Soldiers’ Stories 

Dru Hazelton guides veterans through the process of becoming writers.

I’ve had an interest in the military ever since I was a child,” says Dru Hazelton, an instructor in the English department at Salt Lake Community College. What particularly drew his attention to the military can be traced back to a private moment between him and his uncle, who was wounded in Vietnam. “At Fort Lewis hospital, I saw my uncle in a full-body cast smiling at me, struggling to give me a hand salute,” Hazelton recalls.

Hazelton, however, has more than a passing interest. Recently, he has started the Veterans Writing Group, a pilot program under the aegis of the Community Writing Center (CWC) sponsored by SLCC. Last year, the center was one of 12 winners of the CCCC Writing Program Certificate of Excellence, the only community college to win among schools like Purdue University. The CWC reaches out to adults across all demographics to offer assistance in writing endeavors outside of school.

The Veterans Writing Group adds to their already diverse roster. Tiffany Rousculp, director of CWC, comments, “It brings another layer of diversity, opinion, voice, and expression that we try to get at with our other large programs, such as DiverseCity Writing Series.

The voice of Utah’s veterans is about 161,000 and growing, with women numbering 8,965, according to Utah Division of Veterans’ Affairs. It is too easy to drown out individuality in a statistical pool'and even more so when the individuals are engaged in a politicized activity that roils debate on Capitol Hill, over dinner parties and at water coolers. “The public needs to separate the individual soldier from the war. We can be doing better,” Hazelton remarks.

It is this theme that has prompted Hazelton to action. “A large part of my motivation for having the Veterans Writing Group,” he says, “is my respect for soldiers as individuals, regardless of my political beliefs.

While an instructor at SLCC, Hazelton’s lectures are at the forefront. The writing group, however, does not operate the same way. With participants at the table, and their writings the bullet points of buoyant discussions, Hazelton attempts to become “invisible as much as possible.” It’s a tactic that works, he says.

Michael Christensen, folklorist at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center, who once co-facilitated with Hazelton at a workshop, agrees. “As a facilitator,” Christensen says, “Dru has a knack to have the participants think about the significance of something they glossed over.

According to Christensen, Hazelton knows how to make their experience pleasurable, rather than have it be mechanical and academically dry. “He’ll draw up some goals on what the individual wants to achieve. It’s about what the patrons want to get out of it, instead of him telling them what they want.

While he isn’t hung up on syntactical hiccups, Hazelton is more enthralled with the candid side of writing, which he characterizes as “soul-baring.” Former 1st Lt. Perry Anderson of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, who served in the United States and Thailand from 1971 to 1972, says, “For those of us whose experience was dubious, coming to grips with it is of prime importance. Framing the writing is one way of doing that.

Other participants intone similar sentiments, yet at the same time, some veterans say that soul-baring is more like self-burdening'something they don’t care to wrestle with any time soon. Taking this into consideration, the group has leeway to initiate its own writing projects in any kind of genre. They are encouraged to make their own editorial judgments on story development. Writing about their military experience is optional, as is submitting their memoirs'with Hazelton’s assistance'to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.

At the present, the group has all the trademarks of most beginnings: small preliminary numbers, low public visibility, details slowly coming into focus. Hazelton’s outreach and facilitation sometimes entails offering insightful feedback over the phone and on the margins of multiple drafts'though he’s not counting exactly how many.

That dedication and enthusiasm extends to the participants as well. “I’ve never been a good writer,” says Nick Gittins, former infantry rifleman of the U.S. Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The last time I wrote was in high school. [The writing group is] a way to put my emotions onto paper. … I just want my writing skills to progress; that’s a value I learned in the Marines.” For this one-time grunt, the Veterans Writing Group provides such an opportunity.

It’s an opportunity Hazelton isn’t leaving to chance.

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Jennifer Winters

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