Study of Veteran Literature Guides English Grad to New Opportunities

Earlier this year, the University of Oregon announced it would observe Veterans Day as a holiday, giving students, faculty and staff time to reflect on what this holiday means to them. 

With its roots in Armistice Day, which celebrates the end of World War I, Veterans Day in the U.S. honors military veterans who have served in the United States Armed Forces.  

To highlight the student-veteran experience in the English major at UO, UO English is featuring Michael Ogata (BA English 2021) who served in the U.S. Army before arriving at the University of Oregon. His story invites us all to reflect on the experiences of student-veterans. 

Michael Ogata grew up asking his grandfather about his experiences fighting in World War II as a Japanese-American in the 442nd Infantry Regiment. While many Japanese-Americans in WWII were interned, some were drafted into the armed services. Ogata recalls being fascinated by his grandfather’s sense of humor when telling these stories. 

“He had to dig a foxhole once to survive an artillery bombardment, but he said it was some of the most fun he's ever had,” Ogata said. “I grew up hearing these stories and then learning more about famous medal of honor recipients.” 

In high school, Ogata was a sprinter and went on to coach sprinting after graduating high school. From there, he earned his Associates Degree in English from College of the Canyons outside of LA. It was here that he took a creative writing class that sparked his interest. But in planning his career, Ogata looked to the U.S. military for his next step. 

Ogata went on to join the military in 2015. He was deployed to Iraq in 2017 with the 82nd Airborne Division as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, finalizing the push of the Islamic State out of Iraq. This experience, for Ogata, would prove invaluable for his future studies. Through the analysis and study of veteran literature, Ogata would carve out a unique, valuable niche as an English major. 

Upon leaving the military in 2019, Ogata only applied to one school: the University of Oregon. 

“I had the opportunity with the GI bill to go to any school I wanted,” Ogata said. “And having been a track and field athlete and coach, there was only one school I wanted to go to — even though I knew I wasn’t going to compete.” 

When Ogata discovered UO also had a creative writing minor, he knew it was going to be a good fit. As he started taking English classes at UO, he began making connections between his own lived experiences and his classwork. 

“I never thought I would enjoy Chaucer, but it was actually a very fun and engaging class,” Ogata recalled. “And I learned that Chaucer was a veteran and a prisoner of war during his time. His work is actually part of this giant collective of veteran literature that I was able to explore more through the English department.” 

This exposure to literature written by veterans fueled Ogata’s academic and creative writing projects. By studying veteran literature, Ogata picked up on themes like survivor’s guilt, satire, and combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder, in everything from Shakespeare to Hemingway to Tim O’Brian.  

“[Literature written by veterans] is an ever-evolving genre that people just don't realize a lot of the time,” Ogata said. “I've grown up exposed to these stories, but then it wasn't until myself becoming a veteran where I realized how much veterans have influenced literature.” 

While at the UO English department, Ogata fine-tuned his writing and critical analysis skills. 

“You know, there's a lot of talk about what is the point of English as a major, as a degree?” Ogata said. "It’s actually one of the most versatile degrees you can apply anywhere. I can write a memo. I can help clean up scripts or speeches or any of that.”  

As for his creative writing classes, Ogata developed his voice and interests. 

“A lot of stories from veterans aren't in the mainstream,” Ogata said. “I started to wonder how could I write about this? You know, could I put my story out there, but then also related to like my grandpa's story and then just the overall story of that battalion.” 

But, as any writer knows, the writing process isn’t just about inspiration and compelling subject matter. 

“For my own personal work, submitting writing, creatively writing trying to get published...I know how to interpret feedback and critique, and I know how to implement it rather than take it personally." 

After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Ogata made the decision to work on an application to the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.  

When Ogata isn’t working on his application materials, he is also involved in helping fellow veterans while trying to increase awareness of the difficulties many veterans face in their day-to-day lives. 

“There's a lot of talk about helping veterans,” Ogata shared. “But not a lot of action, at least from the upper echelons of elected officials. There's a lot of lip service. But that's reforming.” 

Ogata also noticed the ways students interacted with him on campus upon hearing that he was a veteran.  

“I just want people to kind of give veterans support,” he said. “There's a lot of stereotypes out there and misconceptions that it hurts to see...There are students who find out I'm an infantryman, somebody who signed up to be in combat, and the student changes their attitude. That's fair. But at the same time, I'm still a student, still an American, still a human being, you know?” 

While it seems like an impossible feat to change attitudes and perceptions towards veterans, Ogata stresses the importance of students — and veterans — to seek mental health services provided by the University of Oregon. 

“Use mental health services,” he said. “My biggest struggle after getting out was getting mental health services. It's the only reason I've turned out as well adjusted as I am now.” 

For qualifying individuals, the Eugene Vet Center offers a variety of free mental health services.  

Ogata urges that whether you are a veteran or not, on-campus counseling services through University Health Services is an incredibly helpful tool that students, staff, and faculty can utilize.  

When asked about the advice he would give to English majors or anyone considering studying English, Ogata imparted some time-honored wisdom. 

“Do your work!”