Warrior Wire: The Art of War

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As a writer, I’ve always been incredibly jealous of people who are talented in the visual arts. That old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words? It’s totally true. Plus, people are more likely to stop for a few seconds to look at a photo or painting or drawing than they are to actually read a thousand-word article. This is especially true in my line of work, writing for a magazine known for its (NSFW) photos, which I’m sure garner a lot more looks than all the words I write on the pages between the photos. So, of course, after my article about veteran writers, it seemed only natural to follow it up with a story about veteran artists.

I don’t quite remember how I first learned about the Combat Paper Project, but I know that right after I heard about it, I couldn’t stop hearing about it. Several people I interviewed for my article on Warrior Writers mentioned it, and then it was mentioned again in the documentary Poster Girl (which you can watch on Netflix), and, in fact, there was a separate short documentary about the project, Iraq Paper Scissors, in the DVD bonus features of that film. Because, of course. It was clearly the universe’s way of telling me what I should write about next.

When I started reading up on the program and learning more about it, one of the first thoughts I had was, “This is f*ckin’ cool!” Because it is. But I also noticed that a lot of the names mentioned in other articles about Combat Paper were familiar to me from reading about veteran activists over the years. So I was doubly excited to get to work on the story. I’d get to pick the brains of talented artists, and talk to people whom I’d been reading about for the past couple of years.

A lot of the talk about the Combat Paper Project was about the cathartic aspect of it, and how it helps people heal. But what I thought was especially awesome about it was how it was producing unique works of art. While some of the men and women who participate do so for more emotional reasons, the fact is, a lot of the participants are incredibly talented artists, which I think gets overlooked a lot. Most stories about veterans’ groups like this one get bogged down by talk of PTSD and military sexual trauma and all the other things that go wrong that make people turn to art to heal. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Art is healing, both for the artist and, at times, for the viewer. But that’s not the whole story.

One of the artists I interviewed, Eli Wright, who helps lead the Combat Paper workshops at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey, told me that he wondered if people would have considered him an artist if he weren’t a veteran. He’s also not sure he really considers himself an artist because that’s not how he makes his living. The work he’s most known for is a piece called “Open Wound,” which can easily be seen as a statement about his post-war feelings, and he says that more subtle pieces don’t get the kind of attention “Open Wound” does, even though some of them may be better. Then there’s Jesse Albrecht, who has no trouble calling himself an artist. He has his MFA, shows his work frequently in workshop and gallery settings, and has taught art at the college level. His work with Combat Paper is more about the art than anything else.

The cathartic aspects of art shouldn’t be entirely ignored, however. Drew Matott, who helped start the Combat Paper Project, started the Peace Paper Project not too long ago, which focuses on helping people heal from traumatic events through art. Veteran artist Jon Turner, who also worked with Combat Paper for several years, helps teach the Peace Paper veterans’ workshops. The focus there is more on the healing aspects of the artistic process, though they certainly produce some beautiful art, too.

Whether you prefer to look at the created pieces as art or as a means of finding peace, it’s worth checking out the art and artists who make up the Combat Paper Project. You can see more of their art here and here, and you can find out their workshop schedules here and here. And you can check out the Peace Paper Project here. And, of course, you can read my article about the Combat Paper Project, which appeared in the March 2014 issue of Penthouse, by clicking right over here.

Warrior Wire: Fightin’ Words

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If you read my last post, you may have noticed a sidebar in my article “The Write Stuff.” In it, I gave a short rundown of five of my favorite veteran-written books. I chose five because that’s what I knew could fit in the space I was given, but there are so many more good books, and I want to share those with you, too. So here’s a little bit about how I chose the books that made the cut, as well as some further recommended reading:

During the earlier years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I didn’t read books or watch movies about the wars. I devoured the news like a junkie, and my college roommates suffered through lots of CNN and stacks upon stacks of newspapers. My cousin, a Marine, did three tours to Iraq, so I was always a little worried about him and didn’t want books or movies to make me even more tense. I’d always been a big news junkie, though, so that I could handle.

