Conversation series focuses on experience of war

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Korean War
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It was a holiday weekend tradition: James Speed Hensinger and his parents would meet close family friends for a lakeside vacation full of picnics, “water skiing, beer drinking and bullshit,” Hensinger says. But this particular holiday weekend in 1970, young James had only recently returned home to Southern Indiana from a tour in Vietnam.

He found himself unsure of where he belonged; he didn’t want to water ski with the teenagers, or eat watermelon on the dock with the kids.

“Most of the women were inside the house putting up the picnic meal that they’d brought,” Hensinger says. “Most of the men were out on the porch drinking beer and talking, and they didn’t feel right to me either because they were small Midwestern town [men], and probably 90 percent of the men in that group were World War II or Korean War veterans.”

Nonetheless, that’s where the newly minted Vietnam vet found himself.

“I didn’t get very involved in that group, but finally one of them asked me what [Vietnam] was like.”

I had recently asked Hensinger the same clumsy question, and he’d spoken about his time stationed in An Khê with the 173rd battalion as a finance clerk for about five minutes before pausing for a breath and asking me to ask another question, please. 

“I couldn’t talk about it then either,” Hensinger says of trying to answer the other veteran’s question by the lake. “So I mentioned the fact that we couldn’t get cold beer there. Everybody immediately loosened up and started talking about their problems when they were in the military. One guy talked about the cold. Somebody else talked about the food and someone else about the mail or whatever, but none of them really talked.”

Hensinger has spent decades processing his experience in Vietnam, more recently writing about it in short stories and a memoir he hopes to get published. But it’s been tough; Hensinger says he developed late-onset PTSD and has struggled to interact with people the way he once had.

But over the course of several coming weeks, Hensinger and a handful of other veterans will open up about their experiences of war and the obstacles they faced coming home in a series of facilitated conversations called “Still Coming Home.”

In 2018, in collaboration with the Denver Veterans Writers Workshop, Colorado Humanities and Center for the Book collected creative writing by Denver-area writers and published the anthology Still Coming Home: Denver Veterans Writing, which will be shared with attendees at the conversation series. Hensinger will read his short story “The Damn Flag,” from the collection.

Jason Arment was one of the editors of the anthology, and the driving force behind the Denver Veterans Writers Workshop. A machine gunner in the Marines during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Arment went on to earn an MFA in creative nonfiction with minors in sociology, gender studies and technical writing. His memoir, Musalaheen (Arabic for gunslinger), was published in September on University of Hell Press.

Arment’s idea for the writing workshop wasn’t focused on veterans alone, but on anyone who’s experienced conflict.

“We have non-veterans in the class right now,” Arment says. “My idea of a veteran would be anyone who has served or has been displaced or endured. So if you think about it, say someone came from Ukraine right now, a civilian. Honestly, there are Nazis there; there’s also ISIS. Say one of those people show up with a really cool story that centered around conflict. I want them to come write that story.

“We would struggle to find something that hasn’t been defined by what we can say to be war,” Arment says.

He points to the many daily battles typical Americans fight: there’s an ongoing war on drugs that disproportionately punishes people of color; there are domestic wars being waged on women, on immigrants and on transgender people. Even poverty can be a violent experience and has been linked to PTSD.

Still, Arment knows many people haven’t experienced such conflict, and he hopes that the anthology can give them a sense of the true cost of war. 

“If anybody would read it and be swayed, if maybe warhawks wouldn’t have as much of a footing [in American international policy] anymore, that would be OK with me because I don’t know how we’re still beating that drum.”

Arment won’t be presenting at the conversation series, but he is still teaching workshops at Lighthouse Writers Workshop (1515 Race St., Denver) the third Sunday of every month at 3 p.m.

This series of three conversations builds on themes and is meant to be a deeper experience for those who attend all three, but participants are also welcome to attend one or two. Copies of the anthology will be provided. 

On the Bill: “Still Coming Home” conversation series. 10 a.m. Feb. 2, 9, and 16, Longmont Public Library, 409 Fourth Ave, Longmont. To learn more visit coloradohumanities.org.