I recently read a story about New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, and how he writes his columns about specific people and not merely the broader issues because readers have an easier time relating if the story is about a singular person than about the hundreds, thousands, or millions actually impacted. At first, I was kind of annoyed. It seems ridiculous of people to think that way, and I didn’t want to believe that that’s how we really react to news. But then I realized that that’s exactly how I write, too. Which brings us to my latest Warrior Wire column.
Every couple of years, someone decides that Penthouse should be banned on military bases and we get kicked out of the PXes all across the country. In the eight years I’ve been with the magazine, I’ve seen us banned two or three times, and heard about people wanting to ban us at least twice as often, probably more. The reasons are always a little absurd. I read something once about how a woman complained and fought to ban the magazine because she was in a PX with her child and saw a soldier buying the magazine, and she didn’t want to have to explain to her child what the magazine was and why this (grown) man was buying it. This startled me for a number of reasons. First off, all Penthouse magazines sold on newsstands are polybagged, which means you can only see the front and back cover. And, I’m sorry, but our cover is no more risqué than Cosmopolitan or Maxim or any other (wo)men’s interest magazine. Even our cover lines aren’t that racy. Again, no more so than any other magazine that you can find on the shelves. But, also, if your kid asks what Penthouse is, you can simply say, “It’s a magazine for grownups.” That’s what my parents did, and it’s what I do when I have to explain to underage folk (the kids of family and friends) what I do. And it’s always enough to end the conversation with them, because, really, they don’t care. And if your kid is old enough to care, they’re going to find a way to get their hands on some dirty magazines no matter what you do. (Don’t act like you didn’t steal your dad’s Penthouse or your friend’s dad’s Playboy. We all did it.)
Anyway, when I was asked to write this editorial, all those things came to mind. But my being pissed wasn’t going to do much, because I’m the writer. Of course I’m mad when people can’t buy my magazine. As a writer, I’m annoyed because it keeps people from seeing my writing, and I work really hard on every article. And as an employee, I get irritated because by not selling the magazine that pays my rent, they’re possibly cutting into my ability to pay my rent down the line. (Note: Jerks!) So I knew I needed other voices. And this brings us back to my earlier point. When I write, I write about people. Sure, sometimes I write about people who need better health care, or people who don’t want their retirement benefits cut, or even simply people who like music, but every story I’ve written has been, at its heart, about people. Because as it turns out, I’m one of those people who cares more about an issue when I can connect it to a person, a face, a name, a story, then when all I’ve got are statistics and hard facts.
I was surprised with how many of the vets I’ve talked to actually got back to me when I sent out an email asking for their opinions on the latest Penthouse ban. I’ve been lucky to always talk to people who are willing to help me out whenever they can, but this seemed like an odd story, and I really didn’t expect many responses. The four people included in this article—Jenny, Jesse, Geoff, and Justin—had the strongest opinions of all of them, and they also all had great ways of expressing those opinions. I had already written a rough draft before hearing back from them, but adding their statements really made this article come alive for me. Without them, it felt like just me being ranty, and outside of email chains with my friends, I try to keep my ranting to a minimum because who the hell am I? But with their voices, it became an issue, one that I thought people could understand as being about more than a magazine staff being upset that sales numbers were going to drop a bit.
Some of the quotes I got made me think differently. One of the reasons suggested for the ban was that magazines like Penthouse are a root cause of sexual assault, teaching men that women are merely objects. Jenny mentioned that one of the reasons that our magazine couldn’t be blamed for military sexual trauma (MST), though, was that MST also happened to men, and I hadn’t really thought about that before. And Geoff and Jesse both brought up points about how the military was so concerned with banning a magazine, but had yet to address the real issue of MST, which is that it’s underreported, and when it is reported, it’s almost impossible for the victims to get justice because they have to report to their chain of command, some of whom are the ones committing these assaults. But my favorite quotes came from Justin, who in our interview said basically all the things I wanted to say, but better. He brought up points I wanted to bring up, and basically could have written the editorial himself if I’d let him. He also had a great line about how it’s unfair that he can serve in the military, fight a war, risk death, but they won’t let him see a pair of tits. … And, okay, I’ll admit it, part of me was excited to be able to use words like “tits” and “balls” in Warrior Wire, since those articles are usually more cut and dry—and less vulgar. So, there’s that, too.
