all freshmen at the university must take an introductory course, but the courses available aren’t necessarily great fits for veterans.
“The class is situated in this program at the university called a first year seminar,” he said. “All the freshmen have to take one. There’s different topics that they’re centered around. There’s one on ‘Lord of the Rings’ and there’s one on the history of The Beatles. They’re supposed to be fun topics and a lot of what is taught in the course is how to be successful in college. They’re seen as a foundation level class that prepares you to be successful and help you graduate. They were having trouble with non-traditional students in general and veterans specifically who just weren’t relating to the material. A lot of it is geared toward 18-year-olds. Veterans have significantly more life experience than that.”
Chrisinger knew he needed to shape his syllabus in a way that would appeal to veterans and make the transition to college life easier while still teaching the skills needed to succeed in class. As it turned out, that meant he would wind up doing much of the work himself.
“I really struggled to find a single book that talked about all the things I wanted to talk about in the class, so I ended up just writing a lot of the articles that I’ve assigned,” he said. “We also have assigned a book called “The Long Walk” by Brian Castner, who’s an Iraq War veteran. He was an explosive ordinance disposal technician and its a very powerful book about coming home from war and transitioning into civilian life.”
Castner provided a focus for the class to rally around, and it involved one of the lessons Chrisinger learned from Foley years ago.
“One of the things Castner did was write about his experiences, and that’s something I found really helped Brett (Foley) too,” he said. “I’m having the students do a lot of reflective writing in the class, and for their final exam, they’re actually writing a paper between eight and 12 pages. The topic is transitioning out of the military and into civilian life. What’s cool is, we’re going to compile all those essays and put them into an edited collection and sell it through Amazon as a fundraiser for the veteran’s club on campus.”
Later in the semester, Castner will visit the class. He will also give a campus-wide talk about bridging the gap between civilians and the military.
With his syllabus in place and the semester drawing near, Chrisinger said he didn’t know how the students would react.
“I was nervous about the class,” he said. “I didn’t know if they were going to buy into it or if I was going to be a joke to them. For the first couple days, I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t tell. Then they really started to loosen up and open up. One of the students told me afterward they were sizing me up a little bit. They didn’t know what to expect. They realized it was a safe place and they could be themselves without feeling awkward or strange or judged. I think they appreciate that.”
Little by little, Chrisinger got to know his students through class and their assigned writing. Exercise was another approach Castner focused on in his book, so with a 50-mile ultramarathon already in his back pocket, Chrisinger formed a running group with his class. They meet in the evenings a couple times a week. It’s not mandatory, but many of the students attend.
Chrisinger worked other assignments into the class that encourage the veterans to venture outside their comfort zones and into campus life. At first, it was easier said than done.
“The students also have these four out-of-classroom experiences they need,” he said. “They have to go to a varsity sporting event, an academic club, a non-academic event and a veteran’s group. I thought the varsity sport would be the one everyone did right away, but nobody was doing it. After class one day, a student came up to me and said, ‘You know, I can’t speak for everyone, but crowds are kind of tough for me.’ I didn’t even think of that. It didn’t even cross my mind.”
Instead of scrapping the assignment, Chrisinger decided to turn it into a field trip of sorts.
“So I thought, what if we all did it together,” he said. “I ended up having the class over to my house and we made chili and a campfire. We had lunch and then walked over to the Pointers football game. We all sat together. It was a nice day and a good game. They connected with each other outside of class, and I think that’s what that class has been successful at. They’re connecting with each other and they’re forming friendships.”
As the semester wore on and the group got closer, Chrisinger discovered he was learning too. Despite all of his research and prior work on behalf of veterans, interacting with the class and watching them grow opened his eyes.
“I was a little bit surprised how adamant they all were about how they didn’t regret being in the military,” he said. “It’s something they’re very proud of, even if they had bad deployments or they lost their best friend, which did happen to one student. They had these terrible experiences and suffered through these situations. I have one student who was in Washington D.C. on 9/11 and was doing Pentagon rescue. That’s awful. He was digging through the rubble and pulling body parts out. None of them regret it though and they’d do it all again. They’re proud of their service and they’re proud they served their country.”
It was an important lesson for Chrisinger to learn. The class is meant to help veterans with the transition to college life at UWSP, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t very capable students.
“I wouldn’t say I didn’t expect this, but I was pleasantly surprised that these students are very strong critical thinkers,” Chrisinger said. “They’ve had a lot of life experience and they have a lot of skills they can bring to the university that they didn’t think applied. They thought because they haven’t taken a test since high school it would be tough, but they have the hard work and critical thinking skills that the military supplied them with. They’re beginning to see how to apply those skills at the university.”
That’s been Chrisinger’s goal all along. He wanted to help his students find a way to fit back into civilian life. Finding the best way to teach that was a work in progress though.
“They don’t want to be seen as victims,” Chrisinger said. “They signed up for it. They knew what they were getting into. They did their jobs the best they could and now they want to go to school. Maybe in the back of my mind I thought maybe I was going to have people who were traumatized and people who were suffering. I just didn’t know what to expect. A lot of what I was doing in the beginning was showing different ways how veterans through history have overcome their suffering in different ways. The students appreciated hearing those stories and seeing these different models, but they wanted to choose their own path. That’s become the theme of the class. You have to find your own way home.”
It’s been the latest step in a long journey of discovery for Chrisinger. His class is reaping the rewards of year of research. What started as way to help a struggling childhood friend has grown into much more.
“When I first started working with Brett (Foley), part of what motivated me to help him was to try to better understand what my grandfather had been through in World War II,” Chrisinger said. “He had come him from the Pacific and was not what we picture the greatest generation being like. He was an abusive alcoholic. He let his family down in a lot of different ways. When I started working with Brett and started reading about past generations of veterans, I started to better understand what my grandfather had been through and how little help there was out there for them. That’s what’s so encouraging about the post-9/11 generation of veterans. There are so many great groups out there looking to provide support to veterans.”
For vets hoping to continue their education at UWSP, that support is readily available in Chrisinger. He’ll teach again next semester with same goal in mind, helping heroes find their own way home.
Class helps veterans transition to college
The Stevens Point Journal
November 7, 2014
This is Chase Vuchetich’s first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and he believes he’s already taking the most important class of his college career.
Back from the Front: Transitioning from the Military to Civilian Life is helping him and 11 other veterans learn how to translate skills they developed in the military to skills they need to succeed in college — and life.
