Vets pen tales of war trauma 

Maureen Nerli still receives phone calls in the middle of the night from friends who served in Vietnam. The lingering trauma never left.

"I saw everything. I saw death, I saw happiness, I saw loss, I saw pain," she said. "You don’t go through something like that without having the memories tattooed in your brain."

Nerli, a lifelong Burlingame resident, was accompanied Wednesday night by four other Vietnam and Iraq veterans at the Burlingame Library. They shared readings of their book "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace," a compilation from 80 writers involved in past military conflicts. The book’s poems and stories explore the emotional toll of combat and its aftereffects.

"You constantly dream about the war, you constantly smell it," said Nerli, a former United Service Organizations volunteer in Vietnam. "When a helicopter goes by, you have flashes. This war in Iraq tears us up because we know what our people are going through. We know what it means to be sent."

The book is part of a larger campaign called Veterans Writers Group, spearheaded by the book’s editor, UC Berkeley professor emeritus Maxine Hong Kingston, who believes written expression is a form of healing. Nerli’s chapter in the book was based on an encounter she had with a nun while in Saigon in 1970.

"The story is fiction, but there’s a nonfiction element to it," Nerli said. "But everything (the nun) shares with us is the truth. I just changed her name and nationality."

Sean Mclain Brown, an instructor at De Anza College, served in the Marines in Iraq in 1991.

"The motto of the group is to tell the truth, and so, make peace," he said. "We are able to revisit the past and remake the present."

Some of the book’s entries are poems that reflect today’s anxiety with the war in Iraq and offer a parallel to the tumultuous times during the Vietnam War.

Sharon Kufeldt, who served in the Air Force during Vietnam, wrote a poem called "The Silent Scream." She recalled when she was homeless in Palo Alto in the 1980s.

"I was one of the invisible homeless," she said. "I had a car, I looked nice."

For these authors, grim news that comes from Iraq on a daily basis reverberate horrors from the past.

"There’s a term called hysteresis, which means the lag between cause and effect," Brown said. "The stress and trauma has a cumulative effect that can take some guys 10 or 20 years."

Proceeds from the book go to four nonprofit organizations, including the DOVE Foundation and the East Meets West Foundation.

bfoley@examiner.com

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