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
"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,"
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
"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
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
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."