It began, as so many inspired ideas do, in a conversation over a cup of coffee. Mike McDonell and Clyde Wray had been introduced by a mutual friend. Both were then living in Washington, D.C. Both were writers. Both had served in Vietnam, McDonell as an officer with the 11th Marines in 1967-68, and Wray, during the same period, as a rifleman with the Army’s 199th Light Infantry Brigade.
The conversation, in the winter of 1992, a few months after the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial, headed in the direction of: "What might we do that also would honor the memory, and the service, of those who did the nation’s bidding in Southeast Asia?" Intimate with the inherent power of the written word, the seed of an idea was planted, and quickly sprouted: "Why not have a reading, a performance by poets and writers, all of whom are Vietnam veterans? Why not hold this reading, this performance, in close proximity to The Wall?"
Over the next few months, Clyde Wray and Mike McDonell spoke to friends and acquaintances, other veterans who had the faculty to express themselves on paper. There was Rod Kane, who had written the well-received memoir, Veterans Day; Tom McLean, a local songwriter; Roger Dorsey, a poet from Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Ed Henry, a poet and recognized expert on the history and culture of Vietnam, who brought an accomplished Vietnamese musician, Kim Oanh, to perform with the group.
That Memorial Day, this small band assembled before an audience five dozen strong at the Market 5 Gallery on Capitol Hill, a space blessed with a stage. In an hour-long program of music and poetry and short fiction, they explored issues of camaraderie and isolation, bravado and fear, loss and death and coming to terms with what had been, and what was still. It was, said Mike McDonell, "a magical evening."
When it ended, there was no shortage of hugs and tears, nor were there any plans to do it again.
Word of Mouth
Of course, when something clicks, as that magical evening had, word spreads. Wayne Smith, then director of membership for Vietnam Veterans of America, approached Clyde. Would you be willing to do this again? he wanted to know. Could you stage another program at The Wall on Veterans Day?
"So we did," Mike McDonell recounted during a telephone conversation from his home on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. "We got the feeling that this really hadn’t been done before." Beyond innovation, however, was something more. Each of the participants had experienced the cathartic effects of reading his own words in front of an audience, and hearing in turn the words of fellow veterans and writers.
Ed Henry borrowed a tent, for which they received the requisite permission to set up near The Wall. "And the Memorial Day Writers’ Project has been a presence at The Wall every Veterans Day and every Memorial Day since," McDonell added.
The group, which McDonell describes as "flexible," welcomes anyone who has been "touched by war and is willing to share their impressions - from letters, poetry, song. You can," he says, "belong if you want to. Or you can just show up and listen."
What the Writers Project offers, he says, "is a stage and a venue for people to express what they are thinking and what they are feeling. One of us - lately it’s been Dick Epstein - will usually function as a master of ceremonies. After the ‘members’ of the Project read from our work, Dick will open the stage to folks in the audience. Briah Connor, a retired mustang captain with the Corps who has been a real backbone for us, circulates, encouraging folks to participate. My wife, Suellen, captures the events with her 35mm camera.
"And sometimes, when the words flow and hit a high note, it all comes together. We call that that ‘The Magic Moment’ and it seems to happen at least once every time we gather to do this at The Wall."
Members of the Project, along with VVA Chapter 227, also co-sponsor the Vince Kaspar Prizes for Excellence in the Arts, an annual arts award named for one of the major contributors to the Project until his death in 1995, awarding annually scholarships to two students from northern Virginia who have excelled in the written and visual arts.
To underwrite the costs of staging this twice-yearly event at The Wall, "we used to pass the hat," McDonell says. "Now, we’ve got a donated tent and a board of directors. Who knows, we may even open a checking account! But one thing is for sure," he says. "We will continue to serve the veterans and the generations to come through our art and by providing a venue for theirs."
For the past nine years, Mike says, "a teacher friend of ours has been bringing her kids here - they’re juniors at the Tandem School in Charlottesville, Virginia. They share their reactions with us about what we’ve written; and we talk to them about their writing." Which makes for a mutually satisfying arrangement and a finger on the pulses of separate generations.
This Veterans Day, the Writers Project will again be under the tent a hundred meters from The Wall - "it’s the one with the green-and-white awning," McDonell says - with readings slated to run between 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on both Sunday, November 10th, and Monday, November 11th.
Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_Veterans_Memorial#/media/File:Names_of_Vietnam_Veterans.jpg