Anywho, the point of the editorial is that people (who are of age and legally allowed to do so) should be able to buy Penthouse if that’s what they want to do. Especially people who we’re willing to send off to war and who may come back injured or maybe not come back at all. So, yeah, I think if you’re allowed to go to war, you should be allowed to read a fucking “dirty” magazine. And if you don’t want your kids seeing the magazine, then don’t buy it (or do, but just hide it really well). Other people shouldn’t have to give up simple pleasures like this because other people are too fucking afraid of sex to know how to explain it to a child or, I fear, to have it explained to them. [End rant]
Now, if you want to read the actual editorial, and see what the vets I interviewed had to say about whether you—or they—should be allowed to buy Penthouse on military bases, check out my/the magazine’s editorial, “We’ve Got Their Backs … And Their Tits & Ass” from the June 2014 issue of, you guessed it, Penthouse.
When I started working on this article, I honestly thought I’d be writing about something else. I’d been contacted by Tracee Beebe, a filmmaker who was working on a documentary about Vietnam veterans, and she told me that they were being denied benefits from the VA because their military records didn’t reflect their service accurately. I was intrigued, and I pitched my editor the story. At the same time, my father had just been awarded disability compensation by the VA for exposure to Agent Orange, something that he’d been fighting for since he returned home, and I had pitched another story about that issue. I even thought I might interview my dad, make him tell me all the stories I’ve never heard, and all the ones I have that I want to hear again.
Then I started doing my interviews for this piece. It turned out that all the vets I was in touch with were trying to get benefits for exposure to Agent Orange, and all of them were being denied because they didn’t have “boots on the ground.” The story had changed.
My dad helped me out with a lot of the research as I worked on the story, and he sent me every scrap of paper and internet link he had that had some useful information. But because he’d (finally) been given a disability rating, he was no longer part of my Agent Orange story. And, actually, I was glad. Not because I didn’t want to interview him or hear his stories. We talk every week, multiple times, and I love hearing his stories. No, I was glad he was out of the story because of how hard it was to talk to the men who hadn’t gotten a rating and weren’t receiving benefits. Some of them cried when we spoke. Sometimes, I cried after I hung up. One man who’d agreed to an interview died before we could actually talk. That was tough. And all of them sounded a lot like my dad.
Tracee had started her documentary because of her father’s experience with the VA and Agent Orange, and when she and I spoke, it was like we were talking about the same person. The way she described her father—his attitude, the things he said, the way he thought about his service, the worries he had—sounded exactly like my dad. All of the men, really, were similar to my father. Maybe it’s just that they all come from the same generation, or maybe because they all fought the same wars, literally and figuratively. Whatever it was, it was like talking to and about my dad, all day, every day, while I worked on this. Except that my dad wasn’t sick like they were. And my dad wasn’t still waiting for someone to admit that something had happened to him and he deserved to be compensated. My dad, unlike some of the men I spoke to, was doing better than ever.
I know that there are so many more issues out there, and with wounded troops still coming home from Afghanistan, and the VA still mired in scandal, Agent Orange seems like a minor, far-away issue. But it’s still something that so many men (and women) are battling. And Agent Orange doesn’t only affect the veterans who were exposed, but their children and grandchildren. And while the number of people affected dwindles every day, as the older generations die off, it doesn’t make the issue go away. If we’re still fighting to get vets taken care of more than four decades after the Vietnam War, how long will this newest generation of vets have to fight to get the care they deserve?
While we wait for that answer, I’d love it if you’d take a minute to read my article, “Denied Till They Die,” from the May 2014 issue of Penthouse. You can read it by clicking the above image or by clicking here.
