Author talks about experiences as a writer and veteran, while linking war and literature

Noted author Phil Klay hosts a lecture about his recent book "Redeployment" and related topics at Kansas State University's Alumni Center on October 1, 2014. (Cassandra Nguyen | The Collegian)

Author Phil Klay discussed military training, war and what it was like to be a professional writer while a veteran Tuesday night.

Faculty, students and members of the Manhattan community filled the K-State Alumni Center’s grand ballroom as Klay, former marine and creator of the book “Redeployment,” spoke about his experiences in the Marines and as a veteran.

“I have a pretty unusual job for a veteran,” Klay said. “A lot of the vets I know are men of action.”

Klay said his job as a writer has led him to some potentially awkward conversations. A graduate of Dartmouth college, Klay said he was living in a studio apartment with his wife in New York when Hurricane Sandy hit the area in 2012.

“A couple of weeks afterwards, I met up with a friend of mine, an army veteran, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Klay said in the presentation. “I asked him what he had been up to and he said, ‘I’ve been working with Team Rubicon'”

Klay explained that Team Rubicon is a veteran-led disaster relief organization.

“The idea is that veterans have a lot of the skills that would be useful in a chaotic, environmental disaster event,” Klay said. “So it’s (about) trying to harness those energies to help people.”

Klay said Team Rubicon sent teams to help find survivors and those stranded in the aftermath of the hurricane, and his friend was among the volunteers. There were lots of money and civilian agencies trying to help victims, but Klay said there was very little organization between them.

“He had gone in with Team Rubicon and they started sending in teams of veterans to go out and find out what people needed, where people were and what was going on, and they started feeding all of this information into this data visualization program,” Klay said. “So, basically they had this map and it’s like ‘old lady in an apartment with no food or water here,’ ‘family of five in need of clothes and transportation here,’ and ‘here’s a group that can help out the old lady,’ ‘here’s a group that can help out the family.’ Then they coordinate with the different groups to get people what they needed.”

Klay said he hoped his friend would not ask the question in reverse by that point in the conversation.

“So he tells me, ‘Yeah it was pretty great, you know, did a good job out there. So what have you been up to?’ at which point I was hoping he really wouldn’t ask,” Klay said. “I was like, ‘Uh, I’m writing stories.'”

Klay said situations such as this are no longer new for him.

“I’ve been in this spot a lot, there’s enough veterans out there doing awesome things that it tends to make me feel like a bit of an asshole,” Klay said. “Yet, at the same time, I feel that storytelling is one of the most vital responsibilities that we have.”

Arthur DeGroat, director of military affairs at K-State, said he made the decision to bring Klay to campus.

“I’m the one who found him for K-State, if you will,” DeGroat said. “It was first the topic that I was interested in, and I had no background of his skill as an acclaimed writer. But I was aware of what the book was and what it was about and it had high literary acclaim.”

DeGroat said literature is one of three different art forms being showcased at K-State this month involving veterans. The other two events are the graphic arts display “A Grunts War Diary,” which is being displayed in the K-State Student Union’s William T. Kemper Art Gallery through Oct. 14, and the performing act Basetrack. The latter will be performed at McCain Auditorium Oct. 14.

“There’s a connection in my mind between the literary art, graphic art and the performing arts and in all three of these pieces are top-of-its-form, top-of-its-class, all involving actual veterans who are the artists themselves,” DeGroat said. “That’s what intrigued me about Phil. Phil was a participant as a marine in these wars and he’s also an acclaimed literary artist.”

Klay’s book is a collection of stories told through the eyes of soldiers who are either deployed in Iraq or who have returned home to the U.S, according to a K-State press release. The book has received strong reviews from the New York Times among others.

Garrison Cmdr. Col. Andrew Cole for Fort Riley said the stories are very appropriate.

“He’s relaying a series of stories which were experiences for him and I think it certainly stimulates within the reader the question of ‘How do those stories, where do they fit’ in perspective with this work that they’re reading,” Cole said. “So I think depending upon who you are and what background you come from, you’re going to have a different perspective and it’s going to generate within you a series of questions that are going to be markedly different.”

Cole said the discussion about the storytelling in the book made him think about how he records and reports things, and it sparked a question within him.

“The question that I would probably ask myself is, ‘As many of us do study military history and we do read accounts, there is often also a bit generational shift on how do we report; how do we document our experiences?” Cole said. “It’s making me take another look at perspective of how do we read.”

Shelton grew up in the desert southwest. A native of Lancaster, California, he mostly grew up in south Phoenix, Arizona; Austin, Texas; and Colorado Springs, Colorado before moving to Kansas and graduating from Junction City High School. He started working as a news writer for the Collegian in 2009 before taking a three-year break from college. He returned to K-State in 2013 and has since worked for the news desk, feature desk, as a copy editor and now as a sports writer. He enjoys tap dancing, writing anything possible, reading court opinions and watching Arizona Coyotes hockey.