When you’ve faced life-or-death situations, what once seemed important fades to insignificance.
Vuchetich enjoyed playing football at Park Falls High School, from which he graduated in 2009. When the Green Bay Packers played in the Super Bowl in 2011, he remembers trying to get the score on his smartphone while he was at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.
Then he spent seven months in Afghanistan.
Now, he says, “I couldn’t care less about professional athletes. They don’t put their lives on the line for anyone. They shouldn’t be anyone’s heroes.”
He knows something about heroes. He served with the Bravo Co. 1st Battalion 5th Marines from 2009 to 2013. Of the 50 Marines in his platoon, three were killed in action and 28 were wounded. The men of 1/5 remain his closest friends.
He lived the simplicity and singularity of combat: the camaraderie of putting his Marine brothers above his own life, of being involved in something that mattered deeply, feeling the loneliness after military service comes to a screeching halt.
Veterans often have what those who fought in the Civil War called “soldier’s heart” — nostalgia for combat.
“How can you miss something so horrible?” Vuchetich said. “After hundreds of years of war, the one thing that doesn’t change is the desire to go back.”
This is just one topic he and others talk — and write — about in class.
David Chrisinger, a UWSP graduate who developed the class, leads students to cope by learning history, running and writing about their experiences.
That is what veteran Brian Castner did. He wrote “The Long Walk,” which inspired this class, one of dozens first-year students can take at UWSP to learn the skills they need to do well in college.
“Military veterans have always experienced challenges coming home from war. They’ve also always found ways to overcome those challenges,” Chrisinger said.
The military trains with “crawl, walk, run,” and Chrisinger follows the same step-by-step process. His students must attend four different kinds of campus events — an athletic event, for example — and write reflections. They join clubs and examine what it’s like to be with civilians.
Students write about feelings, about what bothers them — such as assumptions about post-traumatic stress disorder plaguing all veterans, or perceptions that everyone in the military is like the troubled fictional character Rambo.
“Whatever’s wearing on me, I write about it,” Vuchetich said. “David’s the first one to tell me I can write and be published. He has a genuine interest in helping us succeed.”
“Chase is a great student and a fabulous writer. He has a real shot of doing some amazing things,” Chrisinger said.
Veterans have experiences and critical thinking skills most first-year students don’t have, Chrisinger said. They talk about using those skills, about resiliency and growth through trauma. “What made them good in the military can make them good in college,” he said.
“They are figuring out how to manage their past and grow. Becoming educated is their next mission. They want to be leaders. They want to do great things.”
The class, and Chrisinger, have been like therapy to Vuchetich. “This class makes me feel like I’m doing something important in life again.”
He also credited Ann Whipp, UWSP’s veteran services coordinator, who helps with academic advising, financial aid and other support. “Ann has gone above and beyond my expectations,” Vuchetich said. “David and Ann, their whole goal is to set us up for success.”
Turning the Page, U.S. Soldiers Home from War Rebound through Writing
Justine Browning, March 7, 2014
For a large number of U.S. soldiers returning from combat, adequate psychological care is difficult to come by. Many are ushered into crowded Veterans Affairs waiting rooms and given a list of symptoms to check off. Diagnosed and treated impersonally, some are prescribed meds before they even receive any form of therapy – and unsurprisingly, the streamlined process fails to give many veterans the help they need, leading some returning soldiers to seek out alternate methods to heal their anguish.
That was certainly true for Brett Foley, a marine who served two combat tours, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Upon returning home, Foley began working as a security officer in a hospital but had a rough time transitioning from military life.
“I was drinking a lot then, my wife was not really happy with me,” he said. “I think I was just making some bad choices. It was a struggle, indefinitely.”
Unfortunately, Foley found little comfort when he attempted to use the healthcare system put in place for veterans.
“I wasn’t really happy with them, and was pretty frustrated,” Foley said of the Veterans Administration health center he visited in Wisconsin. “It was packed wall to wall with people, whether they were World War II, Korea, Afghanistan, or Iraq veterans. When I finally got in for my appointment, I saw a doctor for maybe five or ten minutes and they made an initial diagnosis after I finished a 20 questionnaire pamphlet about my moods and nightmares.
“They diagnosed me and prescribed medication right away,” he continued, and “that blew my mind because I couldn’t understand how they could prescribe me mind altering medications after speaking to me for 15 to 20 minutes at most. I thought, ‘If this is how they’re treating me, they must be treating everyone like this.'”
This all changed when Foley began speaking with David Chrisinger, a friend who eventually helped him start the website Running 50, which works to help veterans find renewed purpose in their lives after combat. Chrisinger encouraged Foley to write about his harrowing experiences, which ended up kick-starting the healing process for him.
“I started to feel better,” Foley said. “When I was writing stuff down, it made me think of the situation in its totality. I had to go through every word and put it all onto paper and then I could read through it and I could process everything.
“For some reason when I wrote it all down on paper, it felt like this big release – especially when I could give it to someone else to read and understand.”
Zach Ruesch, who served in Afghanistan, had a similar experience when he returned home and found out that adjusting to civilian life was harder to face than deployment.
“I didn’t like being alone,” recalled Ruesch. “I needed to know that there was a human presence nearby that I could trust.”
Ruesch battled what he described as “intense feelings of anger and aggression” that would emerge unexpectedly, making it difficult for him to ease back into academic life, and which began to hinder his goal of becoming a teacher. A straight-A college student before deployment, Ruesch found his coursework after war to be a “huge frustration.”
And the same could be said of his experience with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“You first go into the VA and they say, ‘Just the boxes on this form,’ and determine that you have this or that and say, ‘Here’s some pills.’ They wash their hands of you almost,” he said.
But for Ruesch, there was a different outlet. He began keeping a journal to chronicle his experiences from the war. Eventually, he was encouraged to publish his story on Running 50.
“It was the first time that I had written anything with some cohesive bigger point and putting it out there on the Internet was a big deal,” Ruesch said.
“The experience of thinking about it and writing it was a culmination for me. Writing it was a way of looking back on deployment and transitioning and getting myself to a point where I felt really good.”
The support he got from other veterans who read his work reassured Ruesch that he was doing the right thing. “The response that I received from it, the comments other veterans and civilians made, really helped me.”