I don’t really have a lot to say about this article, especially since it’s kind of old news by now. I had written this when the COLA cuts were still an everyday news item, and it was the hot-button veterans issue of the moment. Now, with the VA scandal going on, this feels ancient. That said, I still think it’s worth a read.
When I was working on this article, something strange happened. A veteran follower of mine on Twitter actually reached out to me to ask me to explain how the COLA cuts were going to work. He hadn’t had a chance to really dig into the news, and he was concerned. Knowing that I followed the issues, he sent me a message asking me if I could put the whole mess into layman’s terms for him to let him know just what to expect. I took it as a compliment, that because of all my work writing and editing the Warrior Wire column the past couple of years, someone actually saw me as some sort of authority on the matter. It felt pretty cool, I must say. Although Penthouse has been covering veterans and the military for four decades, people don’t always take it seriously, and it’s not always easy to get interviews, as some people still don’t realize we publish articles like this. It makes the job of putting together this monthly feature that much harder, but it also makes it that much more rewarding when I get feedback. Whether it’s someone saying they’ve looked up my work and are willing to grant me an interview because they like what I’ve done so far, or someone like this guy who reached out and asked me, because of my writing, to help him understand the issue, it means a lot to know that these articles are getting out there and having some sort of impact. Even if only one person is helped by the work I do (and the work my editors and fellow Warrior Wire writers do), that’s still a big deal.
I’d also like to take a moment here to thank Joe Davis, from the VFW, for all his help with this article. I know a lot, but I’m also fortunate enough to have a really amazing community of people much more knowledgeable than I am who let me pick their brains every month and help me understand what’s going on so that I can share the news with my readers. I’m not exactly an economics wiz, so some of the math-y stuff involved in writing this COLA article was a little bit harder to grasp. Joe took the time to explain it all to me, and his responses to my questions were so in-depth and detailed that I joked that I should give him the byline of the story, since he’d put in as much work as I had.
Anywho, you can read my article, “Diet COLA,” front the April 2014 issue of Penthouse by clicking the image above or by clicking right here.
As a writer, I’ve always been incredibly jealous of people who are talented in the visual arts. That old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words? It’s totally true. Plus, people are more likely to stop for a few seconds to look at a photo or painting or drawing than they are to actually read a thousand-word article. This is especially true in my line of work, writing for a magazine known for its (NSFW) photos, which I’m sure garner a lot more looks than all the words I write on the pages between the photos. So, of course, after my article about veteran writers, it seemed only natural to follow it up with a story about veteran artists.
I don’t quite remember how I first learned about the Combat Paper Project, but I know that right after I heard about it, I couldn’t stop hearing about it. Several people I interviewed for my article on Warrior Writers mentioned it, and then it was mentioned again in the documentary Poster Girl (which you can watch on Netflix), and, in fact, there was a separate short documentary about the project, Iraq Paper Scissors, in the DVD bonus features of that film. Because, of course. It was clearly the universe’s way of telling me what I should write about next.
When I started reading up on the program and learning more about it, one of the first thoughts I had was, “This is f*ckin’ cool!” Because it is. But I also noticed that a lot of the names mentioned in other articles about Combat Paper were familiar to me from reading about veteran activists over the years. So I was doubly excited to get to work on the story. I’d get to pick the brains of talented artists, and talk to people whom I’d been reading about for the past couple of years.
A lot of the talk about the Combat Paper Project was about the cathartic aspect of it, and how it helps people heal. But what I thought was especially awesome about it was how it was producing unique works of art. While some of the men and women who participate do so for more emotional reasons, the fact is, a lot of the participants are incredibly talented artists, which I think gets overlooked a lot. Most stories about veterans’ groups like this one get bogged down by talk of PTSD and military sexual trauma and all the other things that go wrong that make people turn to art to heal. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Art is healing, both for the artist and, at times, for the viewer. But that’s not the whole story.
