• the things they saw

    by Nancy Spitler
    photos by Ashley Jones and Brennan Beck

His eyes are the first things that strike you. They’re green. And very intense. And they’ve seen a great deal.

His beard adds a few years on him, but Brennan Beck still looks way too young to have survived two combat deployments in Iraq before he enrolled in college and completed his bachelor’s degree at Sonoma State University (California) with an emphasis on creative writing. At Clemson, he’s a program coordinator in the English department, a position that makes him the face of the department for students who are looking for more information about registration, about declaring a major, about those everyday details that somehow elude you when you’re 19.

By the time Beck was 19, he had spent a year in Germany and had been deployed to Iraq. He had experienced the death of his closest friend and roommate, Ross McGinnis, who made the split-second decision to fall back on the grenade that had been dropped in his Humvee in order to save the lives of the four other men in the vehicle.

They had shrapnel wounds, but all four of those men survived. For his act of heroism, McGinnis received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award.

Brennan McGinnis graveThe company Beck and McGinnis served with had 14 men killed in action during Beck’s 15-month deployment. According to a story in the Army Times, their 500-member Task Force 1-26 had 122 Purple Hearts and 31 deaths, more than any Army battalion since Vietnam.

“I witnessed some truly remarkable, amazing things, and I experienced some graphic and horrifying things, too,” says Beck. “I’m a religious person; I feel like God definitely had a hand in me making it out of there. Ever since, I’ve always wondered, ‘Why was I spared? What’s my purpose?’ I think a lot of us are trying to figure that out. I’m trying to discover that for myself.”

  • The thousand-yard stare

Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. That’s a stunning statistic, and one that most people find hard to wrap their heads around. It’s easy to hear that and think, “Oh, they must have meant 22 a month,” which would be bad enough.

But it is indeed 22 suicides a day, and somewhat surprisingly, the majority of those are not from the most recent war in Iraq. They’re scattered across the spectrum of ages and wars.

Brennan Beck buddiesIt’s a statistic that concerns Beck, and one with which he is intimately acquainted. In the six weeks before our first conversation, three members of his battalion had committed suicide. One had been a groomsman in Beck’s wedding; another was his squad leader in Iraq.

It has hit him hard. “I don’t consider myself (nor would my wife consider me) a very emotional person. I don’t cry,” he says. “I get sad, but I don’t ever cry. I can’t. When I was a kid I was kind of a crybaby. When my dad would yell at me, I used to cry and think, ‘I wish I wouldn’t cry so much.’ Now as an adult, I get sad and think, ‘I wish I could cry.’ I still feel all the pain and the sadness and the emotions that come with it, especially losing my friend, who was so close to me.

“But when I write,” he says, “that’s my emotional release. It doesn’t come out of my eyes; it comes out of my pen.”

That wasn’t always the case.

Before Beck headed off to the Army as a fresh-faced 18-year-old recruit, his high school buddies elicited a promise from him: “You’ve got to tell us what it’s like when you come back. You can’t be like those guys who never talk about it once they come home.”

Brennan Beck Iraq3Back home on R&R after being in Germany for a year and then in Iraq, one of those buddies pushed him to share some war stories. “I thought,” says Beck, “I can do this. I’ll just tell him about a regular patrol.

“So I started … I got a few words into it and then I settled into what they call the ‘thousand-yard stare.’ It was too fresh; I couldn’t do it.”

They started to hassle him, wanting details of what Army life was like in Iraq. And Beck snapped.

“This is entertainment for you. This is my life.”

  • The power to heal, connect and create

With two tours in Iraq, a Bronze Star with Valor and a Purple Heart to his credit, Beck came home to Stockton, California, in 2010. He enrolled in a nearby community college, but life wasn’t coming easy. He was having nightmares and flashbacks, episodes where he thought he was hearing things. At the VA, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“I was a mess,” he says, “and I remember thinking at the time, ‘This is just how I’m going to be. I just have to learn to deal with this. This is the new me.’” A friend encouraged him to attend a local veterans writing group. “My first reaction was, ‘I’m not a writer. It’s not for me.’”

Beck decided to go; he ended up connecting with other vets and with writing. The group was structured like many other writing groups: They chatted a few minutes, then the leader gave the group a writing prompt and about 15 minutes to respond. When the time was up, members were invited to share what they had written if they desired. Beck’s first entry into his journal was about his combat boots and all they had witnessed. He read that entry aloud, surprised that he could share those words with the group.

Brennan Beck-studio1Beck realized that the more he wrote, the more he was able to express himself and deal with the traumas and emotions he was experiencing, a stark change from being a self-described “closed book to all of [his] family and friends.” His PTSD symptoms became less intense and more controllable.

“Writing takes my experiences that are jumbled and a mess, that I can’t process or make sense of, and puts them in a form that I can manage, that I can organize and even manipulate if I need to. It helps me process those experiences.”

The leader suggested the writing group read Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, about the author’s experience in Vietnam. “I read the book that week,” says Beck. “It was amazing. Tim O’Brien was a Vietnam vet half a century before me, and he was writing about the exact same things I was going through. It reminded me that I’m not abnormal. I’m not alone in this. This Vietnam vet had gone through the same thing, and he learned to cope with it, to overcome. That encouraged me to the point where I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t how it has to be. Maybe this isn’t where the road ends.’”

Beck was the youngest member of the group of about five who met regularly to write, read and reflect. The experience not only helped him begin to process the brutal experiences of war; it also allowed him to discover a passion for writing.

“Even though I never considered myself a writer, I found an instant attraction to it,” Beck says. “I found that it not only helped me emotionally, but it filled me physically. I felt better after writing. I felt it had cleansed me in a way. I realized, then, that there is a true power to writing — a power to heal, a power to connect and a power to create.

