A Conversation with Randy Brown, aka Charlie Sherpa

Photo courtesy of Randy Brown.

 

Embedded civilian reporter Randy Brown, a.k.a. “Charlie Sherpa,” poses with Sgt. 1st Class Timmy, a therapy dog assigned to 254th Medical Detachment, Bagram Airfield, May 2011. Photo credit: U.S. Army Capt. Theresa Schillreff.

 

Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the poetry collection “Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire.” His essays, journalism, and poetry have appeared widely both on-line and in print. As “Charlie Sherpa,” he writes about military culture at: www.redbullrising.com, and about military writing at: www.aimingcircle.com. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild.

Q (Infamous Scribbler): You’ve worn a lot of hats professionally, and sometimes even masks. Can you give readers a little background before we jump into your latest project with the Military Writers Guild?

A (Charlie Sherpa): I started Middle West Press as a solo freelance writing and editing business in 2003. I had previously been an editor of national newsstand and trade magazines—as well as an editor at small metro and community newspapers. In 2015, I reorganized the business as a limited liability corporation, and extended operations into independent publishing. We’ve published three books so far—two poetry collections and a collection of journalism—with an objective of publishing from 1 to 4 books annually.

While our mission statement focuses on finding unique stories and voices of the American Middle West, the Military Writers Guild “Why We Write” anthology project stems from a parallel interest in finding new ways to bridge the “civil-military gap”—the lack of mutual empathy and understanding often present between civilians and those with military experiences. The latter can include service members, veterans, family members, contractors, and more.

Q: The project’s call for submissions seeks stories of “how individual military-writing practitioners promote professional and/or popular discourse,” which is a theme after my own heart. Talk to me a little about where this theme came from?

A: When I was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard, I started military blog called called “Red Bull Rising.” I was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, in what was later billed as the largest call-up of Iowa troops since World War II. While I didn’t work in public affairs, my duty position potentially involved blogging and social media. I wanted to learn by doing, so I started an off-duty blog under a pseudonym, based on a nickname: “Charlie Sherpa.”

In my early childhood, I grew up in an active-duty U.S. Air Force family. I remembered my mom and me recording messages to my dad, on these little reel-to-reel tapes. He was a navigator, then flying in and out of Vietnam. When I was in college, my dad was still flying as a reservist, and sent letters home while deployed to Operation Desert Shield.

My personal blog was originally intended to be my gift to my kids—like those tapes and letters from Dad had been to me. They were too young to understand why Daddy was leaving them to go to Afghanistan for a year, but I hoped they’d want to hear my stories when they got older.

In the meantime, I expected that my blog might entertain my citizen-soldier buddies. What I didn’t expect was that I’d get enthusiastic responses from wives, husbands, parents and relatives of soldiers, thanking me for explaining what was going on in our training—and in their loved ones’ interior lives.

I found myself writing not only for my kids, but for everyone. I was bridging the gap, before I knew there was one.

Q: So where does the Military Writers Guild anthology fit in? What sorts of stories you are hoping to receive?

A: Fast-forward to present day: Much to my surprise, I’m now longer just a magazine editor and writer. I’m an award-winning blogger, a military veteran, and even a published war poet. The greatest joy has been in finding a new tribe—finding people like you—who are also out there, telling military stories.

I’m not talking about “expressive” or “therapeutic” writing, although that can be a motivation for some. (I always joke that writing can be therapeutic, but it sure as heck ain’t therapy.) I’m talking about writing for literary merit—writing for the love of words, and great stories, and new ideas. Stuff that can change the world, or other people’s perceptions of it. If you’re lucky, you even get paid for it.

Through organizations like the Military Writers Guild, I’ve been fortunate to encounter other practitioners—novelists, essayists, historians, think-tankers, policy wonks, Sci-Fi writers—who ground their work in military themes, topics, and milieu. From poetry to policy papers to pulp fiction, we’re all doing similar work—sharing military stories and exploring possibilities for our society’s present and future—in wonderfully diverse ways. Broadly defined, military writing is a Big Tent—one that’s “General Purpose, Extra Large.”