One of the artists I interviewed, Eli Wright, who helps lead the Combat Paper workshops at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, told me that he wondered if people would have considered him an artist if he weren’t a veteran. He’s also not sure he really considers himself an artist because that’s not how he makes his living. The work he’s most known for is a piece called “Open Wound,” which can easily be seen as a statement about his post-war feelings, and he says that more subtle pieces don’t get the kind of attention “Open Wound” does, even though some of them may be better. Then there’s Jesse Albrecht, who has no trouble calling himself an artist. He has his MFA, shows his work frequently in workshop and gallery settings, and has taught art at the college level. His work with Combat Paper is more about the art than anything else.
The cathartic aspects of art shouldn’t be entirely ignored, however. Drew Matott, who helped start the Combat Paper Project, started the Peace Paper Project not too long ago, which focuses on helping people heal from traumatic events through art. Veteran artist Jon Turner, who also worked with Combat Paper for several years, helps teach the Peace Paper veterans’ workshops. The focus there is more on the healing aspects of the artistic process, though they certainly produce some beautiful art, too.
Whether you prefer to look at the created pieces as art or as a means of finding peace, it’s worth checking out the art and artists who make up the Combat Paper Project. You can see more of their art here and here, and you can find out their workshop schedules here and here. And you can check out the Peace Paper Project here. And, of course, you can read my article about the Combat Paper Project, which appeared in the March 2014 issue of Penthouse, by clicking right over here.
If you read my last post, you may have noticed a sidebar in my article “The Write Stuff.” In it, I gave a short rundown of five of my favorite veteran-written books. I chose five because that’s what I knew could fit in the space I was given, but there are so many more good books, and I want to share those with you, too. So here’s a little bit about how I chose the books that made the cut, as well as some further recommended reading:
During the earlier years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I didn’t read books or watch movies about the wars. I devoured the news like a junkie, and my college roommates suffered through lots of CNN and stacks upon stacks of newspapers. My cousin, a Marine, did three tours to Iraq, so I was always a little worried about him and didn’t want books or movies to make me even more tense. I’d always been a big news junkie, though, so that I could handle.
My cousin had just finished his last tour when I got my first Warrior Wire assignment, and my editor has asked me to interview Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I knew of him, and I knew he’d written a book, so I read his book before our interview. It was easier now that my cousin was home. I loved Paul’s book, so I sought out more.
In true Jen fashion, I bought dozens of books, more than I could read in any reasonable amount of time, and have continued to do so. If someone I interview recommends a book, I pick it up. If I read a good review of a book, it’s in. If a book lands on my desk at Penthouse for review or I stumble upon one during my annual trip to Book Expo America, it becomes part of my required reading, too. So in the past few years, I’ve acquired quite a collection. I’ve read about a third of my collection now, maybe a little more. (I read other things, too, and I can only spend so many hours with my nose in a book.)
There are so many great books out there these days. Especially about our most recent wars. There are books about policy and practice, there are memoirs, there are accounts from journalists and photographers. I’ve found books that I love and books that I only kind of like, and books that even people who have no interest in the news or the wars can read and understand (and I’m not above forcing people to read books for their own damn good). There are also more books than ever out there about and by veterans.
My all-time favorite, and the first war book I ever read, is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about the Vietnam War.
Here’s a list of my favorite Iraq/Afghanistan books by vets:
Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective
My dad said the a lot of the scenes were reminiscent of his time in Vietnam and he could really relate to it. My first and favorite Iraq war memoir.
My Share of the Task: A Memoir
(Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Ret.)
Heavy on the policy and so full of jargon that you might have some trouble if you’re not fluent in military lingo. That said, it’s also got some great humorous moments, and was a far more enjoyable read than I’d ever anticipated.
Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War
(editors Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher)
The first fiction I read about the recent wars. Absolutely superb read. It introduced me to some great writers I may not have discovered otherwise and really made me think.
