Thomas McLean of Savage writes folk songs. They are not feel-good songs. They are about the pains and losses that he experienced as an American soldier in the Vietnam War.
Those emotions were on display Wednesday night at the Howard County Central Library, as Mr. McLean and six other members of the Memorial Day Writers' Project shared songs and poetry in preparation for this weekend's Veterans Day observances.
"All he wanted was to get out of there. He hadn't been in [the] country very long," sang Mr. McLean, closing his eyes and strumming on his shiny Yamaha acoustic guitar. "When he was in an ambush that came out wrong, he was sent home in a silver box."
It was an original song called "Living Only in Others' Dreams," about a John Wayne fan who was drafted to serve in Vietnam and learned firsthand about war. The song was an example of why the Washington-area group was asked to perform in Howard County.
"I think it's very important their message be heard," said Patricia Bates, the library's adult program coordinator. "Their words are so vivid. You really feel as if you were there."
Established Memorial Day 1993, the informal writers' group has 20 to 30 members, several of them from Howard County. The group has performed at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington for Memorial Day and Veterans Day events.
At Wednesday night's performance, the audience of about two dozen sat quietly, absorbing powerful imagery about a war that left 58,000 U.S. soldiers dead, including at least 992 from Maryland and about a dozen from the county.
Vietnam has become the subject of a number of acclaimed books by veterans and nonveterans, including Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" and Michael Herr's "Dispatches." Many veterans say that writing about their experiences is cathartic, allowing them to express long-buried feelings about a war that caused so much division at home.
"When I got out of the service in 1968, I never thought too much about it," Mr. McLean told the audience. "I was busy having [two] children and raising a family. After my kids grew up, I started writing songs."
Mr. McLean served in the 127th Military Police Company in Qui Nhon, a coastal city, and fought in the 1968 Tet offensive. His feelings about the war changed while he was in the military.
"When I went into the service, I thought I was doing the right thing," he said. "By the time I left there, I thought it was probably something we shouldn't have gotten into."
Vincent "Hugs" Kaspar of Arlington, Va., who endured Viet Cong rocket attacks at his base camp in Vietnam's Central Highlands, recalled that he "went to Vietnam expecting to die."
"When I actually came home, I was stunned," he said.
He and other veterans say they still struggle against negative stereotypes. In his poem, "Headlines," Mr. Kaspar alludes to some of those prejudices.
"Tomorrow, I'd like to open the paper and see this headline on Page 1: 'Vietnam vet stands in field of flowers, singing. Birds flock around him as old friends say: He hasn't been the same since he came home from Vietnam.' "
The poet and the audience repeated the last line together.
The readings stirred memories among audience members of that turbulent time in American history. Ann Potts of Clarksville said she was in college during the war and didn't join protesters because they were called communists.
"More and more, it became evident [the war] was the wrong thing to do," she said during a discussion. "Is there ever a just war?"
"There is no such thing as a just war," answered veteran Roger Dorsey of Lancaster, Pa. "It's an oxymoron."
Mike McDonell, the project's co-founder, said: "This is one reason why we do this -- to take the romance out of war. There is no romance in war."
Howard County's Veterans Day Parade will take place today, starting at 2 p.m. from Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia and finishing at Sterrett Place.