And Ruesch is only one of many soldiers for whom writing has helped turn the page. In the last 10 years, putting the experience of war into written language has emerged as a popular form of therapy for growing numbers of veterans. This is largely due to the upswing in organizations and volunteers devoted to helping veterans make sense of post-combat life through prose, including the Veterans Writing Project and the literary journal O-Dark-Thirty.
There’s also Veterans’ Voices of the Hospitalized Veterans’ Writing Project (HVWP), which assists veterans with rehabilitation through therapeutic writing.
“Many veterans tend to shy away from traditional forms of therapy for a variety of reasons,” David Surface, director of the Veterans Writing Workshop, told Occupy.com.
“A writing workshop allows some veterans to deal with difficult experiences and emotions without feeling like they’re being psychoanalyzed or stigmatized. Many veterans also suffer from social isolation, sometimes from other people in general, sometimes from other veterans. Being part of a writing workshop gives those veterans the opportunity to meet and bond with others in a non-stigmatizing setting where ‘meeting and bonding’ is not the express agenda.
“The therapeutic value of writing goes a lot farther and deeper than simply ‘unloading’ difficult emotions,” Surface added. “A serious, concentrated focus on the writing process helps strengthen all kinds of cognitive skills (planning, evaluating, decision-making) that can help veterans in all areas of their lives.”
Pete McShane, a Vietnam Veteran who has benefited from the Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group, said writing is “a way for a veteran to articulate memories that are often fragmented or blurred either because of the passage of time, or the effects of our subconscious to protect us from painful memories.”
And, “secondly, it is a way to connect with other veterans, regardless of age or military experience,” he said. “There is a commonality of purpose and experience because the military turns individuals into teams. There’s a synergy associated with teambuilding, where the effectiveness of the group is more than the sum total of the individuals. It’s all about the team’s mission and relying on your teammates is a critical part of that philosophy.
“[Furthermore] once a veteran writes about his or her memories, family and friends can come to understand their individual experiences,” McShane added.
But writing is not for everyone, and large numbers of veterans remain unable to grapple with what is going on inside them. In 2009, a Rand Institute study revealed that 300,000 veterans suffer from some form of psychological disorder. The study also concluded that only four U.S. states have a suicide rate among vets that is at or below 20 per 100,000 people.
Veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as civilians. And the enduring mental health crisis means they face mounting difficulties when it comes to finding employment.
“An estimated 20% of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans screen positive for PTSD or depression, and the mental health community is, at best, disjointed in dealing with this,” retired Lt. Col. Steve Brozak wrote in a CNN piece last year.
“Veteran’s Affairs spent $6.2 billion – up slightly from last year – on inpatient, residential, and outpatient mental health programs, but veterans are still having difficulties being treated. “In fact,” he added. “the VA recently released data showing that a third of veterans seeking mental health appointments wait longer than 14 days.
“In cities like Orlando, Houston and Los Angeles’ VA hospitals, the wait times are even higher. In Houston, for instance, veterans waited an average of 28 days for an appointment. The initial step to seek treatment can be a hurdle in and of itself, and half of those with PTSD go untreated.”
For many, accessing non-traditional forms of mental health treatment is an arduous process. As Surface noted, the number of organizations that aim to help veterans through writing remain scarce.
“In New York City, for instance, there are many good, solid writing programs for veterans; in fact, it almost seems like there’s a new one every day,” Surface said.
But, “obviously, that’s not the case for veterans in many other parts of the country. We [at the Veterans Writing Workshop] get a lot of inquiries from veterans and organizations all over the U.S. who are either looking for a veterans writing workshop in their area, or wanting advice on how to start one. So the need and the demand is great.”
Ruesch said he believes that as more troops return home, the VA will have to find better treatment methods.
“It is going in the right direction,” Ruesch said. “Now that the wars are winding down, they hopefully can get their shit together and not just make the care streamlined, but make it effective: offer them all of these services and have them select the best one for them.
“It can’t be, ‘Just give me a pill and send me to a counselor.’ It may be, ‘Give me counseling and support on a personal level as well as other options,” he added, “like music, physical activity – or writing.”
Childhood friends reunite, run to support veterans returning home
The Stevens Point Journal
Nathan Vine, November 15, 2013
Sitting at his computer early one morning in 2010, Brett Foley connected with an old friend and began rebuilding a life shattered by post-traumatic stress disorder after his service in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Foley, who served in the Marines for five years, from 2005 to 2010, with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, found support in his struggle with David Chrisinger, a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point alumni who grew up with Foley in Rhinelander. The two bonded over running, and they decided to use that connection to help some of the estimated 1 million service members who will have transitioned back into the civilian workforce through 2016 as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
The friends, both now 26 years old, paired about a year ago with The Mission Continues, a national service organization that helps veterans transition from the military to service and leadership programs that allow them to continue to serve in their communities.
Foley and Chrisinger set a goal of raising $10,000 for the organization, and competed in The Fall 50, a 50-mile ultra marathon in Door County on Oct. 26 as a way of seeking donations. They also created a website, www.running50.com, to share Foley’s story and the men’s experience with running, to offer more information about The Mission Continues, and as a place for veterans and their families to connect and share stories.
“Working with Dave has made a big difference. He’s been there to listen, and convincing me to write about my story has helped me move on,” said Foley, who now lives in Madison. “We’ve also had guys I served with really coming out of the woodwork to visit the website, so it’s reaching people who need that support.”
Finding meaning through running
Foley said he needed support after returning home from Okinawa, Japan, following his tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2010, as he obsessed over his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and felt like he no longer had purpose or direction.
“I went to a VA hospital, and I really wasn’t happy with that whole situation. I talked to some people, but they wanted to put me on medication, so I kind of gave up on it,” Foley said.
Enter Chrisinger, a Kenosha resident who after high school attended the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, graduating in 2009 with a bachelor of arts degree in history and social sciences. Chrisinger said he had only seen Foley a handful of times since graduating from Rhinelander High School in 2005, but the two began chatting on Facebook.
Foley said he talked about his military experience and his difficulty returning home, and Chrisinger told Foley about The Mission Continues as a possible resource for help. The two became inspired to raise money for the organization, and they quickly decided on running as a way to do it. Chrisinger, who played defensive line on the UWSP football team for three years had taken up running after school and had competed in several marathons, while Foley had run to stay fit both during and after his military career. The two discussed running a marathon, 26 miles, but eventually settled on a race nearly double that length.