An Angel From Hell: Real Life on the Front Lines
(Ryan A. Conklin)
If you watched MTV’s Real World: Brooklyn a few years ago, you may remember Conklin as one of the housemates that season. His book, like his role on the show, is goofy and a little immature, but it has its deeper moments. It’s a good book, but I chose it for my article in large part because it’s a book that a lot of younger readers will find accessible because of their familiarity with Conklin from his television appearances.
The Yellow Birds
War fiction by a war vet. This was probably my favorite book that I read in 2013, about war or otherwise. Whether you’re interested in war/veterans or not, any fan of good writing must read this.
This is the Catch-22 of the 21st century. It’s a hilarious take on life on base in a war zone. I laughed out loud frequently, which definitely made my fellow subway riders curious about the book.
Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog
First of all, it’s about a dog. What’s not to love? But really, it was a great, quick read. And, yes, the man-and-his-dog story is heartwarming as hell. It’s one of the more sentimental war memoirs, but also one of the easiest to get into. You can’t not like this book.
My War: Killing Time in Iraq
Buzzell has written several articles for Penthouse‘s Warrior Wire column, so of course his book made my list. But it’s also a good book. It’s a little non-linear, being based on the blog he kept during the war, but his voice is familiar and likable. He references a lot of punk music and frequently points out how he doesn’t necessarily fit the soldier mold (whatever that may be these days), and reading his book felt like binge-reading emails home from my cousin, so it won me over.
Thank You for Your Service
Not by a veteran, but an embedded reporter. It’s an honest look at what happens when soldiers come home with PTSD and TBI. It will totally break your heart a half-dozen times, but you’ll be all the better for it.
Even people who have no interest in war will be able to get lost in this book by one of my favorite writers. He skips all the acronyms and over-thought explanations of why and how and simply tells a good story.
If you hate books, you can watch the HBO miniseries
of the same name. It’s as close to the book as anything I’ve seen, and doesn’t require you to read the book before you watch it. But if you pick the book, you won’t be sorry. Wright has no shame in pointing out all the times he was scared, or discussing the nitty-gritty details of war, like where you go to the bathroom when you’re camped out in the middle of nowhere in the desert.
Warrior Writers is an organization I first learned about after looking up veterans’ groups that needed volunteers. I got busy not long after contacting them, but I subscribed to their newsletter and followed what they were doing. Then, last year, when I was trying to come up with articles to pitch, I remembered them and reached out. I was excited to profile an organization full of writers, which I thought was an incredible addition the non-profit scene, but I was even more thrilled when I saw the list of members.
When I wrote my first Warrior Wire article, “War Songs,” back in 2008, I tried to get in touch with Garett Reppenhagen, who’d penned the Bouncing Souls’ song “Letter from Iraq.” Unfortunately, I could only find an old email address, and we failed to connect. I’d had him in the back of my mind ever since, and I kept wondering if I’d ever find another article to write where I could include him. Well, four years later, I finally got my chance, because he happened to be a participant in Warrior Writers.
Also on the list was Geoff Millard, whom I’d interviewed for that very first article I wrote. He’d been a really good interview, and we’d had a great chat back then, so I was looking forward to reconnecting. He didn’t disappoint.
One of the coolest things about this article, though, was getting to talk to these people one writer to another. Writing about writers was easy. And daunting. Because these guys (and ladies) would know if I fucked up. Still, it was nice to talk to them about how they get their ideas and inspiration and what drove them to writing. Some of them want to write professionally, while others are satisfied with keeping their journals private. Some are artists or writing coaches or have degrees in English literature, and others are volunteers or work in non-profits. What they all have in common—and what I share with them—is a need to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be) to express their feelings, either for themselves or for the world to read.
Since writing about Warrior Writers, I’ve discovered other similar writing groups, like Words After War, Veterans Writing Project, and Veterans Writing Workshop. Each has its own focus and goals, but they’re all equally worth checking out.
To read my article about Warrior Writers, from the February 2014 issue of Penthouse, you can click the image above.