War Stories at Rice Veterans Event

During his second tour in Iraq, Mike Freedman ’14 carried with him a slim tattered book called “Stern” by Bruce Jay Friedman. He reread the comic novel about a veteran who moves to the suburbs, tucked it safely in his ruck sack, and passed it around the team room before missions to ease tensions. “That book relieved an anxiety for me,” the former Green Beret and current Veterans in Business Association (VIBA) president said. “It’s hilarious.”

It was another book altogether — “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain — that inspired Freedman to revolutionize the Jones School speaker format and invite six acclaimed literary authors to discuss the veteran experience and its influence on their writing. “Last year I went to Fountain’s book reading in Austin not expecting to like the novel, but it blew me away. It made me think I should ask him to come to Rice.”

Freedman emailed Fountain a fan letter of sorts and asked whether he would consider coming to speak on a panel with other literary writers. Not only did the author enthusiastically agree, he offered to put him in touch with a few other authors, creating the opportunity for the second-year MBA to begin planning what would become Rice’s Veterans in Business Association panel series: “The Veteran Experience.” The plan is for the series to occur each year during Veterans Day Week, highlighting different industries, and act as a companion event to the spring’s “Veterans Leadership Series,” which featured former head of Homeland Security Tom Ridge last year.

After consulting with the previous VIBA president Jimmy Battista ’13 and Director of Development Rachel Fleck on the substance of the panel and logistics, he started writing emails to authors. “I wrote Bruce Jay Friedman to explain the event and about carrying his book during combat in Iraq. He wrote back, ‘How can I say no?’”

A wealth of words

By the beginning of the school year, VIBA had a surprising six affirmatives: David Abrams, author of “Fobbit,” a New York Times "Notable Book"; William Broyles, a Rice alumnus, founding editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly, editor-in-chief of Newsweek, author of the war memoir “Brothers in Arms” and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter; Lea Carpenter, author of the critically acclaimed novel “Eleven Days”; Ben Fountain, award-winning author of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”; Bruce Jay Friedman, author of eight novels and an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter; and Karl Marlantes, author of New York Times bestseller “Matterhorn” and winner of the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.

The intention of the VIBA-hosted series was to help raise the national profile of Rice University and the Jones School by bringing prominent veterans to speak about their veteran experience. It would also shine a spotlight on VIBA and the Military Scholars Program that Rice supporters have created to support the recent influx of veterans into the civilian workforce and universities. But no one imagined just how extraordinary the six authors would be. Or how many people — veterans and civilians — it would touch.

With the help of first- and second-year VIBA members, the dean, and staff from external relations, event planning, office of student services, IT and marketing, the mission was planned with military precision. Vets were assigned to pick up authors at the airport and escort them to the Hotel ZaZa, a book signing at Brazos Bookstore, and dinner at Ninfa’s with an intimate guest list. By Tuesday, the day of the public reception and panel, the authors and veterans were well acquainted, and the atmosphere in Shell Auditorium was charged.

Building momentum

From the moment the dean extended his welcome in the packed auditorium and vice president of VIBA David DeFilippo offered his heartfelt thanks to Freedman’s introductions of the writers, the Veteran Experience became so much more than six celebrated guests and their novels, memoirs, short stories screenplays, awards — both literary and military — and memories.

It became a discussion. Are wars different now? Do we have a home front? Does a writer who has never been in combat have the right to pen a book about it? There was also an animated conversation about using humor as a literary style in war writing.

The audience was riveted by personal, sometimes heart-rending, accounts from the authors. Beloved alumnus Bill Broyles spoke not only of his own experience in Vietnam and that possibly everything he wrote came from that place but also the poignancy of being the parent of an Air Force Special Operations Pararescue Jumper. Karl Marlantes shared the painful memory of the name-calling that happened when he returned home, and how he was determined to publish his book, even 30 years after it was written, “to tell a story, our story.” David Abrams spent his service at a Forward Operating Base in Baghdad — “in the war, but he was not of the war” — and how his chronicle of behind-the-scenes Iraq grew into a novel. Lea Carpenter’s journey to write a book about a mother and her Navy Seal son began after her father’s death, when she discovered he had been in special operations. And Ben Fountain’s inspiration for Billy Lynn followed a real Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys’ halftime show 10 years ago that stimulated a satire on the disconnect between soldiers and civilians. Finally Bruce Jay Friedman admitted with comedic flair that after serving in the Air Force, mostly in public affairs, absolutely nothing of interest had happened to him during the Korean War, but that he still was honored to be a part of the panel.

Because of VIBA, the Jones School is connecting in new ways to the community of veterans within McNair Hall and beyond the hedges — some of whom are Rice alumni, some of whom are not. But that’s not enough for VIBA. According to Freedman, “We want to be known as the most veteran friendly school in the country.”

With one of the most generous Yellow Ribbon Scholarships available and a veteran scholarship through the newly established Military Scholars Program, the school already is helping to fulfill part of VIBA’s mission to provide assistance to veterans transitioning from military service to student life. The club also sponsors philanthropic events to benefit charitable veteran and military organizations through partnering with other student clubs, Rice alumni and the Houston business community.

“We are excited about the enthusiasm and leadership of our veterans and their impact on the Rice community,” said Bill Glick, dean of the Jones Graduate School of Business. “This Veteran’s Experience event was the latest in a series of efforts and initiatives that demonstrate our commitment to supporting military veterans who are transitioning to civilian life after serving our country. Through the Rice MBA, we want to help them translate their leadership skills to civilian roles, and VIBA is playing a very important role in making Jones the most military friendly business school in the country.”

At the end of the panel, Bruce Jay Friedman interjected his own gratitude for the Veteran Experience speaker series. “I’ve learned that though I haven’t been in combat, according to Freedman, my book was.” And we all appreciate the value of the authors’ insights on the veterans’ experience.