2019 Veterans Story Contest: The Winners

U.S. Army veteran Stephan Randall of Sioux Falls speaks at the VFW during a ceremony for the Veterans Story Contest at the 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books. He was declared the winner of the writing category for his essay "Mountain Climber."

Randall, Sebbey Win Writing, Video Categories

The 2019 Veterans Story Contest invited past and current service members who live in South Dakota to submit their stories in written or video formats. The resulting entries were memorable.

U.S. Army veteran Stephan Randall of Sioux Falls was declared the winner for his essay "Mountain Climber" while U.S. Marine Corps veteran Alex Sebbey's "I'm Scared Too" won the video portion. Sebbey was a resident of Sioux Falls at the time of the contest and has since moved to Triangle, Va. Both received $500 for their first-place efforts.

Winners were announced during a special ceremony last month at the 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood featuring acclaimed U.S. Army veteran writer Brian Turner. The contest was created by the South Dakota Humanities Council and South Dakota State University Veterans Affairs to encourage veterans to share their stories and process their war experiences.

Acclaimed U.S. Army veteran writer Brian Turner teaches a workshop at the 2019 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood. Turner also announced winners of the Veterans Story Contest. 

"There are many benefits for veterans to share their story through creative writing or any other humanities driven experience that can encourage healing, release or support others," said Connie Johnson, coordinator for Veterans Affairs at SDSU. Johnson is also the lone female Purple Heart recipient in North and South Dakota.

Every veteran who entered received a free ticket to Turner's writing workshop; additionally, finalists were invited to a reading/showing of their work during the Festival. U.S. Air Force veteran Michael Welsh of Yankton received second place for his essay "Last Sortie of the Day," while third place essay went to U.S. Navy veteran Douglas Perret Starr of Sioux Falls for "Freeing Prisoners of War." Second place winner in the video category was Shai Mason, currently serving in the U.S. Air Force and based at Ellsworth, for "Veterans' Story Video."

Below are Sebbey's winning video and Randall's winning essay.

I'm Scared Too

By Alex Sebbey
U.S. Marine Corps, July 1999-July 2003

Mountain Climber

By Stephen Randall
U.S. Army, June 1966-January 1969

Steve was an army combat artist in 1968. His sketches and paintings were visual "stories" told from personal experience in the field. Some of the stories were obvious — what was happening and why. Some of them required thought and reflection — and maybe you had to have been there.

He was assigned to Fire Support Base Buell in Tay Ninh Province on September 12 and caught a ride out from 25th Infantry Division Headquarters in the morning. Buell provided support to our outlook post at the top of a nearby mountain, Nui Ba Den, the highest ground for miles around and a strategic military position. We had to have the high ground, and so did the enemy. That was the "story" to sketch or paint.

Sometimes Steve could capture a story with just a few strokes of a pen or pencil in a sketch quickly drawn on location or from memory — simple scenes like a soldier sitting on his helmet, writing a letter with great intent. Why? Steve didn't know, but someone looking at that sketch later will remember why, and then what happened, and so it will be a very personal memory for them.

Sometimes he sketched a story about what he saw where he was at the time: watching a MEDCAP doctor smoking a pipe while pulling teeth, or feeding an ammo belt up to the machine gunner so that it wouldn't twist coming out of the bag while the Lieutenant called for artillery support, or passing by a farmer turning his water buffalo at the end of a rice paddy so he could feed his family even though there was a war going on around him.

At first, on September 12, there wasn't much at the base that seemed important for Steve to paint — not on the surface. The sandbags, corrugated sheet metal, latrines, barbed wire and tarmac were pretty much standard inventory. Standing on the tarmac, he could see an imposing landform in the hazy distance that was the high ground, the mountain, Nui Ba Den. The air was hot and heavy, and it was starting to rain. A Huey gunship with rocket pods was parked not 50 meters away, just at the bottom edge of his view to the mountain.

A mechanic standing nearby wiped his hands with a rag, looked in the same direction and said, "You know, it changes hands every so often. The outpost, I mean. We have it. Our guys get overrun and then the VC and NVA have it. Then we go up and take it back from them. And then it all happens again and again — on days like this when we can't fly."

As he turned and walked away, he said, "They're catching hell today."

And so, there it was — the story to paint — the gunship sitting on the tarmac, doors open, pods loaded, rotors sagging and tied down in the rain, going nowhere, with Nui Ba Den in the same view and fierce fighting at the top of it even then. "Mountain Climber," a painting, a story, and maybe you had to have been there. Steve was. There are others who most certainly were, and they will remember, too.

Find out More About SDHC Veterans Programming and Festival Authors

The Veterans Story Contest was inspired by the South Dakota Humanities Council’s established partnerships with veterans' reading and writing groups. Turner is another in a long line of award-winning veteran authors, including National Book Award winner Tim O'Brien and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler, who’ve been featured at the Festival of Books as part of SDHC programming created to support and encourage veteran writers.  

Interested in reading more about veteran authors who've appeared at the South Dakota Festival of Books? Click below for blog posts featuring interviews with Turner and past Festival authors Tim O'Brien, Robert Olen Butler and more.