O'Brien notes that he wrote "Speaking of Courage" in 1975 after Norman Bowker asked him to. Three years after that, Bowker hanged himself in the YMCA locker room in his hometown in Iowa. In the spring of 1975, O'Brien received a long, frazzled letter from Bowker talking about his difficulty finding any "meaningful use for his life after the war." He'd worked odd jobs. He'd enrolled in junior college, but the work didn't seem important compared to what was at stake in war, and he dropped out. He spent mornings in bed and in the afternoons he went to the YMCA to play basketball. At night he drove around in his father's car, sometimes with a six-pack of beer.
This story serves as a post-script to "Speaking of Courage," and an explanation for how O'Brien wrote that previous story. It serves to show the contrast between the story O'Brien wrote and what he actually received from Bowker. Bowker couldn't handle the social obligations he felt after the war to be a functioning and productive member of society after he had seen the world in all its cruelty while in Vietnam.
Bowker confides in his letter that there's nowhere for his life to go. He says it's as though he died in Vietnam, and he's still haunted by the night that Kiowa died. He feels like he went down under the shit with Kiowa. Bowker chastises himself for complaining too much because he doesn't hate anything more than a "whiner-vet."
Bowker's letter is a desperate cry for help. He has no one to talk to. But in keeping with being a strong soldier—in meeting the social obligation of being a strong soldier—he refuses to be a "whiner."
At the end of the letter Bowker says that he read O'Brien's first book, which he mostly liked except for the politics. He requests that O'Brien write a story about a guy like him, who feels like he's come back dead from the war and spends his days driving around. He even tells O'Brien that things from his letter can be used, but he requests that O'Brien change his name. Bowker says he would write the story, but he can't put into words the things he saw, especially Kiowa sinking dead into the mud.
Bowker is reaching out to O'Brien because he knows that O'Brien is a writer and he was there the night Kiowa died. Bowker he can't put into words the pain and guilt he still feels over Kiowa's death. He believes that O'Brien—a storyteller—is his only hope for giving a voice to his experiences.
O'Brien says that Bowker's letter really affected him. He says that he felt "a certain smugness" after the war for how easy it was for him to transition back into normal life. He went from Vietnam to graduate school, and never really talked about his experiences in the war—except for in his writing.
O'Brien feels guilty for how easy it was for him to return home after the war without being severely traumatized, like Bowker had been.
O'Brien says he didn't look at his writing explicitly like therapy, and he still doesn't. But after receiving the letter from Bowker he realized that the stories he was writing were important because it prevented them from being forgotten. The story becomes distinct from the writer, and becomes its own object. It can come from a fact, like Kiowa's death, and the story can spur on with details that are fictional to help the reader understand.
This is O'Brien's view on the importance of storytelling and writing. The story, once written, exists separately from the writer. It takes on a life of its own. Because of this, it defies being forgotten, because it doesn't die in the mind of a living being. Rather, in writing it becomes eternal.
Bowker's letter haunts O'Brien. A month later O'Brien decided to write Bowker's story. At the time he was writing the novel Going After Cacciato and within that he started a chapter titled "Speaking of Courage." He changed Bowker's name to the protagonist of the novel, Paul Berlin. He borrowed imagery from the memory of his own hometown. He wrote it in about two weeks and published it as a story. But O'Brien felt he had failed. In the version within his novel, O'Brien didn't include the "shit field" or Kiowa's death, forced to replace them with events from his book. He pulls the chapter from the novel.
O'Brien tries his best to incorporate Bowker's story into his novel, but at the expense of losing the core truths of the story that Bowker wrote about in his letter and what happened in Vietnam. O'Brien knows that by sacrificing the truth for trying to wedge the story into his novel, the story is missing an essential element: the truth of what happened in the shit field.
As the months passed, O'Brien pushed the thoughts of the failed story out of his mind. When the story was published in an anthology, he sent a copy to Bowker. Bowker's reply was short and sour, saying it wasn't "terrible" but he asked where the shit field was, or Vietnam, or Kiowa? Eight months after Bowker sent his reaction to the story to O'Brien, he hanged himself. In August of 1978, O'Brien received a note from Bowker's mother explaining the suicide. Bowker had played a game of basketball at the YMCA. He left the game for some water, and hanged himself with a jump rope from a water pipe. He didn't leave behind a suicide note. Bowker's mother tells O'Brien that her son had always been quiet, and she guesses he didn't want "to bother anybody."
The proximity of Bowker's death to the publication of the story doesn't mean that they're necessarily correlated. However, there is the insinuation that because Bowker couldn't find words to put to the memories that were driving him mad, and he believed O'Brien to be his last hope, he ultimately gave up on living altogether. Bowker's mother is exemplary of Bowker's reticent character—he died refusing to be the "whining vet."
O'Brien says that it has been a decade since Bowker's death at the time of re-writing "Speaking of Courage." He hopes that it "makes good on [Bowker's] silence." He says he doesn't think Bowker would mind that his real name is in the story. O'Brien claims it was hard to write because Kiowa had been such a close friend, and O'Brien had spent many years trying to avoid thinking about his death and "[his] own complicity in it." O'Brien says he wants it to be clear that Bowker is in no way responsible for Kiowa's death, he wasn't a failed hero. "That part of the story," O'Brien writes, "is [his] own."
O'Brien is hoping that "Speaking of Courage" now, after all of its revisions, lives on as the voice that Bowker couldn't express to the world. He doesn't think that Bowker would mind having his real name used because O'Brien has faith in the truth of the story. In a twist, O'Brien implies that it was actually his fault that Kiowa died.