Even before John Howell left for Iraq in 2009, he loved Walt Whitman’s poetry.
As a soldier, he identified with Whitman’s description of the injured he saw in the Civil War battlefields and field hospitals.
In “The Wound-Dresser,” a grandfather recalling bandaging a soldier’s “stump of the arm” pleads with the reader not to forget their sacrifices.
“So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,” Whitman writes.
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Once Howell came back from deployment, he understood Whitman’s somber shift in tone. Howell said his experience as a combat medic in the Iraq War left him with similar feelings.
“Whitman once wrote about the Civil War that ‘the real war will never get in the books ... Its interior history will not only never be written –its practicality, minutiae of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested,’” Howell said. “I think veterans have a responsibility to connect with others and promote an understanding of what it means to serve so the ‘minutiae of deeds and passions’ will never be forgotten.”
At NC Vets for Words meetings, Howell, a student in the Duke Physician Assistant Program, uses his love of literature and service background to bring veterans together through works like Whitman’s poems.
The reading group began last year with a focus on combat veterans. This year it has expanded to include veterans of all backgrounds, including two women.
The group, which meets monthly at the Chapel Hill Public Library, is led by Howell and UNC English professor Hilary Lithgow.
Lithgow specializes in literature on military history. When she discovered she was teaching veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in her classes, she realized the readings she approached from a scholarly perspective had real implications for some of her students.
“We use literature to have a conversation, connect, reflect and to see how the military experience is a part of the human experience,” Lithgow said.
Some aspects of the military experience are universal, she said.
“Those feelings of coming home and finding home has changed, the frustration of navigating bureaucracy, experiencing a tragedy firsthand – these are common themes in literature and these are common issues our vets deal with,” she said.
Don Roberts, a Vietnam veteran who attended last year, said the group helped him find common ground with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
“There are some ways we are completely different, like Iraq and Afghanistan was entirely a volunteer army while I was drafted,” Roberts said. “But all of the veterans here today didn’t get the luxury of a victory parade like the World War II guys I grew up listening to. We struggle with coming to terms with an end without celebration.”
Both Lithgow and Howell believe literature can play a role in pre-deployment training.
You can read through a poem by Whitman and Vietnam vets and Iraq vets can all pull something from it.
“The army does a great job preparing soldiers with occupational, practical training,” Howell said. “However, combat and medic training doesn’t teach you how to deal with the emotions of seeing someone wounded. In training we talk about building tools for resiliency during stressful times, and I’d love to see literature used as a tool for resiliency.”
Groups like the one in Chapel Hill could also aid veterans in the transition from military to civilian life.
“It’s not under any kind of VA health care or therapy model,” Howell said “It’s veterans getting together, in a low-stress environment, across wars and generations and backgrounds, to talk about the military experience through literature.”
“Much of the veterans’ narrative is dictated by society and stereotypes rather than the veterans themselves,” he explained. “The media would have you believe we are all trauma-ravaged and unable to reintegrate into society – and that may be the case for some veterans, but it’s certainly not a narrative everyone can relate to.”
Howell said reading veterans’ firsthand accounts provides a more nuanced picture of the homecoming narrative.
“I’ll often read pieces and think, wow, that’s exactly what I’m thinking but couldn’t put into words,” Roberts said.
Veterans’ Affairs has incorporated literature in training their doctors to treat patients, Howell said.
In 2004, one in eight veterans came home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to a survey by the Army. In 2010, 22 veterans committed suicide each day.
After the Vietnam War, the U.S. military reported 15 percent of veterans experiencing PTSD symptoms. However, current research suggests that today, four out of five Vietnam veterans struggle with PTSD.
“These new methods of therapy are popping up because we’ve been at war for 15 years,” he said. “Veterans are returning home each day with the kinds of wounds that aren’t visible.”
However, Howell said the NC Vets for Words group isn’t supposed to act as therapy.
The group’s greatest achievement is connecting veterans across generations, she and Howell said.
Howell described moments when everyone in the room relates strongly to the same text and, by extension, to each other.
“You can read through a poem by Whitman, and Vietnam vets and Iraq vets can all pull something from it,” Howell said. “Literature can transcend time like that.”
NC Vets for Words meets the third Wednesday of the month from March through July. The next meeting is April 20 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Chapel Hill Public Library, and Lithgow said they have spots open for new members. (To join see firstname.lastname@example.org)
NC Vets for Words is part of an initiative by the N.C. Humanities Council. North Carolina is one of 12 states being funded for such work by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
2016 Vets for Words Veterans’ Book Group Reading Schedule
MEETING 2: Wednesday, April 20
Bureaucracy as a Military Experience – Comic and Tragic
Reading: Phil Klay “Money as a Weapons System” (2014)
MEETING 3: Wednesday, May 18
Fighting for Democracy and the Dehumanizing Effects of Occupation on the Occupier
Reading: John Steinbeck “The Moon is Down” (1942)
MEETING 4: Wednesday, June 15
Resiliency and Coping Mechanisms
Reading: Mariette Kalinowski “The Train” (2014); Ernest Hemingway “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925)
MEETING 5: Wednesday, July 20
Military Experience From Ancient Greece to Today
Reading: Jonathan Shay “Achilles in Vietnam” (excerpt) (1994); Bryan Doerries, “The Theatre of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today” (excerpt) (2015)
For the complete reading list go to bit.ly/1ROUsWF