Veterans Story Contest Offers Prize Money, Professional Writing Workshop

Entries for new Veterans Story Contest Accepted through Aug. 15

By Ryan Woodard
Many military veterans and service members tell stories related to their military experience at some points in their lives.

But not all of them realize the cathartic effect of such storytelling; if they did, they might do more of it, in a more formalized fashion. In both life and in war, meaning can be found through story. It's an especially important mechanism for coping with difficult circumstances — finding meaning in something that may not make sense on the surface.

Military stories are predominantly shared verbally: current and former comrades tend to reminisce over beers and burgers, during reunions, even during active duty downtime. Others are told via the written word, via email or letters. A small percentage of these stories end up in books, some famously so.

The South Dakota Humanities Council and South Dakota State University Veterans Affairs want to bring more of these stories into the public consciousness and, perhaps more importantly, encourage veterans and current military members to express themselves in helpful ways.

That's why the two organizations partnered to create the first annual Veterans Story Contest, which encourages current and former service members to write and tell their stories. Six entrants will get cash prizes, while everyone who submits a story will have access to free advice from an award-winning veteran author.

"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 and co-organizer of the Veterans Story Contest. A veteran herself, Johnson is also the lone female Purple Heart recipient in North and South Dakota.

Robert Speirs accepts his Veterans Writing Prize for

Robert Speirs accepts his Veterans Writing Prize for "A Prayer for Brian Bradley" at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood. SDHC has partnered with SDSU to bring back a revamped contest that also allows oral stories to be submitted via video. Written and video entries are being accepted through Aug. 15; email with any questions.

Written, Video Submissions Accepted of New, Unpublished Material

Submissions — in either written or video format — will be accepted from May 10-Aug. 15 for the contest, which is open to veterans or current service members of any branch of the United States military currently living in South Dakota. It will culminate with an awards ceremony at the South Dakota Festival of Books Oct. 4-6 in Deadwood.

Submissions should consist of new, unpublished material addressing the military experience, such as recovery or lessons learned. Individuals may submit either a three- to five-minute video or up to 1,500 written words in any format — poetry, prose, fiction, creative nonfiction, etc. Entries will be judged on content, not production quality; those who send videos need not worry about submitting a movie-quality video essay that would make Stanley Kubrick proud. Rather, they'll only need smartphones and perhaps help from friends to film their stories.

Three finalists in each category, written and video, will be invited to the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood for a reading/showing of their work with U.S. Army veteran and author Brian Turner, who will announce the winners and hold a workshop specifically for veterans. Turner is one of many award-winning veteran authors who have appeared at the Festival of Books, which in the past has featured National Book Award winner Tim O'Brien and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler.

The South Dakota Humanities Council will work with the finalists to support their attendance at the Festival Oct. 5 in Deadwood. Writers do not need to attend the Festival to submit work. A representative can read the author's work on the finalist's behalf.

Each category winner will receive a cash prize of $500; second receives $300; and third, $200. In addition, every veteran who submits a story receives one free ticket to Turner's writing workshop Oct. 4 in Deadwood.

Stories should be submitted to:
Connie Johnson
Coordinator for Veterans Affairs
South Dakota State University
Brown Hall Room 134
Brookings, SD 57007

For more information or questions, contact Johnson at or (605) 688-4700.

The SDSU Veterans Affairs Office is partnering with SDHC for the 2019 Veterans Story Contest.

The SDSU Veterans Affairs Office is partnering with SDHC for the 2019 Veterans Story Contest.

Past SDHC Veterans Contests

The Veterans Story Contest is similar to the South Dakota Humanities Council Veterans Writing Prize contests held in 2016 and 2017 for military veterans and current service members who resided in South Dakota. The Veterans Writing Prize attracted more than 50 submissions during its two years, with works representing many South Dakota communities and several branches of the U.S. military.

SDHC is excited about the new partnership with SDSU for the Veterans Story Contest and the opportunity to further encourage South Dakota veterans and current service members to tell their stories either orally or in written form.

"We were overwhelmed by the many thoughtful submissions we received for our writing contests," said Jennifer Widman, Festival of Books director. "This year, we decided to expand the contest in hopes of capturing similar stories from people who may not feel confident in their ability as writers."

A statewide non-profit committed to providing meaningful programs of self-discovery that span various humanities disciplines, the South Dakota Humanities Council is eager to help veterans find meaning from their military experience by working with the ultimate tool for extracting meaning — the story.

"The word war is such an abstraction — it's almost meaningless as a word," said Vietnam-era author Tim O'Brien, who headlined the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books. "It's not until it's something specific that it takes on any meaning, and often that's through a story."

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