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Veteran Spotlight: Writer Ben Weakley

“If you know a servicemember or veteran right now, ask them to tell their story and just listen.” I first met Ben Weakley when he...

“If you know a servicemember or veteran right now, ask them to tell their story and just listen.”

I first met Ben Weakley when he participated in an online workshop in poetry I taught with the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), which provides free creative classes to military servicemembers, veterans and their spouses. I was really impressed by his work, and in the months since, he has garnered many publications and is well on his way to making a lasting name for himself in the military writing community. Most recently, Ben’s poetry was included in the anthology Our Best War Stories, which features some of the best contemporary voices writing about modern wars, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ben spent fourteen years in the U.S. Army as an engineer officer. His assignments included deployments to Iraq (2006-2007) and Afghanistan (2011) and a tour at Headquarters, Department of the Army in the Pentagon. His poems and articles have been published by Army University Press and have appeared in journals like The Wrath-Bearing Tree, The Ekphrastic Review, and Vita Brevis. He won first place in the 2019 Heroes’ Voices National Poetry Contest and was a finalist in the 2020 Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Writing Awards. His work contemplates the enduring nature of war and the human experience.

Ben lives in the Appalachian Highlands of Northeast Tennessee with my wife, children, and a red-tick hound named Camo. You can connect with Ben at his e-mail jamesbweakley@gmail.com, at his website, or find him on Twitter (@ben_weakley).

I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s next for Ben!

Congratulations on being included in the recent anthology Our Best War Stories! What inspired the poem in this book?

Thank you! It’s humbling to be a finalist for the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Award, and the more I get to know some other writers who were included in the anthology, the more I realize how much talent I’m surrounded by. The poem, “Soldier’s Song”, is a response to one of the paradoxes of combat experience. My experience of war was boredom, suffering, and misery punctuated with periods of intense fear. It’s in these moments of terror, though, that I’ve felt the most alive.

One of my best friends told me on our way home from Iraq, my first combat deployment and his second, that nothing would feel the same when we got home. He said it would be like living with the volume turned way down, like you go skydiving and barely get an adrenaline hit. I thought he was crazy. At that moment, all I could think about was drinking beer, kissing my pretty wife, and sleeping in a comfortable bed again – all pretty exciting when you’ve been bouncing all over Iraq for 15 months. The further away in time and memory my deployments get, the more I realize my friend is right. The intensity of those moments means that everything after lacks the ferocity of having all your essence focused on surviving the next minute. I think this contributes to a sense of drift or meaninglessness in a lot of veterans, as it did for me at times. I wonder if this phenomenon could be re-cast as wisdom, as though the intensity of being that comes from combat imparts years of experience in the body and mind.

I think veterans of war hold in their memory some of the worst parts of human nature alongside some of the best. It’s imperative that we share that with those who’ve never experienced war, in whatever way possible. That idea, the holding and sharing of memory, was what inspired “Soldier’s Song” and some of my other writing as well.

When did you first realize you wanted to write? How did your military experience inspire your writing?

One of my earliest memories, in second or third grade, was having a story I wrote in class selected by the teacher as the next day’s example. It was probably 2-3 sentences, and in hindsight I’m pretty sure she picked everyone’s writing at least once. But, the feeling of making a tangible object out of words and ideas excited me and I was very proud to be recognized for it. I’ve wanted to write in some form ever since.

I studied journalism in college until September 11th nudged me to go into the Army. When I became an Army officer, I realized that the skills required for good reporting – listening, attention to detail, clear, concise, and active writing – were imperative for communicating well as a military leader. As I finished my career with an assignment in the Pentagon, I wrote a lot of memoranda, executive-level e-mails, and the occasional speech or media talking points for senior officials.

I needed another outlet, though, to tell my own stories. Fortunately, there are several amazing arts and writing organizations for veterans in the area where D.C, Maryland, and Virginia meet. By meeting other veterans and servicemembers who were telling their stories, I realized that I had stories to tell, too. I started attending workshops and writing for my own enjoyment and it’s been a habit ever since.

