For more than half a century, Joe Bruni stayed silent about the “hellish day on the bloody sulfuric sands” that took his childhood friend at Iwo Jima.
“If Tom Brokaw called us the greatest generation, we were also the silent generation,” Bruni says of his long reluctance to speak about his service.
Gradually, he turned to poetry to give voice to his pain. And at 92, the World War II veteran has joined a writing group with veterans of all wars — Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan – at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Bruni has opened up about his harrowing experiences on the island with the 4th Marine division — a month-long slog that resulted in more than 9,000 casualties and 1,731 fatalities for his division, including the loss of his friend Joe Esposito, a fellow Marine and buddy from Brooklyn. Bruni vividly remembers making Esposito a headstone from one of his weapons on the island.
60 years given me beyond your 20
That precious gift denied you that hellish day on the bloody sulfuric sands.
Your right to survive as great as mine
Was denied by torn, jagged shell
That claimed you and others and spared me to retell
The writing group’s president, Sam Pressler, was a young college student when he founded the William and Mary Center for Veterans Engagement in 2013 to focus on the expressive arts. Pressler has started programs focused on music, writing and even a “comedy boot camp.” Such programs are receiving new attention as many veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle to deal with the emotional scars of war.
Pressler, 22, graduated this year and now hopes to bring the work he’s done at the Center for Veterans Engagement to other colleges around the country. He believes it will bridge the civilian and military divide.
While not himself a veteran, both of Pressler’s parents were born on Air Force bases. Veterans and military causes have always been part of his life. “I’m reading statistics around veterans and suicide and mental health, the biggest one is how 22 veterans commit suicide every day,” he says.
Pressler lost his uncle to suicide while he was in high school. “I saw the profound impact it had on my family, something that stuck with me.” Pressler wanted to look at how to approach and potentially help people deal with mental illness.
“To us (Bruni) is an inspiration; for the majority of Joe’s life, he wasn’t writing about his experiences,” Pressler says. “Everyone here in the group has a story to tell.”
Bruni came back from World War II and tried to simply move forward with his life. The G.I. Bill made it possible for him to go back to school. He worked in advertising, became a teacher in the New York City public schools and worked for the Defense Department overseas in military installations.
For Bruni, writing is a source of comfort. For other veterans, it has helped turn their lives around.
“A lot of things I write about are very personal,” says Daniel Reichwein, who attends the classes and served in the Army. “Three years ago I was homeless, no job, but I met someone at a non-profit and helped me find a job.”
The hard work paid off. Reichwein now studies public policy and business at William and Mary and uses the writing group as a mechanism to deal with his past.
Back in class Bruni reads his writing emphatically; his stories keep those who attend the workshop engaged.
‘Joe has only missed one session, and we were pretty disappointed when he got sick and couldn’t make it,’ Pressler said.
But Bruni came down with a 102-degree fever a few days before heading to Quantico, Virginia, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima on top of Mount Suribachi. His doctor advised him to stay home.
Michael Lancaster, an Army veteran and new to the writing program, didn’t know Bruni yet, but when he heard Joe was sick, he called to see how he was doing. “It’s very important we don’t lose people like Joe and gray them out in our memory.”
So the writing group created their own tribute. They made Bruni a ball cap with his name on the back and handed him a book about the South Pacific.
They also gave him a beer mug with an inscription: “Iwo Jima veteran.”