My cousin had just finished his last tour when I got my first Warrior Wire assignment, and my editor has asked me to interview Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I knew of him, and I knew he’d written a book, so I read his book before our interview. It was easier now that my cousin was home. I loved Paul’s book, so I sought out more.

In true Jen fashion, I bought dozens of books, more than I could read in any reasonable amount of time, and have continued to do so. If someone I interview recommends a book, I pick it up. If I read a good review of a book, it’s in. If a book lands on my desk at Penthouse for review or I stumble upon one during my annual trip to Book Expo America, it becomes part of my required reading, too. So in the past few years, I’ve acquired quite a collection. I’ve read about a third of my collection now, maybe a little more. (I read other things, too, and I can only spend so many hours with my nose in a book.)

There are so many great books out there these days. Especially about our most recent wars. There are books about policy and practice, there are memoirs, there are accounts from journalists and photographers. I’ve found books that I love and books that I only kind of like, and books that even people who have no interest in the news or the wars can read and understand (and I’m not above forcing people to read books for their own damn good). There are also more books than ever out there about and by veterans.

My all-time favorite, and the first war book I ever read, is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, about the Vietnam War.

Here’s a list of my favorite Iraq/Afghanistan books by vets:

Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective
(Paul Rieckhoff)
My dad said the a lot of the scenes were reminiscent of his time in Vietnam and he could really relate to it. My first and favorite Iraq war memoir.

My Share of the Task: A Memoir
(Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Ret.)
Heavy on the policy and so full of jargon that you might have some trouble if you’re not fluent in military lingo. That said, it’s also got some great humorous moments, and was a far more enjoyable read than I’d ever anticipated.

Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War
(editors Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher)
The first fiction I read about the recent wars. Absolutely superb read. It introduced me to some great writers I may not have discovered otherwise and really made me think.

An Angel From Hell: Real Life on the Front Lines
(Ryan A. Conklin)
If you watched MTV’s Real World: Brooklyn a few years ago, you may remember Conklin as one of the housemates that season. His book, like his role on the show, is goofy and a little immature, but it has its deeper moments. It’s a good book, but I chose it for my article in large part because it’s a book that a lot of younger readers will find accessible because of their familiarity with Conklin from his television appearances.

The Yellow Birds
(Kevin Powers)
War fiction by a war vet. This was probably my favorite book that I read in 2013, about war or otherwise. Whether you’re interested in war/veterans or not, any fan of good writing must read this.

Fobbit
(David Abrams)
This is the Catch-22 of the 21st century. It’s a hilarious take on life on base in a war zone. I laughed out loud frequently, which definitely made my fellow subway riders curious about the book.

Sergeant Rex: The Unbreakable Bond Between a Marine and His Military Working Dog
(Mike Dowling)
First of all, it’s about a dog. What’s not to love? But really, it was a great, quick read. And, yes, the man-and-his-dog story is heartwarming as hell. It’s one of the more sentimental war memoirs, but also one of the easiest to get into. You can’t not like this book.

My War: Killing Time in Iraq
(Colby Buzzell)
Buzzell has written several articles for Penthouse‘s Warrior Wire column, so of course his book made my list. But it’s also a good book. It’s a little non-linear, being based on the blog he kept during the war, but his voice is familiar and likable. He references a lot of punk music and frequently points out how he doesn’t necessarily fit the soldier mold (whatever that may be these days), and reading his book felt like binge-reading emails home from my cousin, so it won me over.

Honorable mentions:

Thank You for Your Service
(David Finkel)
Not by a veteran, but an embedded reporter. It’s an honest look at what happens when soldiers come home with PTSD and TBI. It will totally break your heart a half-dozen times, but you’ll be all the better for it.

War
(Sebastian Junger)
Even people who have no interest in war will be able to get lost in this book by one of my favorite writers. He skips all the acronyms and over-thought explanations of why and how and simply tells a good story.

