Craig Werner once started an essay with this: “Vietnam veterans keep me sane.”
A sentence like that takes some explaining, and Werner — a longtime faculty member at UW-Madison — obliged. The essay appeared three years ago on the Huffington Post. Werner wrote of growing up in a military town in Colorado, and playing in a band that performed for GIs who were either going to or coming back from Vietnam.
Werner was lucky — though he had a bad draft number, he was never called — yet the war loomed large. “Until I moved to Illinois for grad school,” Werner wrote, “Vietnam was part of my consciousness every day.”
That changed once he entered academia. “It was like popping into an alternate universe where no one mentioned the most important thing in our lives.”
Werner came to Madison in 1983, and his career in the Afro-American Studies and English departments has been distinguished. Still, he felt a bit of an outlier. It was two decades on, in 2003, when Werner met and joined a group of Madison vets who called themselves The Deadly Writers Patrol, that he reconnected to feelings long submerged.
Last week, Werner sipped from a cup of coffee, thumbed through the new issue of The Deadly Writers Patrol magazine, and said, “The high end of what we publish could fit in any literary magazine anywhere.”
The origins of The Deadly Writers Patrol are a little vague, the publication schedule of the magazine is a little haphazard, but the bi-weekly meetings, in which group members read their writings aloud, receiving feedback and encouragement, are, for those involved, profoundly important. As Werner — the only non-veteran in the group — noted, they can keep you sane. Others have found a way to better understand and express their war experiences.
“There is a real camaraderie,” said Rick Larson, a Madison East grad, now retired, who served as a hospital corpsman on a ship off the coast of South Vietnam in 1968-69. Larson has a haunting story in the new issue of the magazine, on coming home to Madison and meeting the parents of a young man who did not return.
“It’s the hub of my social circle,” Wyl Schuth said of the writers’ group. Schuth served with the Marines in Iraq in 2004, and was introduced to The Deadly Writers Patrol while taking a class from Werner at UW-Madison. Schuth has a poem, “What the Rabbit Sees” — “a great poem,” in Werner’s estimation — on the back cover of the new issue.
I met with Larson, Schuth and Werner last week at Larson’s invitation, after he gave me a copy of the new Deadly Writers Patrol, which came out in December.
I had seen the magazine before in Frugal Muse, but I remember first hearing about it from my friend, Doug Bradley, a Madison Vietnam vet who in 2012 published a well-regarded collection of stories, “DEROS Vietnam” — Date Eligible for Return from Over Seas — set during the war. Doug said joining The Deadly Writers Patrol gave him the discipline he needed to finish his manuscript. The only requirement is bringing something new to read at each meeting, which keeps everybody writing.
The Deadly Writers Patrol — a member, Steve Piotrowski, once said the name came from “the black humor of the servicemen” — grew out of the Madison Vet Center in the 1980s, when it was on Butler Street, and a belief that the writing process can be a beneficial part of the coming home process.
Membership has fluctuated over the years, as have the location and times of meetings. Still, it has endured, as has the magazine, which published its first issue in 2006, and includes contributors who are not members of the group. One issue even included two stories published posthumously, submitted by the widow of a vet.
While there is no regular publication schedule for The Deadly Writers Patrol, they have averaged about one issue a year, with a print run of around 500.
Werner said the near future may include a small book-publishing operation. He’s working on a Vietnam-era novel, which has been excerpted in the magazine.
If the group has a magnet, it’s likely Werner, even though he’s the only non-vet.
I first met him in 1999, after he spent an extraordinary night in Detroit at a Bruce Springsteen concert.
Werner had just published a book, “A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America,” which Springsteen admired. Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh took Werner to the Detroit show, and afterward, Werner was invited backstage to discuss the book with The Boss. (Werner’s essay that began with his comment about the vets keeping him sane dealt in part with Springsteen’s support of veteran’s issues.)
A few years after Detroit, a teaching assistant in Madison told Werner about The Deadly Writers Patrol, and about that time — late 2003 — Werner met Doug Bradley at a party at the Madison Vet Center.
They hit it off so well they eventually taught a UW-Madison class together, “The Vietnam Era: Music, Media, and Mayhem.” This fall, their long-gestating book, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack to the Vietnam War,” will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press.
Maybe there will be a new issue of The Deadly Writers Patrol in which to excerpt it.