“I run a lot, and I wanted to go a little bigger because of the money we were trying to raise,” said Chrisinger, who is a communications analyst with the Government Accountability Office. “I honestly thought that Brett wouldn’t go for it at all, but he agreed.”
Foley said he trained for months, running 10 to 15 miles every other day, but said nothing prepared him for the roughly 11 hours it would take he and Chrisinger to complete the race, which stretched from Gills Rock on the very northern tip of the Door Peninsula all the way to Sturgeon Bay.
“We ran together and encouraged each other, but at some point, you kind of just go on autopilot and keep one foot in front of the other,” Foley said. “When we finished, it felt like we really accomplished something.”
Chrisinger said he saw the experience of running an ultramarathon as being similar to the struggles veterans such as Foley face.
“When you start the race, and even through the first 10 miles, you feel great because you’ve trained for it. It’s like a honeymoon,” Chrisinger said. “After that, things get harder and harder, and you have to find a way to push through it.”
Through their efforts, Chrisinger and Foley have raised about $7,000 for The Mission Continues, and they said they will continue to find ways to support the organization. But the duo also are reaching out in new ways to teach people about the plight of veterans returning home from war.
Foley recently was the keynote speaker at a Veterans Day event in Rhinelander, and in September he and Chrisinger spoke to students at UWSP about their experiences. The two also are exploring the possibility of creating a class at the university as a way for veterans to learn about writing as a way to share their stories.
Foley said he completed his associate’s degree in criminal justice at Madison Area Technical College and is considering pursuing his bachelor’s degree. Foley said he eventually wants to become a police officer and move with his wife, Whitney, back to the Rhinelander area.
“I’ve kind of always wanted to be a cop, and the skills I have apply to that career very well,” he said. “I feel like I’m headed in the right direction.”
JWMS Honors Local Veterans with Patriotic Program
The Northwoods River News
Andy Hildebrand, November 9, 2013
The bleachers in the James Williams Middle School gymnasium were packed Friday morning.
For the 43rd year in a row, students, local veterans and members of the community gathered to collectively thank those who have served under the banner of the United States of America and remember those who lost their lives in its defense.
A number of patriotic songs were performed by band and choral students.
This year’s featured speakers were Rhinelander High School graduates Brett Foley and David Chrisinger.
Chrisinger said they welcomed the opportunity to tell the public about the 50-mile ultramarathon they recently completed to raise money for The Mission Continues, a program designed to help returning veterans adjust to civilian life,
“(Principal) Paul Johnson asked us if we would come and speak today and, of course, we accepted,” he said. “But then I was thinking about what kind of message we wanted to give these kids. We really wanted to talk about how we can expect great things from returning veterans just like people expected great things from my grandfather’s generation. I just want to remind people of that so we don’t lose sight of how valuable veterans are.”
The two showed a short, informational video from The Mission Continues about the group’s goals.
Then, after another song from the band, Foley took to the podium to share his personal experiences in the service and afterward.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 15 years, it’s that life has a tendency to surprise you,” he told the room full of students, veterans and civilians. “You can think you have everything planned out, but it doesn’t work that way. 15 years ago, when I was sitting where you are today listening to the Veteran’s Day presentation, I had no idea that one day I would be a Marine or would be speaking to you here today.
“If there’s another thing I’ve learned, it’s that life isn’t always easy. Sometimes it can be downright hard. It’s these days that make you find out what you’re really made of. When I came home from Afghanistan almost three years ago, I thought my most challenging days were behind me. I thought that because I had made it home alive, I could handle anything.”
Foley struggled with post-traumatic stress upon returning home from his service overseas. Eventually, he leaned on his friendship with Chrisinger and took to writing to help him cope with his feelings.
“When things got hard for me and when I was struggling to deal with things I had been through in Iraq and Afghanistan, I began to think there was something wrong with me,” he said. “Why couldn’t I put the war behind me? For five years, when I was in the Marine Corp., I felt like I was a member of a highly select group, and I was. When I got home, I felt like less than nothing. I had no purpose and no direction. I eventually became so focused on all the bad things that happened to me, I forgot all the good things in my life. I forgot about family and friends, and all the people who supported me. I forgot there were people in my life who wanted to be there for me. At first, I couldn’t see any of these people because I was too embarrassed to tell any of these people what I was struggling with.”
Foley struggled with alcohol abuse and experienced some relationship issues as a result of his post-traumatic stress. Chrisinger and The Mission Continues helped his friend out of that hole.
“It took me a long time to realize the things that happened to me in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t have to follow me for the rest of my life,” Foley said. “If anything, I could take those experiences and learn from them in order to become a better person. People talk about the Greatest Generation and how they were great because of the challenges they faced, not despite them. I realized they faced the same challenges when they returned home that I did. The difference was when they got home, they searched for a new purpose and new direction, so that’s what I did. I needed to find a new goal; I need a new purpose. I realized I had the skills to build a good life.”
Foley used the message stressed by The Mission Continues to give his life new direction. He attended the police academy and has served as an activist for other returning veterans struggling with the same issues he went through.
“When Dave told me about The Mission Continues and showed me that I could take a similar path in my own civilian live, it made me wish I had known about them when I first got home. They inspired us to run 50 miles to raise money for the cause. We wanted to suffer together to raise awareness of the challenges veterans face when they return home and what The Mission Continues is doing to help. We wanted to do whatever we could to help those struggling with the same issues I struggled with myself.”
Chrisinger and Foley completed their 50-mile race last month and raised thousands of dollars in the process.
Now their cause is to raise awareness and continue to change the conversation regarding returning veterans.
It was not lost on Foley that he was delivering remarks in the same room where he observed Veterans Day as a student 15 years ago.
“It’s weird being back,” he said. “Everything looks smaller for some reason, but nothing has really changed.”
When he finished, everyone in the room left their seats and gave him a thunderous standing ovation.
It was a long road back for Foley, but after struggling with post-traumatic stress, finding a renewed sense of purpose and running 50 miles to help raise awareness, his one constant has been change. The next goal is to make sure the public will always see returning veterans as an asset instead of a burden.
It started with a room full of middle schoolers celebrating Veterans Day.
Rhinelander natives complete ultramarathon, raise money for veterans
WJFW Newswatch 12
Lauren Stephenson, October 29, 2013
In August we told you about two men from Rhinelander who were training for a 50 mile ultramarathon.