Generation Kill
(Evan Wright)
If you hate books, you can watch the HBO miniseries
of the same name. It’s as close to the book as anything I’ve seen, and doesn’t require you to read the book before you watch it. But if you pick the book, you won’t be sorry. Wright has no shame in pointing out all the times he was scared, or discussing the nitty-gritty details of war, like where you go to the bathroom when you’re camped out in the middle of nowhere in the desert.

If there are any books you think I should read, please leave me a comment, tweet me, or email me.

Warrior Wire: The Write Stuff

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Warrior Writers is an organization I first learned about after looking up veterans’ groups that needed volunteers. I got busy not long after contacting them, but I subscribed to their newsletter and followed what they were doing. Then, last year, when I was trying to come up with articles to pitch, I remembered them and reached out. I was excited to profile an organization full of writers, which I thought was an incredible addition the non-profit scene, but I was even more thrilled when I saw the list of members.

When I wrote my first Warrior Wire article, “War Songs,” back in 2008, I tried to get in touch with Garett Reppenhagen, who’d penned the Bouncing Souls’ song “Letter from Iraq.” Unfortunately, I could only find an old email address, and we failed to connect. I’d had him in the back of my mind ever since, and I kept wondering if I’d ever find another article to write where I could include him. Well, four years later, I finally got my chance, because he happened to be a participant in Warrior Writers.

Also on the list was Geoff Millard, whom I’d interviewed for that very first article I wrote. He’d been a really good interview, and we’d had a great chat back then, so I was looking forward to reconnecting. He didn’t disappoint.

One of the coolest things about this article, though, was getting to talk to these people one writer to another. Writing about writers was easy. And daunting. Because these guys (and ladies) would know if I fucked up. Still, it was nice to talk to them about how they get their ideas and inspiration and what drove them to writing. Some of them want to write professionally, while others are satisfied with keeping their journals private. Some are artists or writing coaches or have degrees in English literature, and others are volunteers or work in non-profits. What they all have in common—and what I share with them—is a need to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be) to express their feelings, either for themselves or for the world to read.

Since writing about Warrior Writers, I’ve discovered other similar writing groups, like Words After War, Veterans Writing Project, and Veterans Writing Workshop. Each has its own focus and goals, but they’re all equally worth checking out.

To read my article about Warrior Writers, from the February 2014 issue of Penthouse, you can click the image above.

Pet Tweets: Taylor Vixen

0212 TAYLOR VIXENClick image to open PDF.

I met Taylor Vixen when she was in the running for Penthouse Pet of the Year way back in 2009. She came up to the Penthouse offices with Veronica Ricci and Ryan Keely, and I interviewed them for my old “Pet Projects” column. When she became Pet of the Year a few weeks later, she became one of my most-interviewed Pets. She was everywhere, doing everything, and it was my job to ask her about it. Not that I have any complaints about that. Taylor is one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever worked with. She’s so cute and funny, and we joked around a lot and goofed off and spent way more time on the phone than was necessary for my job. Once, when she was in New York, she came to the office to hang out, and we shared my desk for a few hours. This confused my coworkers, sure, but it also made them jealous. Who wouldn’t want this petite Pet sitting next to them while they worked?

Taylor was also the inaugural Pet to do the Girls of Penthouse “Pet Tweets” Q&A with me. We had a lot of fun with that. Her fans sent in so many questions, and I snuck a few of my own into the mix, too. You can read the article that ran in the January 2012 issue of Girls of Penthouse, or click here to read the full Q&A, which ran on the Girls of Penthouse Twitter account.

Pet Tweets: Emily Addison

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I don’t officially have a favorite Penthouse Pet, because that would just be wrong. There are girls I’m close with and who are some of my best friends, and there are girls who are super easy to work with, so they get bonus points. But I don’t have a favorite. That said, if I were going to pick a favorite, Emily Addison would definitely be in the running. In addition to being all the things I desire professionally—smart, funny, and really easy to work with—she’s also one of the girls I have a legit girl crush on. She’s incredibly beautiful, and every time she graces the pages of one of our magazines, I’m stunned by how good she looks. As a girl, I find it horribly unfair that she always looks so damn good.

