Veterans Share Their Experiences in New Book
The collection of personal accounts covers military life from World War II to the present day.
As a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Greece and Saudi Arabia before three tours of duty in Iraq, Carl Castillo ’11 was in many ways unprepared to reenter civilian life. A year after retiring in 2008, he enrolled at TCU to study supply chain management in the Neeley School of Business.
Everything from social interactions with fellow Horned Frogs, most of whom were at least a decade younger, to reconnecting with childhood friends from Fort Worth’s North Side felt fraught with tension, he said.
Such candid observations, along with a pulsing undercurrent of frustration that he later channeled into a successful career in logistics for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, made Castillo one of the most compelling additions to Voices of America: Veterans and Military Families Tell Their Own Stories.
Published by TCU Press on Veterans Day 2020, Voices of America serves as an oral history of veterans, their spouses and their children. Each of the men and women featured in the book also has a connection to the university.
“You read through everyone’s stories and find a lot of commonality,” Castillo said, “even though the people in the book served anywhere from World War II until basically now.”
Identifying the Mission
The project grew out of a casual lunch in 2015.
April Brown, TCU’s director of veterans services and chair of the university’s Veterans Services Task Force, sat down with Ethan Casey, a journalist specializing in foreign affairs.
Casey had been making regular forays to campus as part of TCU’s Discovering Global Citizenship initiative. He also publishes books under a small imprint, Blue Ear Books, and at the time was working on an oral history of 18 combat veterans who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Within 48 hours of that lunch, April decided I was going to edit a book for TCU,” said Casey, who lives in the Seattle area.
Brown agreed to co-edit the volume. A retired U.S. Marine Corps major who served in Japan and South Korea as well as other postings, she is married to a fellow Marine veteran. Brown brought her passion for service to TCU in 2006.
Brown and Casey recruited Daniel Williams, director of TCU Press and honors professor of humanities, to join the project. Over the course of two years, Williams taught four semesters of a class that would prove essential to the book’s creation.
For the colloquia course called Vision and Leadership, students read books about war and writings of veterans. Students then interviewed veterans and produced transcripts for Williams, Brown and Casey to review. Two-thirds of the material in the book resulted from these interviews.
Each of the 48 participating students is listed in the book as an assistant editor, with the exception of Kit Snyder ’17.
Snyder was so enthralled with the project that she kept asking for more work, ultimately becoming the book’s associate editor. The myriad organizational tasks she undertook included gathering all of the photos and preparing them for publication.
Brown, Casey and Williams also credit Snyder, now a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at TCU, with the book’s structure. It’s divided into three sections: before, during and after military service, with many of the veterans appearing in multiple sections depending on the timeline of their stories.
“It was a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with 80 or 81 people in the book and multiple parts of their stories told throughout,” Casey said. “Our job, which involved lots of slicing and dicing, was overwhelming at times.”
What results is a cohesive narrative that includes men and women from multiple generations and all branches of service.
“We don’t want this to be a coffee table book,” Brown said. “We want people to read it. There is emotion behind these stories.”
Brown’s son, Enrique Brown-Spence, contributed his own poignant story as a military dependent. In one passage, he talks about the pain of leaving behind his childhood best friend when his family received orders to relocate.
“I often forget how military children don’t form long-term relationships,” Brown said. “It hurt my heart when I read it, knowing that my children didn’t choose this lifestyle.”
Brown’s daughter, Elaina Brown-Spence ’16, created the front and back covers for the book, which include five hand-drawn portraits (one on the cover resembling her mother) set against her interpretation of camouflage. As an undergraduate at TCU, she majored in studio art with an emphasis on printmaking.
“I wanted the portraits to give a range of age, gender and racial diversity,” said Brown-Spence, who is halfway through a master’s program in printmaking and book arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
For the cover, she floated the subtitle, Veterans and Military Families Tell Their Own Stories, inside a pair of dog tags, another nod to military culture.
Israel “Izzy” Sanchez ’18 said he felt determined to share his story, though “it was not easy for me.”
The California native, currently director of a skilled nursing center in San Diego, enlisted in the Navy at 17. The flight to boot camp was his first time on a plane, an experience that in hindsight put a period on his youth.
“Before I left, my five brothers basically told me they didn’t see me as succeeding in the military,” said Sanchez, who served from 2002 to 2012 and spent three more years in the Reserves.
Sanchez was a gay sailor during the time of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Adopted in 1994 and repealed in 2011, the policy prohibited openly gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women from serving in the armed forces. So long as members kept quiet about their sexual orientation, they could continue doing their jobs without facing dishonorable discharge.
While in the Navy, Sanchez faced years of harassment — both sexual and general — but he thrived in the structured environment, including everything from making his bed each morning with the expected precision to working in health care facilities on base.
Once he left the service and began his studies as a nursing student at TCU, Sanchez became “a big advocate for the LGBT community, because we’re a minority population that is completely overlooked in medicine,” he said in the book.
Unlike Sanchez, who attended TCU following a long military career, Alexandria Smith ’10 was commissioned from TCU’s ROTC program into the Army Reserve. Smith deployed to Afghanistan in May 2012 and served nearly seven years in the Army as a human resources officer.
“When people think of the military, they might think of one kind of person, so the diversity in the book could surprise them,” said Smith, whose father, Darron Turner ’87 (EdD ’11), retired in 2020 from his role as TCU’s chief inclusion and diversity officer.
The range of voices represented in the book is by design. The tone of the experiences included in the 328 pages veers from the predictably grim to the lighthearted. One humorous encounter centers on Castillo trying to convince a group of fellow Marines that a gorilla chased him in the wild, something he insists is true. (They didn’t buy it.)
“We decided from the beginning we didn’t want a book about war stories,” Williams said. “Military culture is so much more than that.”
Brown believes that most Americans conjure images of the infantry when considering the military, meaning they never stop to think about those who serve as dental hygienists or administrative clerks. She hopes the book will help expand readers’ perceptions of what service looks like.
Brown and others associated with Voices of America also hope the book spurs empathy for the challenges many people face during their time in the military and afterward.
“If we want to talk at all about what American society owes to veterans, we need to think about how we as a society owe them respect along with personal and professional resources,” Castillo said.
He suffered post-traumatic stress resulting from his active-duty experiences in the Marines. As a civilian, he has worked hard to direct his energies into a thriving career and to helping other veterans, as he did during his time at TCU.
Brown sees the fact that the veterans describe their experiences in their own often gritty words as a major strength of the book.
“For me it was important to recognize that every story is significant regardless of rank, service or time served,” Brown said. “Every story matters.”
READ AN EXCERPT
from Voices of America: Veterans and Military Families Tell Their Own Stories (TCU Press, 2020), edited by April Brown, Ethan Casey and Kit Snyder ’17.