Their goal was to raise money in support of returning veterans.
Their months of training finally paid off Saturday.
Brett Foley and David Chrisinger ran the Door County Fall 50.
They raised money for The Mission Continues.
It’s a non-profit that helps veterans transition back to civilian life.
Foley served multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For him, the transition back to normal life was difficult.
The run was a way for him and his friend, David, to help other veterans.
“The tough stretch I think for both of us was I think that 30 to 35 mile stretch where you know, you feel like 30 miles is this big accomplishment but you still have 20 more to go…It was a pretty emotional moment. It was really the culmination of a really long journey together,” said David Chrisinger
The two hoped to raise $10,000 for the non-profit.
They’ve raised $5,800.
Their fundraising page will be open to donations through Veterans Day.
“There were people out there who donated $10, $25 to this cause that they won’t directly benefit from, and so we took a lot of pride in the fact that you know our telling Brett’s story touched people,” added Chrisinger.
The experience has also opened up new opportunities for Foley and Chrisinger.
Foley will be the keynote speaker at a Veterans Day event at James Williams Middle School in Rhinelander.
The two are also in talks with UW-Stevens Point to create a class for veterans to tell their stories.
My Chicago Athlete: Brett Foley and David Chrisinger
October 23, 2013
Brett Foley’s and David Chrisinger’s lives took them in opposite directions after high school graduation. While Chrisinger went off to college to play football, Foley headed to boot camp to begin five years of service in the Marine Corps. The two were best friends in high school, but distance made it difficult for them to keep in touch.
“He was deployed all over the world,” Chrisinger says. “He went to Spain and Cuba and Iraq in 2007, Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. He was all over the place and it was hard to keep in touch. The only time we really got together was at his wedding night before he was deployed to Afghansitan.”
Though their lives took them in different directions, Foley and Chrisinger connected again through Facebook after Foley returned to the United States.
“I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and late one night, we were chatting online and Brett opened up to me that he was having a really hard time transitioning back to civilian life so we started talking,” Chrisinger says. “We talked the next night, the night after that. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed to help him get the feelings out.”
From there, Chrisinger suggested Foley write about his experiences, which resulted in a collection of essays. In addition to using writing to process his feelings related to being at war and returning to civilian life, Foley had also begun to use running as a way to help both his moral and physical health. The two knew they wanted to raise funds for a nonprofit organization called The Mission Continues, which connects veterans with community service fellowships to give them the opportunity to continue public service while working to achieve a post-fellowship goal of full-time employment or higher education, and decided to use running as a means to raise funds for the organization.
“Brett said, ‘What about a marathon?’ and I said, ‘What about a 50 mile ultramarathon?’” Chrisinger says. “I thought that’d be the end of the discussion but without even hesitating he was like, ‘Absolutely. Let’s do it.’”
On Oct. 26, Chrisinger and Foley took on The Fall 50, which travels from the tip of Door County, Wis. to Sturgeon Bay, Wis. Though Chrisinger was familiar with long distance running, having participated in multiple marathons prior to The Fall 50, this sort of running was entirely new territory to Foley.
“[I ran] no more than five or six miles [prior to training], to be honest,” Foley says. “I’ve been trying to run consistently for three or four hours at a time now. I’m just trying to get through that mark.”
Consistency and learning to run on tired legs were key to training for Chrisinger and Foley. Both participated in various races throughout their training, including a Tough Mudder on Sept. 7 for Foley and the North Face Endurance Challenge on Sept. 14 followed by a half marathon the next day for Chrisinger.
“It’s rough when you do a 30 mile run and you stop and think you have to do 20 more than what you just did,” Chrisinger says. “That’s a little nerve wracking, but we’ll have the family support there, there will be the adrenaline of the competition in the race and all that and I think because we’re running for people who are struggling with the same things Brett struggled with it puts it in perspective.”
Ultimately, keeping other veterans in mind is what’s most important to both Foley and Chrisinger.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of getting our story out there,” Foley says. “I’ve had a couple friends tell me, ‘Yeah, this is what I was going through. I experienced a lot of the things that you were talking about,’ and that’s what it’s all about: knowing that we helped a couple of people and can hopefully raise some money and help them out as much as we can. That’s the goal of this whole thing: that something good is coming out of it.”
Ready to run: Rhinelander grads make final preparations for ultramarathon
The Northwoods River News
Andy Hildebrand, October 22, 2013
Since July, when the River News first told the story of U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Rhinelander native Brett Foley and his longtime friendship with David Chrisinger, their cause was clear.
The duo want to run an ultramarathon, 50 miles, to raise $10,000 for an organization they truly believe in – The Mission Continues.
The Mission Continues is an organization that encourages returning veterans to embrace many of the approaches Foley himself used to readjust to civilian life – structure, purpose and service.
The pair also have a website where they have published stories about Foley’s struggles with post-traumatic stress after returning from active duty.
Now, with less than a week to go before race day, the pair is within sight of the finish line. They’ve already raised about half of their goal, but in many ways, their priorities have changed.
Through the process, the miles of training, the many discussions about post-traumatic stress and The Mission Continues, the two friends have reached the point of closure, and a new beginning.
“There have been a lot of interesting developments along the way,” Chrisinger said. “Once Brett finishes the race, he’s come full circle and we’ll have told his story.”
As the race nears, Foley, who was training to become a police officer when the process began, is beginning to see more than one finish line approaching.
“It’s kind of the culmination of what’s been going on for me and what I’ve been dealing with,” he said. “I got a job offer this weekend from a police department in Price County and the race is next week. Things are a little hectic now that we’ll be selling our house … and moving everything north. It’s very humbling.”
After the article in the River News, an area television station ran a story about the pair. Now, Chicago Athlete Magazine is developing a story about Foley. Their profile is higher than ever, increasing visits to their website. Chrisinger said running50.com has had around 12,000 unique visitors up to this point.
The increased traffic helped raise money toward their goal, but it has also had another effect.
“After the first article came out, a Vietnam War veteran messaged me and told me no one would have done that after Vietnam,” Chrisinger said. “He was excited to see how far we’ve come in the last 40 years and that we’ve become so much more compassionate toward the struggles veterans go through.”
By telling Foley’s story, he’s been turned into more than an example.
“A couple of his old Marine buddies have emailed or left messages for him saying they didn’t realize he was going through the same thing they are,” Chrisinger said. “Just a few days ago a friend of his messaged and said he was having some of the same relationship problems Brett had. He’s really turned in to an advocate for some of the people he served with.”