I am a firm believer that veterans need to tell their stories and that Americans need to hear them. As fewer parts of the American public experience military service and war, it becomes even more important that we document what we did, what we saw, and how it felt. I believe the American public needs to hear the voices of veterans and their loved ones as part of acknowledging, facing, and owning what has been done, right or wrong, in our name with our consent and tax dollars. War is a political phenomenon that involves and affects the nation’s every citizen. The moral weight of war and its consequences should not rest solely on the small group that goes to fight. Doing my little part to correct that balance, to distribute the moral weight more equitably, inspires me to write.

You’re an alumnus of the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) workshops. How did you hear about ASAP, and what has your experience been like? 

I became aware of the Armed Services Arts Partnership workshops several years ago when I was stationed in Washington, D.C., around 2015. I found the organization online and signed up for newsletters. They always had interesting events from comedy and storytelling workshops to poetry and fiction writing. I signed up for workshops several times over the years, but unfortunately, each time work or family conflicts made it impossible to attend.

Once, when I saw that ASAP was hosting a satire workshop with the creator of DuffleBlog, I referred a couple of my friends who are incredibly talented and funny. They loved the workshop – one even wound up writing for DuffleBlog as a recurring contributor for the last few years! I knew it was a matter of time before I got my chance to attend.

When COVID-19 moved events into a digital environment this year, I was able to find your virtual workshop on poetry and memory. You used several examples to set up a prompt that generated some good material. We were all allowed to share, and it was a very friendly and welcoming atmosphere. I live in Northeast Tennessee now, so it was wonderful to be connected to a group of other veterans for the experience.

ASAP is a great organization. I only regret not participating in their events sooner, but I’m hopeful that I can stay involved as they continue to offer remote events.

I feel like the military has been somewhat “forgotten” this year as the country has been focusing on politics and the pandemic, but those experiences and traumas are still very real for so many people. What is the best way for people to support the military and veterans right now? 

A characteristic of military life is isolation from civilian society. When I retired last year and moved into civilian life, I didn’t recognize the life I returned to in many ways. It is disappointing that we are so divided as a country amid a time of such collective suffering. I think that division exacerbates the sense of isolation which so many people are feeling now due to the pandemic. For servicemembers, military families, and veterans, this isolation rests on top of the isolation they may already feel from civilian America.

I go back to storytelling and being heard as powerful remedies to the wounded soul. If you know a servicemember or veteran right now, ask them to tell their story and just listen. Ask them what they miss about the service if they’re a veteran, what they love about their service if they are still serving. Ask them what they are most proud of. Among my friends who are still on active duty and navigating their military roles during the pandemic, this has been a very bizarre, unique time in their service. Ask them to tell you about military life in the pandemic, I’m sure you’ll hear some interesting stories. The military community is just like the rest of the country right now in what they need – connection.

What advice do you have for servicemembers and veterans who want to write but are having a hard time getting started?

There are so many ways to get started, it can be overwhelming. I’d suggest starting a journal, and set a very easy goal to begin with, maybe one sentence or line a day with no rules or judgment regarding topic or quality. Just one sentence – subject, verb, object – that’s all you need to build the momentum that becomes a habit. Soon, you’ll find yourself going beyond the minimum and exploring your ideas and thoughts with more freedom.

I’d also find a journal and pen you love to use. Writing is a tactile experience. If you enjoy the physical sensations of the act, like the touch of the paper and the glide of the pen across the page, you’ll want to continue.

Finally, we are experiencing an explosion of virtual writing workshops that are low-cost (or free) and accessible to writers of all levels. Organizations like ASAP, Community Building Art Works, and Warrior Writers all cater to veterans, servicemembers, and their families in a friendly, welcoming manner. Sharing your voice in community with others is one of the best feelings in the world – it is empowering. Once you start, you’ll be hooked!         

What are you doing now, and what’s next for you? 

2020 was a great year for me in terms of publishing my work. I just put together a website featuring my recent publications in places like The Wrath-Bearing Tree and Line of Advance.

I usually take December to look over publications to which I want to submit in the next year. I’m also working on some poetry and a few essays that remain in draft for now.

I have big plans for 2021. I’m at a place now where I have enough poetry to build a chapbook-length manuscript exploring themes of war and violence that manifest in childhood memory, combat experience, and homecoming. My 2021 goals involve finding a publishing outlet for that manuscript. My long-term goal is to publish a full-length book of poetry expanding on those same themes.

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