He changed his major to English and took every creative writing course he could. The nightmares and anxiety lessened; the depression loosened its grip. Beck, who credits the veterans writing group with “encouraging me to be real, honest and open with myself and my past experiences,” graduated summa cum laude from Sonoma State University.

After graduation, Beck and his wife Ashley, who is from Liberty, moved to South Carolina, and he was hired by the University’s English department in September of 2014.

  • We all have stories.

When Beck arrived at Clemson, one of the first things he did was to check around for a veterans writing group. He was surprised, given Clemson’s military history, that there wasn’t one.

Rather than complaining or asking someone else, he took it upon himself to start one. “I’m not under the illusion that writing is the end-all be-all cure-all for all vets,” he says, “but I think that artistic expression is what will help a lot of people. And If I can help one veteran at Clemson — help them overcome — then it’s a job well done.” Beginning last February, a group of five to six writers has gathered for an hour every week to focus on writing.

When he began looking for a spot for the group to meet, he went to Barbara Ramirez, a lecturer in the English department who is also director of the Class of ’41 Studio for Student Communication.

Ramirez immediately saw the natural fit for the group to meet in the Class of ’41 Studio. “The guys in the Class of ’41 knew where they were going when they graduated. They would love to have this [veterans writing group] meet here.”

Brennan Beck-diaryBeck invited Ramirez to stick around and participate. “I’m not a veteran,” she said. “but my dad was in WWII.” He assured her the group was open to all, and she decided to give it a go. She has found the group to be congenial and varied.

Ramirez has found herself writing about her family and children, and about one of her best friends of 40 years who recently died, something still so painful she has struggled with even admitting it happened. “Anybody can come and write with this group,” she says. “We’ve all had stress and trauma in our lives, and writing is so good for getting some of those feelings out.”

“Our group is small,” says Beck, “averaging around five to six writers on any given week, and part of our focus is on getting the word out to other veterans in the area, both on and off campus, that this group exists.”

The group is casual and friendly, and it’s obvious they are comfortable with each other. Even though Beck is clearly the youngest, except for an undergraduate, he is comfortable taking the lead, and they are comfortable responding to him.

About half the group are veterans, the other half have been close to someone who served. It’s a mix of faculty and staff, grad students and undergrads, lecturers and professors.

A graduate of the Air Force Academy and currently a Clemson graduate student, Carol Gering first joined the group to network and meet people. “I do not consider myself a writer,” she says. Not one to journal or write poetry, she was initially uncomfortable and found herself writing as if someone were going to read what she had written. “When I confessed that to the group,” she says, “they earned my trust and encouraged me to write from the heart.”

Gering, who retired as a lieutenant colonel after 20 years as a pilot, flying combat and combat support missions in Iraq, says the writing has helped her to “process and think about things in a productive and helpful way” and gain a better understanding of how and why she feels the way she does. “Sometimes I view the weekly sessions as ‘forced journaling,’” she says, “not in a negative way — more like being on a good diet, sometimes not so fun, but in the end, good for you.”

But it’s not just the writing she enjoys, it’s also the shared experience with a group she describes as “diverse in thinking and experience.” “I look forward to reading and hearing what the other members have to say. It is nice to have encouragement and constructive feedback in a new realm.”

Brennan-Veteran's Writing Group1Carlie Kerechanin, an undergraduate performing arts major with no military connections, saw the flyer about the group and contacted Beck, who encouraged her to give it a shot. She wasn’t sure she would stick with it, but says she got “sucked in pretty quickly” by a very welcoming group that encourages her to write.

“The organization really isn’t a group of veterans writing about the war like I initially assumed it would be,” she says. “It’s a group of insanely diverse people writing about all kinds of things under the influence of their individual lives, some of which have been shaped by years in the service. Once you get to know everyone and hear their perspective on different topics or assignments, you really can’t leave — you owe them your side of the story.”

After retired professor and Cold War veteran Skip Eisminger learned about Beck’s ideas for the group over lunch last year, he couldn’t refuse. “In fact,” he says, “it’s become the highlight of my week.” He brought his 14-year-old grandson to a meeting who said it was the highlight of his week, too.

“I thought if I could do anything to help these vets be reabsorbed in the culture they left to defend, I wanted to do it. As a retired English teacher, I had the time,” says Eisminger.

Beck deliberately structured the group to be open to all, regardless of veteran status.

“After 14 years of our country being at war,” says Beck, “everyone is affected by it in some way. Everyone has served or knows someone who has served. One could argue that, to various degrees, we are all ‘veterans.’ We all have stories to tell, from the battle-hardened veteran to the incoming freshman who’s embarking on her own mysterious journey for the first time — we all have stories.”

Plus, he thinks while it’s good for veterans to connect with each other, it’s also good for them to connect with other students and faculty, to realize that we are all connected in more ways than just the military.

“Camaraderie,” he says, “shouldn’t be exclusive to the military.”

If you’d like more information about the Veterans Writing Group at Clemson or would like to attend, contact Beck at bjbeck@clemson.edu.

Beck shares shares the story of a patrol in Iraq in which his best friend and roommate Ross McGinnis displayed heroism that is hard to even imagine:

When Brennan Beck returned from two tours in Iraq, he was struggling. Then he was introduced to a Veterans Writing Group that made all the difference. Listen to him tell the story:

Airman 1st Class Claudia Segovia boards a Boeing 737 en route to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Airman Segovia is assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Eboni Knox)

Helping Female Veterans find a “New Normal”

All too often, the battle continues when a service member returns home. Between physical injuries and “invisible” wounds such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, injured service members face barriers that can make reintegrating into civilian life challenging, says Clemson recreational therapy faculty member Brent Hawkins.

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