Dartmouth’s war stories

Dartmouth Alumni Magazine devoted its entire Sept/Oct 2012 issue to “War Stories,” personal accounts by 48 Dartmouth alumni who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among them, they’ve amassed 65 tours of duty, four bronze stars, and two purple hearts. Half participated in Dartmouth’s ROTC program. Sixty-four percent hold graduate degrees. Eleven played rugby.

The issue devotes nearly 60 pages to the soldiers’ stories. Via an email exchange, editor Sean Plottner said, “We backed into this one, unlike other special issues we’ve published. The quick version is this: A young alum-vet in the military sent us a survey of currently serving alumni vets he’d found. We didn’t use the survey but it got senior editor Lisa Furlong thinking about doing our own interviews with the veterans, and any others we might come across . . . and things snowballed, slowly, from there.” He added, “We didn’t have a clear vision initially. We had all these interviews and thought they’d make a decent feature, but they turned out to be a launch pad into something bigger as we kept finding more veterans and their stories spurred more editorial ideas. Special issues we’ve done in the past were originally conceived of as full issues. This was a wilder, considerably different approach.”

That survey that prompted the project came into DAM back in 2009. “We spent some time dithering before we decided to pursue interviews,” Plottner said. “Lisa started pursuing them then, off and on, but in no deadline-driven way. After she had identified a number, she and I started talking about what we might do with the interviews, and that’s when we felt we could turn them into some sort of cover story. But I rarely schedule stories before they near completion, so we weren’t sure when we’d run anything. Then she found a few more that got us thinking about maybe packaging it all into some sort of special issue. Then she found more vets, and I think it was in January [2012] or thereabouts that we said let’s do it, and let’s shoot for the Sept/Oct issue. She spent the rest of the winter and all spring hunting them down, right up until the week we went to the printer the first week of August.”

Dartmouth opens every issue with two-page photo spreads that it calls “Big Picture.” As a reminder of the grim, dangerous reality that soldiers face in theaters of combat, the magazine devoted “Big Picture” this time to a pair of images by the superb combat photographer James Nachtwey, who also is a Dartmouth alumnus. The pictures are of the aftermath of an IED explosion in Afghanistan. The first shows a quartet of soldiers racing to a helicopter with a stretcher. On the stretcher is a US Marine who had just had his legs ripped apart by the bomb. The second is a heart-wrenching image of the soldier in flight, tended by medical personnel determined to keep him alive. The GI survived; his legs did not.

The magazine solicited brief, three-to-five-paragraph pieces from the vets and published them with photos. The authors are soldiers and former soldiers, not writers, so the quality of the prose varies. But there are some striking statements, such as this one from Colonel Rich Outzen, who served in Afghanistan:

Because Americans use the world’s dominant language, and we have a culture that has been internationalized and globalized, we think we’re in the dominant position. The truth is the reverse. Because we think in the English idiom the whole world has a window into how we think and who we are—they get us, but we don’t get them. We are an open book to the world, and the world is a closed book to us.

“They said it and we just packaged it,” Plottner said. “The ‘in their own words’ focus also served as a nice unifying element throughout the issue.”

The best stories are two long pieces. One, “The Loneliest Job in the World,” is an excerpt from the 2005 book One Bullet Away by Marine Corps vet and alum Nathaniel Fick. It recounts Fick’s experience as a young officer in the first week of the second Iraq war. The other feature-length story is about Jon Kuniholm, who lost an arm in Iraq and now applies his formidable intelligence and determination as an advocate for development of better prosthetic limbs. Writer Matthew Mosk, who reports for ABC News, did fine work profiling Kuniholm.

The magazine shot covers of four different vets and used them all. “Running four covers was gimmicky but fun. It also helped to indicate this was not an issue about a single individual.” The biggest reward, Plottner said, was “seeing all the elements of the issue come together so nicely at the end, and knowing as a staff, as it was printing, that we’d accomplished something, that all the overtime and sweat was worth it. Furlong deserves a medal. Art director Wendy McMillan went so far above and beyond in terms of assigning and finding art, making something useful out of dusty, in-theatre point-and-grins, and creating a nice, varied visual approach to a subject that can easily slip into one-note design doldrums. I was grateful to have such a strong senior editor and art director leading the way.”

Reading the magazine, I could not help thinking about how different are the times now, compared to when I was an undergraduate. I started college at Ohio University in the last year of the Vietnam War, or at least the last year of US combat operations. I could not imagine an alumni magazine in 1974 or 1976 running a special issue acknowledging  and implicitly honoring the service of alumni-veterans. Vietnam had been so divisive, and campuses had been the scenes of violent, even lethal clashes over the war. I asked Plottner about this, and he said, “We’ve received several letters from Vietnam vets who point out, sadly, how different things were for them. I can’t imagine anything such as ‘War Stories’ working in the Vietnam War era, not only because times were so different but also because alumni magazines were too. DAM was much, much more institutional back then, and its pages from those years are filled with on-campus anti-war sentiment from professors and students. Today we are a vastly more outward-looking magazine, with an emphasis on alums, which allows for a special issue like our recent one. And while today’s veterans are not vilified, they do seem forgotten by the public and lost in the media. That presented an opportunity for us.”

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