LEWISTON, Maine — Over Iraq, Rich Kowalczyk almost died.
He was serving aboard a P-3 Orion reconnaissance plane, controlling some of its hush-hush technology, when the plane lurched in a way he'd never felt in 23½ years of service.
Someone on the ground had fired a missile at the slow-moving Navy aircraft.
"All of a sudden, the airplane started shaking and rocking and rolling because they're doing all kinds of evasive maneuvers to get away from it,” said Kowalczyk, recalling the 2003 incident from the first days of the Iraq War. "I never felt the airplane shake like that before. It was really scary."
In the cockpit, the pilot had slammed the plane's four engines into full power, he said. While the rest of the crew of a dozen or so held on, Kowalczyk thought about how he'd already submitted his retirement papers.
“Not this way,” he told himself.
Moments later, he saw the missile's exhaust trail in the sky.
"It missed us,” he said. "It didn't miss us by much.”
Kowalczyk told the story in a classroom last week at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College.
His story and others are becoming part of an art project called “All the Way Home: Veterans Story Exchange.”
For six months, Portland artist Marty Pottenger has interviewed men and women at local vet centers, homes and gathering places. She hopes to create a public reading of veterans’ stories, bringing veterans to the stage to share moments of their service.
She has collected about 20 stories, but she intends to collect 100 in all, she said.
Some, like Kowalczyk, have told combat stories. Others have told stories of military mischief, silliness that ended with someone in jail, hurry-up-and-wait peacetime stories and poignant memories of reuniting with families.
Men and women have seemed eager to join.
"It really seems like we've got some people who would be willing to be in a performance,” said Pottenger, who works for the city of Portland and underwent the veterans project with help from the National Endowment for the Arts.
At L-A College, she was assisted by Heath Bouffard of North Waterboro, an Iraq veteran and USM media studies student. He planned to craft video vignettes that last only a minute or two, just enough to glimpse veterans’ stories.
Ray McGregor, a veteran from Harrison who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, sat down for an interview.
The experience was cathartic but different from the kind of group discussions he's participated in the local Vet Centers operated by the Veterans Affairs Administration.
"Something like this is going to help me spiritually,” McGregor said. "This goes deeper than, ‘I need medicine,’ or, ‘I need to see a therapist.’ This goes to brothers and sisters reaching out to each other.”
If it makes just one person feel better, that's what it's all about, he said.
Kowalczyk, who works with veterans at the Lewiston CareerCenter, hadn't planned to tell his story when he arrived at the Lewiston classroom. Rather, he went to meet veterans, particularly those he could help find jobs.
Soon, he was seated with another veteran, Mike Cielinski of Lisbon Falls, and answering Pottenger’s questions while Bouffard filmed them.
After his near-death experience, Kowalczyk recalled returning weeks later to Brunswick Naval Air Station. He remembered the hugs in the hangar and he remembered talking about the incident with his wife.
It hadn't been his idea. But she'd read about it in the newspaper and wanted to know.
“That was interesting,” he said. “When you come home from something like that, you don't tell those stories. You don't try to tell them stuff like that.”
In this case, he surrendered.
“She closed the door and said, ‘Tell me about it,'” Kowalczyk said.