I’m not the only one smitten with Miss Addison, though. When Penthouse partnered with Kelly.X to do a special poster for our readers, Kelly chose to paint a classic shot of Emily. She said she’d gone through dozens of photos of our models and something about Emily spoke to her. That’s probably the coolest compliment I can imagine, and Emily was definitely worthy of the honor.

Emily also happens to be one of the girls who’s been subjected to the Girls of Penthouse “Pet Tweets” Q&A. You can read the version of the interview that appeared in the March 2012 issue of Girls of Penthouse, or you can read the full Q&A—including content that was published directly to Twitter—by clicking here.

Warrior Wire: Calendar Girl

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Click the picture to read the full article. 

Having written a handful of Warrior Wire columns, I was beginning to think that I’d always end up a little depressed from the work, and that my readers would always be a bit down after reading my articles. Of all the articles I’ve written—both those that have been published and those that are with my editor right now—I’m fairly certain that this is the only one with a truly upbeat tone. Writing about unemployment, poor health care, and burn pits is obviously not cheerful work, but even writing about veteran artists and writers has its down moments. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about their post-traumatic stress, physical injuries, difficulties adjusting to civilian life, and the myriad other problems that come from serving in the military and going to war. That’s not to say there haven’t been bright spots in all my reporting, because there certainly have been, but there’s a lot of pain, too. Writing about Gina Elise and Pin-Ups for Vets, however, was the most cheerful experience I could have imagined.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Pin-Ups for Vets first came to my attention when a coworker spotted a video about the project on AOL. After watching the clip, I was a fan, and I knew I had to interview Gina. I was lucky enough to get a response within minutes of sending my request, and I had Gina on the phone first thing the following Monday. And while Monday-morning interviews can easily go bad, there was nothing but cheer coming through the wires when I talked to Gina.

The thing about Gina is that she’s happy. She’s smart, funny, sweet as peaches, and genuinely excited by the work she does. And the work she does is truly inspiring. If you read my article, you’ll get a good idea of why I’m so smitten with Gina and her Pin-Ups for Vets project, but I’m not the only one. In the course of writing the article, I asked for quotes from Gina’s fans, and I was bombarded. Everyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting her or receiving one of her calendars has something nice to say. I don’t think I’ve ever read so many positive comments about anything, ever. So rather than say anything further, I’m going to let Gina’s fans do the talking for me:

Nick Palmisciano, founder and CEO, Ranger Up: “What makes Pin-Ups for Vets special is Gina’s personal touch. When our troops are injured, especially when they are away from friends and family, it’s important for them to know someone cares. Without that human link, it’s very easy for a guy to start thinking no one cares, and this can lead to depression, which is a pandemic right now. When they see Gina and how genuine she is, they light up. The calendars she leaves with them are reminders that there is someone out there who not only cares about them but is working to make their lives better. For some guys, that spark of humanity can make all the difference. Plus, you know, the pictures are really hot.”

Retired Master Sergeant Jim Majors, US Air Force: “Pin-Ups for Vets is such an amazing program! The way that our veterans have been treated, mistreated and even forgotten is appalling and embarrassing, to say the least. The smiles Gina leaves behind at every VA hospital she visits are truly heartwarming. Having met her in person, I saw a tiny piece of what the hospitalized vets must see during those visits. That she is so devoted to helping our vets is . . . well, there are not enough words for it.”

Technical Sergeant Chris Short, US Air Force: “Any piece of home is a morale boost. When you’re away from not only your family and friends but the entirety of your culture for months upon months, you long for reminders of what and who you’re fighting for. Pin-Ups for Vets provides a healthy reminder of why you’re out there doing what you’re doing. Gina always supported me and my teams, and she continues to support me now that I’m out and in the VA system.”

