Doing their duty: college kids compose book about vets

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

A Marine is not a soldier and an airman is an airman, even if she's a woman.

If you haven't been in uniform, maybe you don't know that. And chances are you don't know this:

Not everyone wants to be thanked for their service.

There's an entire platoon of reasons for that, Joe Grimm discovered.

Actor and Army veteran J.R. Martinez wrote the foreword to the Michigan State journalism students’ guide to military veterans. “We are just like you,” he says, “yet we seem so unfamiliar to so many.”

"I know you're trying to be nice," some of his students were told, "but you don't know anything about what my service was."

Or, "I didn't do anything heroic you need to thank me for."

Or, "Maybe I saw some things I don't want to think about."

And for heaven's sake, don't ever say, "Happy Memorial Day." It's a day of mourning, and it's not supposed to be festive.

Just in time for Armed Forces Day on Saturday and Memorial Day on May 25, you'll find that and considerably more in the latest book from Grimm's Journalism 492 class at Michigan State.

Joe Grimm

"100 Questions & Answers About Veterans: A Guide for Civilians" (Read the Spirit Books, $9.95) follows seven other titles crafted by his students across the past few years.

All have the same basic format and the same goals: to correct misconceptions, connect cultures and make potentially awkward conversations more comfortable and more frequent.

Earlier books hustled into print by the class known as Bias Busters have included "100 Questions & Answers About Hispanics & Latinos," "100 Questions & Answers About Muslim Americans" and, for visitors, "100 Questions & Answers About Americans."

America's 21 million veterans, Grimm said, "are a cultural group all by themselves," with customs and terminology frequently unfamiliar to outsiders.

"Ask us questions," wrote actor, Army veteran and "Dancing With the Stars" winner J.R. Martinez in the foreward. "Listen and try not to judge or to let your perceptions get in the way of our answers. And in turn, we will allow ourselves to understand that it is our duty to teach."

book jacket -- 100 Questions and Answers about Veterans

Starting a conversation

Grimm, 61, a former newspaper editor, is Visiting Editor in Residence in the journalism department at Michigan State.

He's been visiting for seven years so far, and his principal deadline these days involves getting a finished book in his students' hands by the end of each semester the class is offered.

The process with "100 Questions & Answers About Veterans" began with talking to vets or those close to them — not to get answers, but to figure out what questions needed to be asked.

The oldest source was a 95-year-old woman who served with the Marines in Burma in World War II. The youngest, the daughter of a serviceman who was killed in Iraq, who graduated from MSU last week.

Some of the questions were as basic as learning to march: What are the origins of "Reveille" and "Taps"?

(The "Reveille" bugle call traces its roots to the 17th Century crusades and signals morning roll call and the raising of the flag. "Taps" was arranged during the Civil War; it signals lights out and is also played at funerals.)

Others were more modern: Do military couples marry younger than civilians, and is their divorce rate higher?

(Yes, and yes — 22 years old, on average, four less than the norm. That, frequent relocations and long absences contribute to an elevated divorce rate.)

Then there were the ones that should make the rest of us snap to attention. Come to find out, it takes more to support the troops than putting a magnet on the back of an SUV.

MSU students Tiara Jones, left, Madeline Carino and Lia Kamana edit “100 Questions & Answers about Veterans: A Guide for Civilians.”

How to support vets

Madeline Carino, a senior from Fenton, interviewed a 93-year-old World War II pilot who said he never expected to be thanked. That was Ben Kowalcyk of Flint, her great-grandfather.

Other vets, she found, were far removed from danger and felt embarrassed to be singled out.

Some veterans, Grimm said, find "Thank you for your service" to be as reflexive and meaningless as any other greeting: "I saw my friends killed, and you're going to say, 'Have a nice day.' "

Others might appreciate it — but there are things they will appreciate more.

"I hope you feel good for thanking me," one said. "But it might be better if you called your congressman to ask what's going on with the V.A."