Mo. soldier turns letters from Iraq into book

Monday, February 11, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Shane Bernskoetter didn't send home generic e-mails and letters while he served in Iraq a few years ago. Rather, he provided details and emotions of day-to-day life of a soldier in harm's way.

Surviving mortar fire in downtown Baghdad or giving aid to Iraqis in need, he shared details sometimes so rich the reader could be transported into that experience.

"His letters were so expressive and detailed," said Wayne Bernskoetter, his father. "You felt like you were there."

Those words have not languished in computer hard drives or just been printed out in his mother's eight three-ring binders.

"Surviving Twilight: A Soldier's Chronicle of Daily Life in Iraq" is a condensed version of the experiences he wrote home about while serving with the 245th Maintenance Company in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II.

"I never intended to write a book; it was a byproduct when I came home," said Shane, a Wardsville, Mo., native and the oldest son of Wayne and Donna Bernskoetter. "I wanted to provide a service while I was there."

Shane said he thought it better for people to know exactly what was going on. So in an objective, journalistic fashion, he would send home monthly PowerPoint presentations complete with audio, video and personal accounts.

"You'd read some and think this is so scary," Wayne said. "[But] it wasn't too much; it made me feel better to know exactly what was going on."

Donna said she has kept every letter and every picture he has sent since he joined in the spring of 2001. At that time, there was no fear of war. Then, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 fell on his graduation from Advanced Individualized Training. He was deployed overseas in late 2003.

As a parent, "You can't worry," Donna said. "You say I know God has a purpose and [Shane[']s] going to touch the lives of others.' If you don't believe in a higher purpose, you'd just sit around and wring your hands."

His parents relied on their family pillars of patriotism and faith. And Shane's frequent, detailed e-mails gave his family and friends specific reasons to pray. One woman, Lois Berendzen, was inspired to request a Peace Mass every Tuesday at St. Stanislaus, where Wayne and Donna actively participate.

Whatever his mood, Shane didn't fail to describe what his experiences were during that time away from family and familiar surroundings "so people get a really good idea of what was going on," he said.

Since the book's publishing, Shane has heard from more than 100 strangers through his Web site -- He said it is fulfilling to know he has helped people better understand what life is like over there.

One mother told Shane his book helped her after her son committed suicide after returning home from the same post at which Bernskoetter served. And others, facing deployment of their loved ones, have appreciated the advanced familiarization.

"I've had some really touching feedback," Shane said.

Shane's occupational specialty is to repair small arms. In Iraq, his Baghdad station was the size of four to five football fields. Since his unit's training had told them to expect little enemy fire, they were surprised at the frequency of mortar and rocket attacks.

"I can't expect a person back here to imagine what life is like over there without a first-person account," Shane said.

Reliving his tour by compiling the book was pretty traumatic, Shane said.

"Going through my notes -- after I was home and had adjusted to civilian life -- with graphic detail at times was overwhelming," he said.

He has found humor can diffuse a frustrating or emotional situation. So as he does in his daily life, Shane interjected humor into his e-mails and eventually "Surviving Twilight."

However, he enlisted the help of his wife, Michelle, to ensure the humor read as neither offensive or embarrassing.

"We wanted to keep it upbeat and informative," Shane said.

Wayne and Donna stocked up on the book so when friends and family ask, they can give them a copy.

"This takes you there," Donna said. "You see what goes on day to day. It makes it come alive, a picture of what it's like over there."

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