A girl listening to the radio news hears her boyfriend has been killed in action. A family receives a notification of their son’s death with his name spelled wrong. Two soldiers knock but refuse to tell the bad news to a soldier’s mother and sister, making them wait until the father returns home from work to hear how their loved one died. These are some of the ways Connecticut families heard that they lost a loved one in the Vietnam War. A new project by students in CCSU’s Advanced Creative Nonfiction Workshop course is finally telling the stories of these grieving families called “Gold Star families” after the memorial pin they receive from the State Department.
The nonfiction workshop course is taught by Mary Collins, a professor of English at CCSU and winner of the 2010 Indie Book Awards Grand Prize. For her, it is essential that students use their skills to improve their communities. “It’s important to me that [in the class] we do something that’s really valuable. You may find as a volunteer that you are doing something with your storytelling skills that’s both giving back to the community and doing something for people that they can’t do for themselves,” said Collins. The Gold Star families meet these criteria, as it can be very difficult to tell such highly personal stories of tragedy and grief, but it is important that they are told.
This October they will release the course’s final project: a fifty-page color magazine of co-authored essays between CCSU creative writing students and family members of fallen soldiers. It will also contain original essays by students and professional photos of Gold Star families.
The work will be collected and adapted into a museum exhibit, which will debut in July 2015 at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, CT. The exhibit is a joint venture between the State Veterans Office, the CCSU Veterans History Project, and other veterans’ organizations.
The magazine project started when CCSU Veterans History Project Director Eileen Hurst approached Collins about commemorating Gold Star families in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. “No one has ever done anything of substance with them. No one has asked how these families have responded over the past fifty years,” said Collins. Hurst has contact information for 613 Vietnam War Gold Star families in Connecticut. Six participated in the project. Shame still lingers for many families. “Some people were ashamed of the war and never told anyone for decades that they lost a son… For example, one of the families revealed that at the funeral, a neighbor came up and said ‘your son had no business being there.’ She probably never told anyone,” said Collins.
The project posed a professional and emotional challenge for students given the difficult subject matter. “I think it was a profound experience for students and they were proud of the work they did,” said Collins. One essay by student Katherine Wood recounts how she learned the story behind a helicopter-shaped memorial in her hometown of Prospect, CT. The memorial honored a young man killed in Vietnam. His mother still lived in the town, but never talked about her son because of the stigma surrounding the war. That began to change for her many years later when another soldier who had served with her son came and found her.
In memory of his lost friend, the soldier raised money for a memorial. “When it was revealed, she felt free and like she could be proud of her son for the first time. It was the first time the community made her feel like it was okay for her to say that. By that time, decades had gone by,” Collins explained. Wood describes in her essay the experience of finally stopping at the memorial and weeping because “she knew this thing she ignored her whole childhood was about this woman’s son,” said Collins.
This project was made possible by Collins’s fundraising, which she undertakes every spring to fund a new civic engagement project. “It’s my job to try to get the money to fund a specific project. It’s an enormous task, but it’s well worth it. The payback for students to have a professional product when they graduate is enormous,” she said. This project was also made possible in part through a CCSU grant, individual donations, and a grant from the Trumbull Rotary Club. When she pitched the idea to the Rotary Club, “they were thrilled. People in the room donated $4,800 in cash on their own,” she said. One member also secured a free print run for the magazine, making it easier to produce and distribute to the public.
Collins hopes that this project sheds light on how a soldier’s sacrifice extends to his family. “Our goal was to take the families out of the shadows and pull it into the public,” she said. “I think it is important to record, at the human level, what is going on with these complex conflicts no matter where you stand. It’s important to remember that look, this family in Berlin, CT, lost a son and five decades later the father was an alcoholic and died young. These repercussions extend over generations and we need to face that,” she said.
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the magazine, please contact Professor Collins by email at firstname.lastname@example.org