Meet ‘Our’ Veterans: Know what this hat means to many who wear it?

World War II Veteran baseball cap

AS YOU ENJOY THIS STORY—

Cover of the MSU 100 Q&A Veterans Large Book

Click the cover to learn more about the book.

Getting to know our millions of veterans is a major goal of ReadTheSpirit and PBS this year. With help from DPTV, Michigan’s flagship public TV station, the Michigan State University School of Journalism just published a multi-media book designed to help civilians make those connections. (Read our first story about this groundbreaking project, which is sparking headlines nationwide, and also see some of the videos in the book.) Today, the director of the MSU program writes about WWII veterans and “the hat.” I love this story because my own late father had such a hat, a sign of his service in the Aleutians. And like Mr. Bleich in Joe’s story today—my father wore the hat not to draw praise, but to connect with other veterans. This is especially urgent, because WWII vets are dying at a rate of close to 500 a day, which means less than 1 million of the 16 million who served in that war are left. Please, share this story with friends on social media.
David Crumm, ReadTheSpirit Editor

By JOE GRIMM

When Chester Bleich puts on the hat that announces he is a World War II veteran, he is not seeking accolades.

He is seeking answers.

Bleich’s son, Mike, emailed me after reading an article by Associated Press reporter Jeff Karoub about the new guide, 100 Questions and Answers About Veterans. The guide was written by students in my journalism class at Michigan State University. It answers basic questions that civilians have about veterans. We interviewed veterans to find the questions and veterans edited the final copy. More than 200 news websites, newspapers and TV stations published the AP article for Memorial Day. Mike Bleich read it in The News-Gazette in Champaign, Illinois.

The guide explains that Memorial Day is more than a day for barbecues and picnics. It is a solemn day for remembering those who have died in military service. It is not the same as Veterans Day, which comes in November, although a lot of people treat it that way. The guide also explains that many veterans are not looking for people to thank them on that day or any other day, although the gesture is certainly well intended.

On Memorial Day morning, Mike Bleich sent me an email:

“My father is a 91-year-old survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. He is still troubled by the memories of the battle, and not knowing what happened to the others in his platoon. He wears his WW2 Veteran hat daily, not to be recognized, but in hopes of meeting other survivors of the war. I can identify with your finding that vets feel conflicted when thanked by the general public, as I have witnessed that very situation many times. He is much more comfortable when people ask where he served, listen to his personal story, and then thank him. When someone simply walks up and shakes his hand and thanks him, he typically does not respond and often looks away, almost as if to say, ‘If you only knew …’

“Thank you for undertaking this project, and feel free to share this note with your class.”

That email is laden with pain, loss, pride and a desire to be understood. It is also about civilians misinterpreting the message on the hat. That message is not for them but for veterans who understand and who might know something.

US 28th Infantry Division shoulder patch

Shoulder patch of the 28th Infantry Division, originally nicknamed the “Keystone Division” because of its roots in Pennsylvania during the American Revolution. Now, it’s called the “Iron Division.” Due to its devastating losses in WWII, the division often was called the “Bloody Bucket” in that era.

The son, a school principal for 20 years, explained his father’s story in detail on the phone. Chester Bleich was a private in Company M of the 109th battalion of the Army’s 28th Infantry Division, Pennsylvania National Guard. He was on the front lines when the Germans broke through in the U.S.’ biggest and bloodiest battle of World War II. As many as 19,000 Americans were killed there. Chester Bleich and six other men escaped, taking their machine gun with them. He carried the tripod as they crossed a river on a cable. They walked, not knowing where they were or where they were going, for what seemed like a hundred miles. After reaching a small town that they thought was in Allied territory, they sheltered in a building for the night. In the morning, the seven walked out into the street. A shell fell from somewhere and exploded. “That was the last time he ever saw the other six guys,” his son said. “That bothers him a great deal.”

Chester Bleich woke up on Christmas Eve, 1944, in a field hospital tent. The other guys were not there. He never learned their fate. He doesn’t have their names. He doesn’t even know the name of the town where he was hit with the shrapnel that is still inside him today. Clues that might have helped were lost in a fire at the Veterans Administration records center in St. Louis.

So, Chester Bleich puts on the hat, hoping it will attract answers.

Instead, said his son, the hat attracts strangers. They mean well, but know nothing about the battle or the shrapnel or the missing men. “There are times when I am with him and somebody will just kind of rush up and say, ‘Thank you for what you did,’ and ‘Thank you for serving.’ He doesn’t know what to say. He just looks away.”

An honor flight to Washington, D.C., has helped Chester Bleich. The trip, paid for by donations, had a packed schedule for approximately 40 veterans. They saw the sights, met people and were saluted. On the way back, though, the veterans were caught by one of those annoying mechanical delays that planes have. With no place to go and no schedule, the veterans could only sit around and talk. Mike Bleich said, “the flight was a wonderful, wonderful thing, but his favorite part of it was the four hours where he got to talk to those other guys.”

