Stories From California

Veterans: “I’ll Get the Story Out!”

More than two million US Veterans live in the Los Angeles area. Most of us might not be aware of them unless we see them asking for help at an intersection. We rarely hear the stories of their lives --which are indeed influenced by military experience but really, so much more than that.


In a workshop held by The Writer’s Guild Foundation of Los Angeles, 50 veterans were given the chance to share their stories and begin the process of  writing them down. Gayle Ocheltree wrote an angry letter to a CIA operative who “in 1988 tricked me, a very young paratrooper, into an operation that was supposed to be civilian.” Once on the ground she was ordered to rescue 250 school kids out of a building under fire and was only able to save 34 students. Ocheltree was surprised that anybody outside of the military would be interested in her story. “I thought with all the death and what was going on-- that people would be revolted and not care at all.”

30-year-old Navy Officer Elizabeth Thompson is frustrated about the inaccuracies she sees when military life is portrayed on TV or in the movies. “It is really hard for a military person to look at some of the mistakes. It hurts especially when you know they do not care!” That is one of the reasons that Thompson, who will be deployed back to Afghanistan in the fall, works on her own scripts now.

Vietnam Veteran Willie Bellamy summarized his lessons from the workshop: “People do not want to hear anger, they want to hear a story.”  Bellamy, a photographer and minister, initially thought he was going to write about Nelson Mandela, whom he met in Los Angeles in 1990. During the workshop, his topic changed slightly. His story is now focused on his own personal journey--the story of a cynical photographer who found purpose in life after meeting the inspiring man from South Africa. “I’ll get the story out before I die!” he said thankfully. “A lot of people go to the grave not getting the story of their life out, a story that could have changed somebody’s life. That is not good!”