Accessibility links

Breaking News

Letters Between Soldiers and Families Tell Personal Account of War

As Americans continue to debate U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new anthology of soldiers' writings provides a frank and intimate account of those wars and of the men and women fighting them. The new book, titled Operation Homecoming, is a collection of private e-mails, diaries, and other personal correspondence by U.S. military personnel and their families since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001.

U.S. Navy Petty Officer First Class Greg Cleghorne was serving aboard the command ship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. Five years later, he's sitting with his eight-year old son, Max, showing him a copy of the new book. "It's Operation Homecoming," he explains to the boy. "Sailors, soldiers, and marines are writing stories to their children and wives. People back home like you were writing letters and things to their husbands, wives, service members, sons, daughters, just like you."

Cleghorne, a native of New York City, tells his son the book's first entry is an essay he wrote about his own boyhood memories of the World Trade Center. "This is before the Towers were hit," Cleghorne says, thenstarts to read haltingly, concealing his emotion, "'No matter how hot it was on those city streets below, there were always cool breezes all the way up. The tower would gently sway from the wind. It was unnerving for a while, I felt comforted like a child being rocked back and forth. I wasn't worried she would tip over. Ever.'"

The boy's reaction is silence. His father says they have talked about the attack before, and Max says the violence makes no sense. He asked his father at the time, "People -- why would they fly planes into the Towers? That's so stupid." Cleghorne says he "tried to explain to him he's safe and has a safe place to live without things exploding, God-willing, because there are service members who wear these uniforms."

Cleghorne was reading to his son on the steps of the Great Hall of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where top U.S. government officials, several members of Congress, and many of the U.S servicemen and women and relatives who'd helped write the book gathered at a reception to mark its publication. Transcripts of their submissions were handed over to the Library to be archived.

The writing of Operation Homecoming -- just published by Random House -- was conceived and sponsored by the congressionally-funded National Endowment for the Arts as part of a national writing project it launched two years ago. The Endowment asked celebrated American authors to visit U.S. military bases around the world and conduct workshops to share their writing skills with soldiers.

The Endowment's chairman, Dana Gioia told those gathered to mark the book's publication that Operation Homecoming is one fruit of that effort. "This is, I think, a unique project. The troops, their spouses write about their experiences in a war while it is still going on rather than a memoir written years later, to be able to write about it while the experience is fresh in mind."

Gioia says that it was important to encourage soldiers and their families to write their own accounts of the war and not rely on journalists, activists, and politicians to tell their stories for them. "Of all the conversations that make up American public culture, we needed to foster a new conversation, so that these people could not only speak, but speak so well, with such support that they would be heard."

Also speaking at the ceremony, Under Secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness David Chu said that Operation Homecoming would give all Americans a better understanding of the service and sacrifice of their men and women at war. "Good and brave troops die in a war. Some are severely injured, and civilians suffer, too. Our troops grieve these realities in their writings. But they also write about the sense of duty that calls them to serve."

Andrew Carroll, the book's editor, is on a 30-city tour of the United States and, later, Iraq and Afghanistan, to showcase Operation Homecoming. He says many people may feel they've heard all there is about the wars, and many may not want to hear any more, but the book has a lot to add. "The stories are so fresh. We've never heard them before," Carroll says. "It's very candid, very raw. It really shows the emotional gamut of what people are going through overseas and on the home front."

Carroll says he was careful to steer clear of political judgments as he was compiling the book. "I really wasn't thinking of any political ramifications. It was whether the piece was aesthetically strong or the reader will have a visceral reaction to it."

Some of the nearly 100 contributors to the book oppose the war in Iraq. Dr. Richard Jewell served on the Navy hospital ship Comfort in 2003. This is part of his published diary account: "Our patients are mostly Iraqis [soldiers]. As medical people we are trained to care for the sick. It is difficult to stay mindful that these patients are the enemy and could fight back against us." Reflecting on what he wrote, Dr. Jewell says, "You wonder really what happened to them, if that person survived, what will their quality of their life be, will they ever see a real doctor again?"

Many of the family members of servicemen and women said recording their experiences in e-mail or journals helped them deal with the fear of losing a loved one. Kathleen Furin, a resident of Philadelphia, says she held her breath for the year her brother was stationed in Iraq - and writing to him helped relieve the strain. "By being able to write it down and put words and meaning to it, somehow it helps."

Furin says her brother may be sent back to Iraq soon. For him and hundreds of thousands of servicemen in the service and families in the United States, Operation Homecoming is a book that does not yet have an ending.