Chester Bleich talks more easily now. He likes to talk to young people. He tells his grandchildren more about the war than he tells his son. He still doesn’t like to talk about some of the things he saw, either to protect others or to protect himself. But he is talking more, and not just to veterans.

Mike Bleich told me his dad would like a copy of 100 Questions and Answers About Veterans. Although I know it won’t tell Chester Bleich much he doesn’t know, I hope it meets with his approval. I also hope that civilians order the guide, learn some basics and are ready to listen patiently when Veterans Day comes in November. That is the best way to say “Thank you.”

Joe Grimm visiting editor in residence in the School of Journalism at Michigan State University. He is editor of this series of guides to cultural competence.

100 Questions & Answers about (our millions of) Veterans

Cover of the MSU 100 Q&A Veterans Large Book

CLICK this cover to visit the book’s website, learn more about it and find links to purchase your copy.

ACROSS America, May is a special time for honoring our American veterans and their families. Already, Americans have marked VE (Victory in Europe) Day on May 8, Military Spouse Appreciation Day on May 8, Armed Forces Day on May 16 and soon the month will culminate in one of the biggest national observances: Memorial Day, covered by Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton.

At ReadTheSpirit magazine, we are celebrating the students from Michigan State University’s School of Journalism who have just released 100 Questions & Answers about Veterans—which includes videos of veterans produced by Detroit Public Television.

Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin already has reported on the book’s release. Neal wrote, in part, that such a book is helpful to “to correct misconceptions, connect cultures and make potentially awkward conversations more comfortable and more frequent.” Neal continued:

America’s 21 million veterans “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 book’s foreword. “Listen and try not to judge or to let your perceptions get in the way of our answers.”

ReadTheSpirit magazine invited the director of this MSU journalism project, Joe Grimm, to tell us more …

By JOE GRIMM

Americans like to recognize veterans, but don’t always see them for who they are.

The fog of stereotypes and the knowledge gap between veterans and civilians can obscure our view.

MSU students Tiara Jones Madeline Carino and Lia Kamana work on the veterans book

MSU journalism students Tiara Jones, Madeline Carino and Lia Kamana work on the new veterans book.

A new guide clears some of the fog.

100 Questions and Answers About Veterans: A Guide for Civilians answers basic questions that former service men and women say they hear all the time. With a little basic knowledge, civilians will understand how much there is to learn. This start gives us the confidence we need to talk without worrying that we will embarrass ourselves or offend a veteran.

This is the basic premise behind the series of cultural guides to which this veterans guide belongs. It is the eighth in the series, which ReadTheSpirit helps the Michigan State University School of Journalism publish. The guide, in print form and digital, includes video interviews with veterans recorded by partner Detroit Public Television.

Ron Capps

Ron Capps

Ron Capps, who wrote the guide’s preface, served in the Army and Army Reserve for 25 years. He is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and of other conflicts. His passion is the Veterans Writing Project VeteransWriting.org, which he founded. For this new book, Capps wrote in part:

Soldiers come home and get lots of “Thank you for your service” and recognition at baseball games, but rarely have the chance to tell their story. This lack of communication leads to a lack of understanding.

Veterans can become isolated, and keep to themselves. And this is wrong. We all have a responsibility to share the experience of our military even if only vicariously, through a telling or a reading.

JR Martinez is in the MSU veterans book

JR Martinez

Army veteran J.R. Martinez wrote in his foreword, “Let yourself learn from us. Ask us questions. 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. It’s a partnership we will all have to agree on to shorten the distance between our two worlds.”

Martinez was in a Humvee that hit an improvised explosive device in Iraq, burning him over more than 34 percent of his body. He is an actor, motivational speaker and the author of Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit. You might have seen him on Dancing with the Stars. He wound up winning Season 13 of that series on Nov. 22, 2011.

The messages from Capps and Martinez are similar and echo many heard by the Michigan State students who interviewed veterans for the guide. These are some of the 100 questions the guide answers:

* Why do some veterans prefer not to have people thank them for their service?
* How are commissioned and noncommissioned officers different?
* How common is it for veterans to be homeless?
* What is the GI Bill?
* What are the meanings of Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Of course, we all know there is a difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. But how do veterans see that difference? If you’re a civilian who is not sure, you have time to go into this year’s Memorial Day more informed. Get this helpful new book in paperback or as an ebook. Read it and watch the DPTV videos. It won’t take long for you to be able to have better conversations with veterans, confident that the baseline knowledge you have will lead to a better understanding.

Joe Grimm is series editor for this series of guides published by the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

MSU ‘Bias Busters’ sort out the mysterious realm of religion

Front cover MSU guide 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

CLICK this cover to visit our Bookstore and learn about ordering your copy.

By JOE GRIMM

The MSU Bias Busters series of guides to cultural competence embarks on a new direction this week: We’re heading into the realm of religion.

