The winner of our 2014 Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans published the following op-ed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on what it meant to win the contest. She, runner-up Brian Van Reet, and judge Anthony Swofford will read at Prairie Lights Bookstore this Saturday, April 18, at 7 p.m.
What Do We Owe Our Veterans?
My roommate ran into a friend of hers from their Duxbury, Mass., high school at a bar in Vail, Colo. He remembered that after high school, she had gone to the Naval Academy, and then on to serve in the Navy. She more or less remembered his name. As it turns out, he started a few startup companies, two or three of which flopped. His last one made him a multimillionaire.
“Thanks for your service,” he said to her before he left.
Later that night when she told me about him, she said, “He could have at least bought me a beer for it.”
We both laughed, but only half-ironically. This is the sentiment we often feel as veterans of America’s most recent wars. People are quick to thank us, but their gratitude often seems shallow and inauthentic. For what exactly was he thankful? What about her service, or mine, or anyone else’s, did he appreciate? And—maybe most importantly—why, after disclosing that he was a millionaire, did he not buy her a $3 beer?
I don’t mean this to sound like I believe veterans like us deserve free beer (though it would be nice), or that we deserve anything else. We volunteered to serve in a time when we knew the nation was at war, and we did what we were asked to do. We got to do strange, interesting, terrifying and amazing things. People were generous and supportive. Sometimes, church groups from Georgia sent us car magazines and Girl Scout cookies. We got Christmas boxes sent to us in Iraq in July and wore the reindeer antler headbands on our helmets for a while before the glue melted and the green and red felt separated and fell away from the wire frame.
But we didn’t deserve these goodies either.
The only thing I am confident we deserve, and the thing we need even more than free beer, is a voice and a space for people to listen to it. The war needs a voice because the people who fought in it need for everyone else to understand what we saw and did.
A few notable writers have broken through and been recognized for describing their time in the wars, but there are thousands of veterans with unique experiences and stories to tell, all of which are necessary to really understand the war, the motivation for the soldiers fighting it, and the effect it had on us. More importantly, the more veterans who tell their stories, the more we can understand how the wars affected the rest of the country who did not go fight, how it affected people who, like cheapskate millionaire guy, only obliquely knew someone who fought them.
I knew that my experience in Iraq was unique. I knew it while I was there, and I knew it when I got back home. What I didn’t know until I started writing about it was that it was also important, and not just for me. It is important that other people hear my story and know what I did and what I didn’t do because one day, our country will decide whether to fight another war, and the population must know what it is like.
Winning The Iowa Review’s Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans validated for me that my writing matters, that my story matters, and that this country is not tired of hearing stories from the war. It inspired me to keep writing and to encourage other veterans like me to keep writing and telling our stories.
Katherine Schifani is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and spent seven years on active duty in the Air Force. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Seattle Pacific University and lives in Colorado. She also is the winner of The Iowa Review’s 2014 Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans. She will read her winning essay, “Pistol Whip,” on April 18 at Prairie Lights Bookstore, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City.