Poetic Justice: Graduating Veteran Finds Satisfaction, Solace in Writing Verse

Kentucky Windage

Gill embraced sniping:

record for the longest kill,

trained as a medic.

Now he keeps new distances

with Tennessee-brewed smoothness.

 — from “From Soldier to Civilian,” a collection of tankas, five-line Japanese-styled poems, by Jeb Herrin

 

As a poet and military veteran, MFA candidate Jeb Herrin has found success—and solace—drawing on his five years as a medic with the third infantry division during Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn.

Herrin, who will participate in the graduate hooding ceremony on Thursday, has won awards for his poetry and had his work published several journals and an anthology. His thesis is a compilation of war poems.

More than 4,000 students, including 3,038 undergraduates, 805 graduate students, 96 in law, and 82 in veterinary medicine, will participate in commencement ceremonies this week. For full details concerning security, parking, ceremonies and speakers, see the Spring Commencement 2017 website.

Herrin enlisted in the military in 2006, after completing his first semester at UT. After his tour of duty, he returned to UT and completed his bachelor’s degree in 3.5 years. He stayed on to earn his MFA with a concentration in Creative Poetry.

“I found that as a veteran, there are two ways that people see veterans; as either a hero or as broken. And I feel like that’s not a good way to divide us, because there is a lot more of a middle ground than there is one or the other.”

Through his poetry, Herrin tries to show readers this middle ground. His work chronicles a group of fictional soldiers through training, deployment, and return to civilian life.

“A lot of it draws from the issues that I’ve dealt with,” he said. “But I’m not just trying to relate my own experiences; it also discusses issues my friends have dealt with and their friends—very real issues that I feel like need to be talked about more.”

Among the subjects Herrin broaches: the struggle veterans face to readjust to normal life after their discharge.

“You’re told this whole time that everything is easily transferable to the civilian sector,” he said, “but when you get out it’s hard to see what transfers over. A lot of people who get out of the military end up going back just because they don’t know what to do when they get out.”

Herrin said earning his MFA has been creative catharsis.

“I get to hang out with a lot of poets that have been very much like my army buddies, kind of understanding,” he said. “I can talk about stuff in a safe place.”

Herrin plans to pursue his PhD and continue to teach and write.

There are 475 veterans and more than 375 military spouses and dependents enrolled as students at UT. Seventy-four veterans are expected to be among this spring’s graduates.

The university ranks 31st among all public universities in U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 list of Best Colleges for Veterans.

CONTACT

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)