It’s a role Foley has embraced.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that veterans need to get things off their chest,” he said. “They hold things in and need to get it out. If I can be an outlet for people to do that, it’s great. I’m glad Dave and I were able to do that together.”
While the original goal was to help provide returning veterans with the purpose and resources they need to properly readjust to civilian life, the project served a dual purpose. It helped people who haven’t served understand what veterans like Foley go through. While that started with Chrisinger, the message quickly spread.
“The reaction from our old friends has been incredible across the board,” Chrisinger said. “They didn’t know any of this about Brett and didn’t know it was so bad for him. They were learning about his story without him having to tell them face to face. To tell his story without having to tell everyone personally was good for him. It’s been a very positive reaction to what we’re doing and many of them have donated.”
Chrisinger is passionate about the subject, and while he may never fully understand exactly what veterans like Foley endure, he said it’s important to realize civilians can help with the process.
“It’s been very rewarding to me to be able to explore some of the emotions that I have about the subject,” he said. “People without military backgrounds still have feelings about it. We’ve gotten feedback from both sides of this and that’s been really positive. Sometimes there’s this disconnect between people who have been in the military and those who haven’t. It’s been really beneficial to have that dialogue and I don’t have to be a veteran to empathize with veterans.”
That’s why when the pair were given the opportunity to spread that very message, they jumped on it.
In early September, Chrisinger and Foley were invited to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Chrisinger’s alma mater, to tell Foley’s story to an undergraduate class called “Running and the Meaning of Life.”
“A former professor of mine invited us to talk,” Chrisinger said. “We talked about Brett’s experiences in the Marine Corps. and my experience moving to Washington D.C. and the confusion that goes along with that stage in your life. We really stressed the importance of finding a purpose and working toward something bigger than yourself. The feedback was great and the class wrote notes to us with really positive messages.
“One student wrote about how her aunt was going through hard times and my message of simply listening struck a cord with her. That’s what I did with Brett. It was great to know we had touched their lives.”
The lecture was a success. What started as just a talk though, may have turned into something much larger.
“Afterwards, we met with the administration and the alumni association,” Chrisinger said. “They were curious to see if I would be interested in teaching a class for new veteran students. We would read about other veterans’ experiences and talk about Brett’s story. The class wouldn’t come out until fall 2015, but UWSP is really working to become one of the most attractive schools in Wisconsin for military veterans. That would be an amazing way to continue this project. It’s a way to grow the model Brett and I started. If we can do that with all these new veterans coming back to school, and if I can help prepare them for the transition back to school, that would be incredibly rewarding for me.”
The pair will have another opportunity to spread their message, as well as address a question that’s come up throughout their time together, when they give a presentation to students at James Williams Middle School this fall.
“It will be an opportunity to introduce them to Brett and tell his story,” Chrisinger said. “We want to focus on the fact that there will be five million people who were in the military after 9/11 coming home. What will be their legacy? You have the World War II veterans labeled the greatest generation and then the Vietnam guys who had a much harder time. What will our generation’s legacy be? We hope that they use the skills they learned in the military at home to better their community. Instead of putting their military experience on the shelf and pretending it isn’t there, or climb into a bottle and never climb out. We’re very excited about that.”
Throughout this process, Chrisinger has made a powerful connection to his own family history. Foley’s story has made him reconsider the behavior of his own grandfather. Down the road, he’d like to turn these realizations into a book.
“My grandfather was a tank driver in World War II,” Chrisinger said. “He was in a really terrible battle where they went in with 30 tanks and left with eight. When he came home, he didn’t talk about it and drank a lot. He never got over it. When he passed away, I was in eighth grade and (he) was estranged from the family. I never had a meal with him, never got a birthday card from him and when he died, I thought, ‘Big deal, I didn’t even know that person.’
“When I started working with Brett, I really wanted to prevent him from getting to that future. My grandfather never came to grips with it and never dealt with it. I started doing research on him and the battles he was in and wondered what would have happened if someone would have just got him to write about it or talk about.”
The project has grown well beyond its initial objectives. Foley’s story has been told and now he’s an advocate for those he served with and others dealing with post-traumatic stress.
Chrisinger’s involvement began by simply lending an ear to a friend in need. Now, he’s dedicated to helping veterans readjust to life at home and has even found a connection with his deceased grandfather.
It’s a story of healing and growth, and one with much left to tell.
First, the two have to run their 50 miles.
“We are going to make all 50 whether we have to crawl across the finish line,” Foley said. “I promise you that. It will be painful and we’ll be mad at times, but we’re going to finish.”
That was the endgame all along. Despite the pain and struggles, just finish.
Rhinelander natives to run 50-mile ultramarathon to support veterans
WJFW Newswatch 12
Lauren Stephenson, October 19, 2013
Two men originally from Rhinelander plan to run 50 miles.
Not in one month.
Not in one week.
But in one day.
It’s called an ultramarathon.
“Brett and I knew each other growing up. We went to junior high together, high school together. We played the same sports,” says Dave Chrisinger.
But after Dave and Brett Foley graduated high school they took two radically different paths.
“I went to boot camp July 2005 right after my 18th birthday, and I got out August 2010,” says Brett Foley.
“It was strange. I was going away to college to play football. He was going to bootcamp. He was going to be a Marine. We were fighting in two wars. It was hard to know where we would be 5 years from now,” Dave explains.
They became distant but got back in touch when Brett was home in-between his tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Right before he left for Afghanistan, I think he and I really connected again…but you could sort of feel that Brett was not really there. You know his mind was where he was going. He was going to Afghanistan. It was really bad in 2010 there,” adds Dave.
War still weighed heavily on Brett when he returned home.
“You’re going 100 miles an hour every day and it’s hard to slow that down. The adrenaline and everything that you get used to on a daily basis when you come home you don’t have that, and I think a lot of people search for that by doing risky activities or putting their lives in jeopardy and it’s not the right way to handle things. And it took me a while to figure that out and learn that,” Brett explains.
Brett adjusted back to civilian life.
Dave felt he had to do something to pay back veterans.
He heard about the Mission Continues, a non-profit group that helps veterans transition to civilian life by giving them the chance to work for non-profits.
“He said, ‘I wish I would have known about that program when I got out because that would have been something that would have been really good for me,” Dave recalls.
