The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002
Arts of War
   
 

Magic Moments Near The Wall:
The Memorial Day Writers Project

By Marc Leepson


It's happened every Memorial Day and every Veterans Day since 1993 in a white tent pitched on The Mall in Washington, D.C., a stone's throw from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A group of Vietnam veterans known as the Memorial Day Writers Project opens the tent's doors and invites veterans and others to read their poetry, tell their war stories, and sing war-related songs.

"Anyone who has been affected by war and has something to say in a literary vein is welcome," said Mike McDonell, a former Marine and a co-founder of the group. McDonell, a poet who teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College, takes a head count of MDWP members prior to each event. Then he sets up a loose performing schedule that's always augmented by people who show up unannounced.

"What we're all about is getting other veterans to come and share what they've written," he said, "other veterans and anybody touched by the war. It's therapeutic as hell; it's also art. We share our stuff and we ask them to share what they have."

McDonell, a member of VVA Chapter 227 who served with the 11th Marines in Vietnam in 1967-68, conceived the idea for the group with his good friend, the poet and playwright Clyde Wray, in the fall of 1992. "We wanted to put together a reading for veterans to commemorate Memorial Day," McDonell said.

From that conversation a group of vet writers-Wray, McDonell, Ed Henry, Rod Kane, and Roger Dorsey-and Tom McLean, a songwriter and musician, got together and put on a well-received show at Market Place Gallery in Washington augmented with traditional Vietnamese music by Kim Hoan.

"It was going to be a one-time thing, but word got out and people invited us to perform," McDonell said. The group put on performances at Franklin and Marshall College and Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. Then, on Veterans Day 1993, McDonell, Wray, and company were invited by the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to share that now-defunct group's tent near The Wall.

"We took care of the tent for them," McDonell said, "and they let us read there throughout the weekend."

MDWP's been there every Veterans Day and Memorial Day since. The group also does readings in other venues and cosponsors, with Chapter 227, the annual Vince Kasper Awards for Excellence in the Arts. The awards-which MDWP founding member Ed Henry calls "the most rewarding thing we do"-are given to two deserving Northern Virginia high school students each May. The awards arc named in honor of former MDWP member Vince Kasper, a poet and photographer who died in 1994.

In recent years, MDWP members also have read at the Vietnam Women's Memorial. "We usually end their program for them on Veterans Day and Memorial Day with poetry, prose, and sometimes a song," McDonell said. "This past Veterans Day a veteran came up at the last minute and did an a cappella version of 'Amazing Grace.'"

Back at the MDWP tent, the group's members regularly experience something special, what McDonell and crew call "a magic moment." "It happens every Veterans and Memorial Day," McDonell said. "It's that time during the weekend when somebody-a person we didn't plan on-comes in and reads a poem or tells a story that grabs the audience and floors us."

There were several magic moments on Veterans Day 1999. The MDWP dedicated that day's readings to the memory of Rod Kane, who died Nov. 3 of pneumonia, after years of battling a hereditary lung disease. Rod "Doc" Kane was perhaps the group's best-known member.

His book, Veterans Day: A Vietnam Memoir, a novelistic account of his life as an Army medic and his often tortuous postwar problems, received wide critical acclaim when it was published in 1990. That included a high accolade from Catch 22 author Joseph Heller, who characterized the book as "a breathtaking and triumphant achievement, a daring effort of commanding power, written with splendor, biting wit, [and] passion."

"We dedicated the [1999 Veterans Day] program as a memorial to Rod," McDonell said. "A lot of his friends came and everybody did something extraordinary. It was a wonderful hour of people telling stories about Rod, reading poems, and reading selections from his book. That whole hour was a magic moment."

   

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