Zachary Kaiser Story Behind the Story
In the waning years of my adolescence and again when I was 23, I experienced war as a soldier. My name is Zachary Kaiser, and I am a two-time Operation Iraq Freedom veteran.
Four years later as an aspired journalist, I listened as Todd Raley slowly explained launching artillery against Saddam Hussein’s soldiers then drove through the destruction he caused a few hours later.
As he told me the story, the air became dense as the words slid from his mouth as he reflected on his early 20s.
I could feel him reaching for the right words to articulate his feelings. I am aware of the struggles associated with musing on a subject as delicate as war. These musings come later after the scabs have been picked at and tore off a few times.
I patiently waited for him to finish telling me what he saw. I didn’t know how the story was going to end.
Raley is tough. At 44 he has looked back at the past, and the sores have been replaced with scared tissue, resilient to my poking and prodding.
It never seems to be the beginning of the semester until it is. The same is true for the end of the semester. Sometimes I’ll even get emails pertaining to syllabi for the class starting in a week, but the first day is always a shock. I wake up, realize I haven’t printed any of the syllabi, haven’t bought books or general supplies. I throw some pencils and paper in a bag and run out the door.
Then in a week I’m in school mode, and weeks turn into due dates.
Sitting in the chair on that first day, listening to Grace list off the requirements for the project, I wouldn’t say I was freaked out, but I realized this project had two due dates and a lot of moving pieces. Being a veteran, I wondered what I would be facing. I have never had a problem discussing the war and often times I enjoyed discussing it. Hoping to become a writer some day, I had picked at my wounds several times.
But who would this person be? What if they had problems discussing the war? It was only in hindsight that I realized he pulled stories out of me just as much as I pulled stories out of him.
I meet Raley the second week of class. We meet in Reeve Memorial Union at UW Oskosh. He wasn’t hard to pick out. I did have some concern about if I would recognize him, but when you get assigned a guy with more than 23 years of service, you can make some assumptions about age. He was the only older gentleman sitting in Reeve that day. I had met men like Todd before. In fact, I believe there is something about being a senior non-commissioned officer in the Army that naturally makes one gravitate toward certain mannerisms. Todd was no exception. Their faces often reflect the stress and wear of constant responsibility.
Almost immediately I felt Todd drawing out my own stories as much as I was drawing out his. Our sessions were pretty normal, and it appeared Todd was fairly comfortable discussing his past. There was sometimes a tension around the studio, but I never felt I couldn’t ask him something. It seemed he took this as part of his duty to his fellow soldiers. These stories needed to be told.
But as we discussed his past, I remembered the trials and uncertainty of my own experiences. Sometimes while recording our interviews I would sit and nod my head, knowing exactly what Todd meant when he discussed the tensions surrounding the Iraqi elections. I was there. That was the day some Marines shot at our convoy.
Our interview did get rather heavy while we discussed Todd’s friend who had died overseas. The studio became pressurize and the weight of the air sat heavy on my shoulders. The outside world seemed to stop and all sounds were silenced except for Todd’s hushed voice and a the soft thump of his hand on the table. Then the story would end and the pressure would lift like a heavy fog.
Transcriptions. Have you ever done one? They are the worst. On the school computers I had software that allowed me to speed up or slow down the audio in order to type it out, but at home I didn’t have that luxury. I would open iTunes, listen to a sentence and type it up. This took hours. I would type until my eyes burned, and my wrists cramped.
Our next interview started with photos. Todd brought in about 200-300 (maybe more) photos of his time in the service. After we went over those, we started with another interview.
This interview was more of a reflection on where Todd was and where he is going. It required a lot of questions about how he’s changed and stuff like that. His answers were not a surprise because once again I felt myself nodding my head a lot. He seemed to be describing me when he talked about his life since going overseas. It was like interviewing myself.
He described the last few years of my life. He described how he tried to self-medicate with alcohol and missed the Army while he was still trying to understand it. It took a lot of writing and a lot of picking before I understood how I’ve changed, but it also became apparent I am still figuring it out.
At this point I have a lot of material, but then what? I realized I was interviewing, transcribing and interviewing again. I mean I made the podcasts for the project, which was probably my favorite part, but I needed to start putting it together.
Writing is a lot like a relationship. It can be a cold bitch and other times it can be as easy as putting your hands on a keyboard (don’t tell my wife I said that).
The project continued as such. I went to class, revisions were made and work was submitted, but outside class I found myself reflecting. In a way Raley’s story brought me a way to look at my past and start to structure this vast vault of memories leftover from my seven years in the National Guard.
And with the memories came the musings. Like the wounds I spoke of earlier, my own festering scabs burst open and started to drip into pages. In another class on memoir, I started to write about the twisted year I had after my deployment due to the loneliness I felt. In another piece, which I am planning to make into a full-length memoir, I wrote about my own experiences as a 19-year-old in the Iraq War.
Raley showed me that pride can be just as powerful as fear, and fear only succeeds when the wounds it has caused are never treated. For some the wound is too large or deep to bind. For me, I have to keep telling people stories. That is how I can help my fellow soldiers after my service has ended.