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'Operation Homecoming' Aims to Discover Writers Among US Afghanistan/Iraq War Veterans - 2004-04-28

A new federal program will help American soldiers learn to be storytellers. The National Endowment for the Arts has launched Operation Homecoming, a series of writing workshops for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The workshops will be taught by some of America's most prominent writers and poets.

Operation Homecoming began with a conversation between two poets. Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was talking with his fellow poet Marilyn Nelson, who'd been teaching at the United States Military Academy.

"We were talking about how separate in American culture the literary communities and the military communities were. And we said, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could find some meaningful way of bringing them together?' And we got the idea of creating writing workshops for the returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq as a way to bring their experience into literature," he said.

Workshops in fiction and non-fiction will be open to U.S. military personnel and their families, at bases across America and elsewhere in the world. The instructors will include poet Marilyn Nelson, as well as Tom Clancy, the author of best-selling technothrillers, and the award winning novelists and short story writers Bobbie Ann Mason and Tobias Wolff. Follow-up tutorials will be given over the Internet. Dana Gioia believes the project will benefit the soldiers helping them bring clarity to their experience. But it will also be a gift to history and literature. "In an age of electronic media, of e-mails, of cell phones, we may be creating one of the most significant archives of the war, not as politicians have seen it, not as the press has seen it, but as it's been experienced by the individuals who participated. And I'm very confident that we will discover some amazing new literary talent," he said.

A sampling of the work will be assembled into an anthology, adding new voices to an age-old tradition. Dana Gioia says western literature was born with the Greek poet Homer's two war epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Military combat has been a favorite theme of writers and poets ever since.

"In fact, Leo Tolstoy once commented that the great periods of literature in a nation's history tend to come after wars, because it makes nations understand something essential about their own identity," he said. "Now in American history, you think of the Second World War, a whole generation of novelists, from Joseph Heller and James Jones to Norman Mailer, came out of the war, enormously influential poets like Richard Wilbur saw active combat."

To celebrate the launch of its new project, the NEA has produced a compact disc called Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. The CD includes Richard Wilbur reading his poem "First Snow in Alsace." It was inspired by his wartime experience in France.

"Across the ammunition piles/ the snow has climbed in sparkling combs/ You think beyond the town a mile or too/ this snowfall fills the eyes of soldiers dead a little while," he reads.

The chance to help craft a new collection of wartime stories is welcomed by non-fiction author McKay Jenkins, who's among those leading Operation Homecoming workshops. He teaches journalism and literature at the University of Delaware.

"The great pleasure for me is that rather than teaching a class full of 19 year olds who want to write pieces about what they did on their vacation, I'll be talking to young soldiers who've just had some of the most exhilarating and possibly terrifying experience of their lives," said Mr. Jenkins. "What will be nice for them [is that] they might not have had any formal writing instruction, and might have a great innate ability to tell stories verbally, but they may not know any of the techniques you need to get these things down in print. So they'll have the experiences and the desire, and I'll have some of the expertise and hopefully in conjunction we'll be able to get some really good stories about it."

McKay Jenkins has written a war chronicle of his own, called The Last Ridge. It's the story of the 10th Mountain Division, an elite U.S. military unit created during the Second World War to fight in high elevations. Mr. Jenkins will teach writing at Fort Drum, New York, where the 10th Mountain now trains.

"I think I'm the only person in Operation Homecoming who is actually going to the base of the division he wrote about," he said. "War is fought very differently now than it was 40 years ago, and this is a time to really revitalize what we think about it."

McKay Jenkins says those new voices could include critics of the military, or of the war in Iraq.

"When you ask people to write about war, there's always the possibility that they will write brutally about it, cynically about it, politically about it," he said. "You just don't know what might come out. If a soldier turns out to be an eloquent political dissident, that could create an interesting situation, not for us as instructors, but for the military that is actually supporting this program. Our duty as writers is simply to encourage the best writing that we can find."

But military officials say they're enthusiastic about the project.

"A lot of us in the military are historians by nature," said Colonel Michael Pachuta, director of Morale, Welfare and Recreation Policy at the Department of Defense. "We learn lessons from the past. And it's great to get these things down on paper from the first hand participants as soon after the fact as possible. It probably benefits them from a therapeutic viewpoint and also heightens the public's awareness of their experiences and their sacrifices." Colonel Michael Pachuta also answered the question if there is any concern that it could have a negative impact as well that service men and women might write things that are unflattering.

"Certainly that can happen," he said. "But we don't dwell on that. Not everything that happens is good. And sometimes we need to hear the bad as well as the good. And we think the end result will be very positive."

Operation Homecoming is getting a positive reaction from military bases as well. Colonel Pachuta says he's received calls from commanding officers whose installations aren't included in the project, saying they'd like to get involved.