In their own words: By sharing their stories, veterans build community and empathy

Trésor Bunker never mentioned his military service during his first semester at Berkeley. Bunker (’17), who served multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, initially didn’t want to bring that identity with him to school. “There are so many stereotypes,” Bunker explains. “For a lot of vets, once you leave the military you want to put it behind you — not keep on talking about it.”

In his second semester, Bunker’s anthropology professor Saba Mahmood gave a powerful talk in class about war and its costs. “She spoke with so much passion, and so much compassion,” Bunker recalls. “She never blamed the troops; she blamed the policies.” Moved by her sincerity, he emailed her and shared his own service background.

Mahmood and Bunker ended up giving joint talks in later classes, in which he spoke about his own experiences. By the time each session ended, “the entire class was in tears,” Bunker recalls. “It made me realize the power of being able to tell my own story to people, in my own words.”

Cal student veteran Trésor Bunker. (Photo by Alejandro Serrano for the University Library)

On Friday Nov. 4 (5-7pm), Bunker and other Berkeley student and alumni veterans will share their stories during a discussion and exhibit viewing in honor of Veterans Day. The Cal Veterans Group is hosting the event in collaboration with the University Library to help increase the community’s understanding of an often misunderstood group. Large-scale, powerful photographic portraits from the War Ink project will line the walls in the corridor east of the Brown Gallery in the Doe Library.

The panel discussion, to be held in Morrison Library, is titled Moving Beyond “Thanks” to Understanding Experience: Seeing Our Cal Veterans Through Profiles of Military and Lifelong Service and Transition Success. The discussion will incorporate personal experiences and methods for moving beyond stereotypical views of veterans and the often reflexive phrase “Thank you for your service” toward more meaningful communication.

War Ink: Creating Real Recognition
War Ink was originally conceived as an online exhibition by Jason Deitch (’04) and Chris Brown, deputy county librarian for Santa Clara County. “With tattoos becoming mainstream and a shared form of self-expression,” Deitch says, “we saw them as a powerful way to engage civilians and inspire them to learn more about veterans and their experiences while serving our country. The project aims to undermine the usual stereotypes — that a veteran is either a hero or a ticking time bomb of PTSD — and create real recognition, from one human being to another.”

As the project attracted more supporters and funding, it expanded into other formats including the art exhibit, a documentary film, and a digital series. Phase two, currently under wraps, will launch early next year.

Deitch, who majored in philosophy at Berkeley, is part of the Program in Rehabilitation Neuroscience, which is jointly run by the University of California, Berkeley and the VA Medical Centers of Martinez and San Francisco. A social researcher and a veteran advocate, he brought his personal and professional experience to the curation of War Ink. Along with Brown, other key players in the project include Karen Kraft and Richard Garzilli.

Jason Deitch ('04), co-creator of War Ink
Jason Deitch (’04), co-creator of War Ink. (Photo by Alejandro Serrano for the University Library)

The Berkeley campus, as Deitch sees it, is a logical location for the War Ink exhibit and event. “Berkeley is about social action, serving something greater than yourself — like serving your country.” He notes that Berkeley is the oldest ROTC institution in the country, and that veterans have enormous experience and wisdom to contribute to campus life.

Ron Williams, director of Re-entry Student and Veteran Services on campus, adds that the “transformative opportunities” offered by a university such as Berkeley will help student-veterans “continue to use their drive, work ethic and leadership to strengthen California and the nation.”

The Cal Veterans Group
Bunker, vice president of the Cal Veterans Group, praises the drive and maturity of Berkeley students, noting that when he transferred here from community college he was struck by how “everyone has a goal, wants to achieve it, and is willing to work hard.”

At the same time, the stress and demands of the curriculum can weigh more heavily on veterans like Bunker, many of whom are also contending with the psychological and physical effects of their service. Bunker lists difficulty sleeping and depression as his key challenges.

Working with the Cal Veterans Group has been a major source of support for Bunker. A Middle East and North African studies major, Bunker plans to enroll in a doctoral program following graduation, with a goal of becoming a professor.

Firmly nonpolitical, the Cal Veterans Group works on building community for military veterans on campus, as well as philanthropy, advocacy and resources for future students. There are over 400 confirmed student veterans on campus; many of them are from underrepresented backgrounds and the first in their families to attend college.

The War Ink event is one of a number of outreach projects that help Berkeley veterans connect with the larger community. “What you don’t know, you can’t empathize with,” explains Deitch. “Once you have the chance to see someone, and hear their words, they are no longer an other. Each one of us has the responsibility to understand the communities to which we belong — and forging this understanding is what makes us stronger as individuals and as a society.”

Cal Veterans Panel and the War Ink Project
When: Friday, November 4, 2016 5-7pm
Where: Morrison Library
Admission: Free and open to the public
The Library attempts to offer programs in accessible, barrier-free settings. If you think you may require disability-related accommodations, please contact the event sponsor prior to the event. The event sponsor is Ashley Bacchi, 510-664-7737.

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