“Dave came up with the idea of ‘Let’s do a run for this cause, The Mission Continues,’ and I thought that was a great idea so we just kind of ran with that,” Brett says.
And run with it, they did.
Sometimes 20 miles per day to train for a fifty-mile ultramarathon coming up in October.
They hope to raise $10,000 for The Mission Continues.
“I’ve never run a marathon. And this is going to be my first marathon so I thought, ‘Why not do an ultra with Dave?'” says Brett.
No matter how tough the fifty miles will be, Brett’s faced much worse.
“I look at the things Brett had to go through in Iraq and Afghanistan…People were shooting at him. There were bombs going off…I read a quote once that said, ‘The how is easy once you figure out the why.’ And both of us know why we’re doing this, and so it becomes easier to actually do it,” says Dave.
By doing so, they’ll help other veterans figure out the “why” in their lives.
The ultramarathon will be October 26th.
It starts at the tip of Door County and ends in Sturgeon Bay.
An Ally in the Battle at Home
The Northwoods River News
Andy Hildebrand, July 30, 2013
This is the story of two childhood friends who, in a time of great uncertainty for the United States, chose two very different paths but ended up marching together in lockstep.
After graduating from Rhinelander High School in 2005, David Chrisinger played college football while Brett Foley trained for war.
The friendship that would one day span oceans began simply enough, many years before.
“Brett and I played football and baseball together,” Chrisinger said. “When we got into junior high and high school we played paintball together. His family owned all this land and we could set up courses and barriers and played all the time.”
“We were always playing sports and hung out together through high school,” Foley said. “We went to parties and had a lot of classes together. It was a lot of fun.”
While the two focused on sports and the usual high school drama, America was expanding its presence in the Middle East. Although still teenagers, the two paid close attention.
“It was a really strange time to be a senior in high school,” Chrisinger said. “It was the summer of ’04 and we had just invaded Iraq, but we didn’t know yet that there were no WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). There was a lot of patriotic fervor and there was kind of that call to serve.”
Only a few years removed from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the culture surrounding the conflict in the Middle East was largely supportive, especially for two high school athletes who loved playing paintball.
“All these patriotic songs were coming out on the radio and we saw everything going on the news at the time. When you’re 17 and you have no concept of your own mortality, you think nothing bad can happen to you. You want adventure and you want to be a part of something that’s bigger than you. I got caught up in that the same way Brett did. I just had parents who talked me out of it.”
For Foley, the decision to serve came easy.
“A lot of people started enlisting after 9/11,” Foley said. “It was a spur of the moment kind of thing. I didn’t have a whole lot of money to go to college and neither did my parents. One day I said to myself, ‘Damn, the military sounds like a good option.’ I went down to the recruiter that day and signed up.”
As high school was ending, the two prepared to go their separate ways. Chrisinger was off to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to play football, and Foley was headed to boot camp.
“The summer after we graduated, I threw a party for him right before he left,” Chrisinger said. “The two of us crawled out on the roof to talk for a little while, mostly about the past. I didn’t see him much after that.”
Foley left for boot camp and Chrisinger moved into the dorms at UWSP. Both had moved away from home for the first time, but under very different circumstances. For Chrisinger, football presented its own set of challenges. After some self-reflection though, he realized they paled in comparison to what his friend was going through.
“I wrote him a letter while I was in two-a-days at football at Stevens Point,” he said. “I wrote him a letter complaining about how hot it was and how they were making us do the county fair drill that was a bunch of stations with pushups and jumping jacks. It was a tough conditioning drill.
“He wrote me back a letter while he was in boot camp and said they have something like that but it lasts four hours and you have to run six miles afterwards.”
For Chrisinger, the realization that his childhood friend was serving in a way that, at one time, he envisioned himself taking part in was hard to swallow.
“I felt guilty about my decision for years,” he said. After Brett joined, we found out there were no WMDs and all this terrible stuff was going on over there. I looked back and could think it was a good thing I didn’t end up doing that, but he was already living it.”
Foley said for him the Marines were an easy choice. He wanted to serve with the best. When it came to finding his niche in the service though, the process proved to be a little more complicated.
Foley began his service training to be a part of a presidential security outfit but requested to deploy into more of a combat role.
From there, he was stationed all over the world, including stops in Cuba, Israel and Spain.
While serving, Foley thought about his friends back home, like Chrisinger, who were pursuing degrees.
“I felt a disconnect,” he said. “I always wanted to do the college thing and be with my friends. I knew I had something to do and needed to do it though. You disconnect yourself from a lot of your family and friends to be able to do what you have to do, but I was homesick a lot.”
He served in Iraq, but when the fight took him to Afghanistan, it was like nothing he’d ever experienced before.
“Afghanistan was a lot of shooting and running around and chaos,” Foley said. “It was a really hostile place. Everyone remembers the combat because it’s dangerous. There’s the chance of losing your life.”
Between tours, he had the opportunity to return home to Rhinelander for stretches of time. He’d spend those days with family and friends, trying to forget what awaited him overseas.
Each trip home made it harder for Foley to separate his job in the Marines from his life at home.
“You get two or three days left in your leave and you realize that you’re not going to see these people for a long while.
“You kind of have to dissociate yourself from friends and family when you’re over there. You have a job to do and you need to keep from being distracted from what you have to do. For me, that happened until the end of my deployment.”
When Foley’s final tour of duty came to an end, he returned to Wisconsin where his wife, Whitney, was waiting with their new dog, Leelah. The trip back from Afghanistan was one he never thought he’d make.
“I was in awe,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to happen. A couple times in Afghanistan I thought this was it. I thought I wasn’t going to make it out of there.”
Reassimilating to civilian life proved to be a battle in its own right. Foley was experiencing post-traumatic stress and didn’t have any real methods to cope.
“It took me a couple of months to readjust and realize I’m really home,” he said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. My wife was frustrated with me. I didn’t have intense nightmares but I’d drink and I’d think about it frequently. Certain smells would remind me of something we got into over there. It was emotional. I was up and down. I was angry and sad.”
Post-traumatic stress is common for returning soldiers. Tim Bahr runs peer support recovery programs in northern Wisconsin through the Veterans’ Association. He served as a Marine for more than 40 years, including 23 years of active duty. His last tour was in Iraq in 2006, and he’s no stranger to post-traumatic stress. He said there’s still a stigma attached to it.