The series, from the Michigan State University (MSU) School of Journalism, started in 2013 with 100 questions and answers to everyday questions about several groups. There are now guides for Indian Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, East Asian cultures, Arab Americans, Native Americans and, to help international guests, Americans.

Why did our MSU team decide to start this new series on religious minorities? Because such guides are needed by so many men and women, these days. Americans in countless neighborhoods and professions need to know how to interact with our neighbors and co-workers from minority faiths and cultures.

Why did we start this new series with Muslims? Because these men, women and children face the greatest misunderstandings right now, according to nationwide studies.

Recently, Pew researchers reported that prejudice against Muslim Americans is “rampant among the U.S. public.” The Pew team added: “We have a long way to go in dispelling prejudice against Muslims. Muslims were the group rated most negatively of all religious groups.”

Can our guide books really make a difference? Yes!

Here’s the goal of our overall series of 100 Questions & Answers guides: We answer the questions that real people ask every day wherever Americans gather. We answer the questions that no one else is answering in such a convenient and authoritative form. We have blue-ribbon readers across the country advise us as we answer these questions for readers—so you can trust what we’re telling you in these pages.

In your hands, these guides will help you get to know co-workers, neighbors or fellow students in your school. And that process of getting to know each other, concludes the Pew team, is the way to build healthier communities.

The Pew team used a thermometer chart to show Americans’ relatively warm vs. chilly attitudes toward minorities. The team’s report concludes: “Knowing someone from a religious group is linked with having relatively more positive views of that group. Those who say they know someone who is Jewish, for example, give Jews an average thermometer rating of 69, compared with a rating of 55 among those who say they do not know anyone who is Jewish. Atheists receive a neutral rating of 50, on average, from people who say they personally know an atheist, but they receive a cold rating of 29 from those who do not know an atheist. Similarly, Muslims get a neutral rating (49 on average) from those who know a Muslim, and a cooler rating (35) from those who do not know a Muslim.”

WHAT QUESTIONS DO WE ANSWER?

MSU Bias Busters Class works on 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

PHOTOS OF THE MSU BIAS BUSTERS: TOP PHOTO shows an MSU editing circle—clockwise from front: Arielle Rembert, Julia Gorman, Sarah King, Cheyenne Yost, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan and Kate Kerbrat. MIDDLE PHOTO shows our editors Amanda Cowherd and Kyle Koehler collaborating on the new guide. BOTTOM PHOTO shows class members—front from left: Lia Kamana, Stacy Cornwell, Arielle Rembert and Julia Gorman. Second row, from left: Kate Kerbrat, Amanda Cowherd, Kyle Koehler, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan, Cheyenne Yost and Sarah King.

The full title of our newest book, as listed on Amazon, is 100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans with a Guide to Islamic Holidays: Basic facts about the culture, customs, language, religion, origins and politics of American Muslims.

These guides are designed to answer the everyday questions that people wonder about but might not know how to ask. The Muslim-American guide answers:

* What does Islam say about Jesus?
* What does the Quran say about peace and violence?
* What is the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims?
* Which countries are predominantly Shia and Sunni?
* Do Muslims believe in heaven and an afterlife?
* Do Muslims believe that non-Muslims are going to hell?
* Is the Nation of Islam the same as Islam?
* Are honor killings a part of Islamic teaching?
* What does Islam say about images of God?
* Do women who wear the hijab play sports or swim?

The guide’s Foreword is by John L. Esposito, professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and author of the popular book, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam.

Esposito wrote, “The Muslims of America are far from monolithic in their composition and in their attitudes and practices. They are a mosaic of many ethnic, racial and national groups. As a result, significant differences exist in their community as well as in their responses to their encounter with the dominant religious and cultural paradigm of American society.”

Esposito was one of 20 experts who helped MSU students in one way or another through the creation of our new guide. The students began by interviewing Muslims, and consulting with our experts, to determine the 100 commonly asked questions we would answer in this book. Then, the students researched the answers and, once again, consulted with our experts to verify the entire guide.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE …

Another new feature in this new book is a nine-page guide to Islamic holidays. Written by Read the Spirit’s Holidays & Festivals expert Stephanie Fenton, it explains their timing, meaning and significance.

The guide also has a recording with American Muslims pronouncing Arabic words such as Muslim, Islam and Allah. Muslims told students that these are often mispronounced and the audio addresses that. (Visit the ReadTheSpirit bookstore now to learn how to order your copy of this inexpensive new book. When you get your copy, the first thing you’ll want to do is listen to this helpful audio track. In most e-readers, the audio plays within the digital book; in the print edition, a QR code lets you click on that page—and play the audio on your smart phone.)

The series is evolving and becoming more elaborate.

The next guide will focus on Jewish Americans and is expected to have videos.

CARE TO READ MORE?

JOE GRIMM is visiting editor in the Michigan State University School of Journalism. In addition to the MSU series, Joe has written two books about careers in media. You can learn about all of Joe’s books in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.