And many of us are writing in more than one category.

In my Army days, I often found myself assigned to “lessons-learned” roles—documenting and sharing stories of organizational successes, and sometimes failures. The idea was that everyone has something to teach, based on his or her experiences.

So, in the Military Writers Guild’s “Why We Write” anthology, I’d hope to see stories of how and why writing professionals apply their skills, regardless of genre or objective, in capturing and communicating military stories. What inspires them? What storytelling techniques do they use? What great research finds have they discovered?

I expect we’ll be surprised. I expect we’ll hear from writers of military history and humor and doctrine and theory and practice and things we’ve even never heard of. It should be awesome!

Q: This is not your first project to solicit and spotlight the writing of other veterans. I’m currently reading my way through “Reporting for Duty,” a 668-page collection of military public affairs reporting from Afghanistan. How does that relate to the your work as a publisher, and to the Military Writers Guild anthology?

A: When my buddies got back from their 2010-2011 deployment to Afghanistan—I visited them briefly as an embedded civilian reporter, toward the end of their time there—we noticed that all the great public affairs reporting that the brigade had done was in danger of getting lost on the Internet. This was publicly released information—stories that had previously been published on division and brigade websites—but the public-facing websites were rotting away. Different units take over the mission downrange, websites change and disappear.

In short, we worried about a small-scale “Digital Dark Ages.”

As a former print-media guy, I suggested that one answer was an old-school trade paperback, one that could be a useful, permanent resource on the shelf of every family historian and county library. In many ways, the “Reporting for Duty” project was an exercise in preserving and promoting Midwestern history.

It was also an exercise in military history. For those interested, I wrote a lessons-learned article about it, which won an award from Small Wars Journal.

Middle West Press LLC has previously published two collections of military-themed poetry from Midwestern authors: My own “Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poetry from Inside the Wire,” and Eric Chandler’s “Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love and War.” Those helped us validate our production processes, in a relatively low-risk context. In poetry, if you sell more than 100 copies of a book of poetry, you’re near the top percentile. If you sell a thousand, you’re a lyrical rock star.

The size of the “Reporting for Duty” project validated our capacities and capabilities in the production of larger work: Collecting, curating, editing, indexing. So, when the board of the Military Writers Guild wanted to illustrate the breadth of what “military writing” encompasses, we knew that we could deliver.

The great thing is, they’ve opened it to non-members as well! If you’re working and writing on military topics, themes, characters, stories—we’d love to hear from you!

We’re planning to launch the anthology parallel to the 30th anniversary celebration of the War, Literature & the Arts Journal. There’s a conference scheduled Sept. 20-21, 2018 in Colorado Springs, Colo. I hope to see a lot of my fellow military writers there!

Photo courtesy of Randy Brown.

Q: How does this project fit into Middle West Press’s overall publication schedule?

A: We’re planning to slowly grow production over the next couple of years. We’ll looking to publish another Midwestern poetry collection in 2018—not necessarily from another veteran, although I suppose that might make a nice progression or series. It would really be great to publish a collection from a woman veteran and/or person of color. There is a growing number of published collections from 21st century war poets, but few from non-white cishet perspectives. The military is like the American Middle West, and vice versa—our uniformity camouflages our true diversity. To paraphrase Walt Whitman: We contain multitudes.

We’re also looking at a themed war poetry anthology—announcement of that project should take place in January—and another, non-Midwestern, mostly non-fiction military anthology. I say “mostly,” because there may be a way to include flash-fiction and poetry. We’re still play-testing concepts for that one. Prospective contributors writers can stay tuned at Middle West Press website here: https://middlewestpress.submittable.com/submit

Q: Anything to add?

A: Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you and your readers! The call for submissions to the “Why We Write” Military Writers Guild anthology is here: https://middlewestpress.submittable.com/submit/99751/call-for-military-writing-essays-on-craft-why-we-write-anthology

And, remember: You don’t have to be a member to contribute to the anthology! More information on the Military Writers Guild is here:

Website: www.militarywritersguild.org

Facebook: www.facebook.com/milwritersguild/

Twitter: @MilWritersGuild

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