“Vets are less than one percent of the population,” Bahr said. “The majority of the population doesn’t care and don’t understand, which is a big struggle in our groups. What people need to understand is it’s a normal reaction to an abnormal situation you find yourself in, whether it’s slamming your hand in a car door or having your buddy disintegrate in front of you or pull a dead body out of a car.”
Meanwhile, Chrisinger had gone through changes in his own life. He got married and moved to Washington, D.C. The two friends hadn’t been in touch for some time but a late night online chat changed all that.
“I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and one night I saw he was on Facebook,” Chrisinger said. “I hadn’t talked to him in a long time and my wife was pregnant. I couldn’t sleep and I was up at 1 a.m. on the computer. I saw Brett was on there and started chatting him up and eventually the conversation got serious. He opened up to me that he was having a hard time. He couldn’t sleep and he was anxious all the time. He was having trouble turning off that hyper alertness.”
Foley had been home already for a few months, but Chrisinger had no idea. It didn’t matter though. He jumped at the opportunity to be there for his friend.
“I offered myself as an ear to listen and Brett felt comfortable enough to talk to me,” he said. “The next day we talked again, and then again the next day. Eventually, he told me he had written some things about his experiences. He knew I was a writer and asked me to look at some of his stuff.”
They were memories from combat and thoughts he had about his return home. The messages were personal, only meant for him, but for some reason Foley trusted Chrisinger enough to share.
“I felt connected with Dave because there’s not a whole lot of people who really care,” Foley said. “People say support the troops, but he really is interested and cares. He researches topics and is genuinely interested in helping people with their PTSD and readjusting to life at home.”
Chrisinger suddenly found himself wanting to help his friend, but knowing very little about post-traumatic stress. So he did what any writer would.
“I was trying to understand what Brett went through the best I could and eventually I was reading book after book about what it’s like for soldiers’ everyday lives,” he said. “I started to educate myself on PTSD and the science behind it so I could be a better listener for Brett.”
Time went on and the two continued to talk while Chrisinger kept researching post-traumatic stress.
Foley had turned a corner in his own struggle though. He quit drinking and made it a priority to get his life back on track.
“My wife helped me through a lot of that,” he said. “She pointed me in the right direction and talked to me. The dog was great therapy for me too. The contact with the dog was great. It relieved stress and tension. I slipped up quite a few times, not doing what I should do, but eventually I figured it out and set goals for myself.”
Foley had to learn how to live with post-traumatic stress, something that Bahr says is a challenge for all veterans returning from combat.
“We don’t get cured,” he said. “There is no cure. You learn primarily that you’re not alone and learn to accept that it’s not going away. It’s not an abnormal thing and it’s not something to be afraid of.”
Foley set his sights on becoming a police officer. He believes the skill set he learned in the military makes him a fit for the job and, most importantly, it will allow him to continue to help people.
As Foley was working to build a healthy civilian life for himself, Chrisinger continued his research. He had become fascinated with the process veterans go through upon returning from combat. He found a program called “The Mission Continues.” It’s a program designed by veterans that assists in the adjustment process by providing structure and an opportunity to serve through community-based projects. Chrisinger was fascinated by the group’s concept.
“Brett was just starting to get his life back together,” Chrisinger said. “He was feeling better, exercising and wasn’t drinking anymore. He was off his medication. I realized that the program is a lot like what Brett was doing himself. He was training to become a police officer so he could continue to serve.”
Foley thought the structure of “The Mission Continues” made a lot of sense. For him, the key was having something to work toward. This group provided that for veterans.
“I think a big problem with veterans coming home is they don’t know what to do,” Foley said. Everything has been scheduled for so many years. The Mission Continues gives them structure and something to do and goals to work for.”
The hardest part of Foley’s battle with post-traumatic stress was behind him, but Chrisinger still had the collection of Foley’s writing and after discovering “The Mission Continues,” he thought the two could still do some good.
“Around Christmas of last year we kind of had amassed this knowledge about Brett’s experiences and we wanted to find a way to help people with all we’d discovered,” he said. “We started a website to tell his story, but wanted to figure out a way to bring people to the site. It was Brett’s idea to combine the site with fundraising.”
So running50.com was born. The site works as a kind of running journal about Foley’s experiences with post-traumatic stress and thoughts Chrisinger has come across through his research.
While the site’s message was there, the two still needed a way to attract readers and raise money at the same time.
“Brett thought we should run a marathon, but I didn’t think that was enough, so I said, ‘What about 50?’,” Chrisinger said. “I expected him to say that’s crazy, but he jumped right in and said he would run it with me.”
The ultramarathon, a 50-mile trek, is not something that can be done on a whim. They decided to run in December though and picked a race in October, giving them 10 months to prepare.
They set a fundraising goal of $10,000 which would be donated to “The Mission Continues” upon completion of the race.
Foley said while the race is a challenge, it doesn’t compare to the fight soldiers go through with post-traumatic stress. That’s why he hopes the website can do some good.
“If we can change one person’s life, then it’s worth it,” he said. “That’s our goal. There’s been a lot of reaction already and emails from soldiers. Even some of the guys I deployed to Afghanistan with told me we’ve got a good thing going. They can relate to the stuff and it’s helping.”
The process has brought the two childhood friends closer than ever. They’re working to benefit a cause they both believe in, and Chrisinger said there’s no end in sight.
“Their motto is ‘Find renewed strength and purpose,’ and that’s exactly what it does,” he said. “We both feel very deeply that it’s something we have to do. This whole experience will give both of us closure.”
When the race is over, Chrisinger plans to continue his work. He’d like to take his experience and Foley’s writing to the next level by turning it into a book. If that happens, he said any money the book generated would be sent to “The Mission Continues.”
“It would be wonderful if someone was interested in this story,” Chrisinger said. “We’ve already got this incredible archive and just last week, we had 2,000 unique visitors to the site, so word is getting out. Brett’s story is one of redemption. People sometimes think veterans are to be feared. That’s why this experience is so valuable.”
Although he lives in Madison now, when Foley completes his law enforcement training, he’s planning on moving back to northern Wisconsin. That’s where he used to play paintball with Chrisinger growing up, before the call to duty took him around the world.
Two different friends who took two very different paths have somehow ended up with the same goal in mind. Running 50 miles is one part of that process, but it isn’t the endgame. For both of them, the mission continues.