Sergeant First Class Toby Nunn, US Army: “Sometimes the most simple gestures can have the most profound impact. A picture from home can transport a soldier mentally and emotionally and remind them why they are in the fight. Gina’s Pin-Ups for Vets does this exact thing, whether she is sending her awesome calendars overseas to us when we’re at the top of our game or visiting us in the hospital when we’re hurting and at the bottom. The calendars and visits are tokens of her support and make our lives better. She’s a vision of beauty, and her taking the time to make our lives better and brighter reminds us why we’re in the fight and gives us a reason to believe in our country and the great folks back home.”

Retired Master Sergeant Phillip M. Parker, US Air Force: “Gina is every bit as beautiful inside as she is on the outside, and she is quite possibly one of the kindest, most caring people I’ve ever met. The Pin-Ups for Vets program has brightened the lives of countless vets and troops downrange. I feel greatly privileged to have been able to meet and help someone who has made such an impact on the vets in the VA hospitals, and I feel blessed to be able to call her my friend.”

Retired First Sergeant Troy Steward, US Army: “Pin-Ups for Vets is a great example of patriotism at its best. Gina is a great American who took the gifts God gave her—her looks and personality—and is using them to not only lift the spirits of sick and wounded veterans, but also using her popularity to raise  money to provide rehab equipment for their long-term recovery. Pin-Ups for Vets not only helps veterans from all generations, but it plays on the sexy but tasteful nose art of World War II. I think that’s why Gina’s style is appealing to such a wide range of veterans, including women.”

Retired Sergeant First Class Michael Schlitz: “With the War on Terror going on for the last 11 years on multiple fronts, I feel the American people sometimes forget about veterans of past conflicts. We have tons of World War II and Vietnam veterans receiving care in different VA hospitals, but often times, “support the troops” non-profits only focus on wounded Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom veterans like myself. Gina and Pin-Ups for Vets focus on all veterans from every era, location and branch. This is a worthy organization giving back to those who deserve so much more. I am not the only person she has touched through her organization. If you really want to see the good she is doing, then follow her on Facebook, go to her webpage or sign up for her newsletter. Look at the pictures of the smiles on veterans’ faces. This will show the true impact of what Pin-Ups for Vets is doing. Look at the photos of the deployed troops and you can see that, for a moment, at least, they don’t care about the war, they’re just happy that someone at home is thinking about them. I wish more Americans were like Gina and were doing work like Pin-Ups for Vets. Most of all, I hope people continue to support her and the organization. I know I appreciate the hard work and effort she puts into it. It’s a great feeling to know that there are people who care that you served your nation. Not all heroes wear uniforms, and Gina is a hero in my book for everything she has done for my brothers and sisters in arms.”

NSFW: The Road Less Traveled, Guilty Pleasures, and More

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As a writer and editor at Penthouse, one of my responsibilities is handling reviews of adult novelties (aka sex toys) and interviews with adult film stars (aka porn stars). Not only do I write these fun features for Penthouse, our flagship magazine, but I also do reviews and interviews for our sister publications, Penthouse Forum and The Girls of Penthouse.

While my reviews in Penthouse are fairly infrequent, I write a column for Penthouse Forum called “Guilty Pleasures” that runs in every issue. Each column includes reviews of five or six new products (or older products that I think are still completely relevant). I write about everything from vibrators and dildos to male masturbators and penis pumps, BDSM equipment, erotic books, and everything in between. Somehow, after five years, I still find new things that I find worthy of sharing with my readers, too.

In addition, I frequently interview everyone’s favorite Penthouse Pets for the magazines. Again, my interviews in Penthouse are infrequent, but in each issue of The Girls of Penthouse I put together the “Pet Tweets” feature, which includes a dozen or questions from me and the girls’ fans (who submit their questions via Twitter, hence the column title). An addition 20-30 questions are answered exclusively on the Girls of Penthouse Twitter account. It’s fun to see what the fans are interested in knowing, and it’s always fun to ask the girls all the random questions I have. And the ladies of Penthouse never fail to amaze, amuse or confuse me with their responses.

While most of these fun adult features I write are available only in the print editions of the magazines and not on their respective websites, I’ll be sharing them here on my site as well. You can head on over to my Erotica & Sexuality page to check out past interviews and reviews, and then check back every month for updates.