War and peace and in between: helping veterans heal

By Georgia Humanities Staff

Connections—between veterans themselves, between veterans and civilians, between literature and war, and between literature and healing—are key to Talking Service, a program that helps veterans transition from war zone to home front through reading and discussion. Using Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, an anthology produced for the program by the Great Books Foundation, Talking Service brings veterans together with a moderator to share their stories through the lens of literature. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Georgia Humanities sponsored Talking Service discussions in four north Georgia communities in 2014–15.

Literature has helped veterans and civilians alike cope with the trauma of war since the age of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, two of the 40-plus excerpts from novels, poems, biographies, diaries, and newspaper articles that comprise Standing Down. Readings span more than 2,500 years, and were chosen to speak to veterans from all eras. The tale of the ancient warrior Odysseus, for example, remains urgent and awe-inspiring because it is universal. Readers crave— have always craved—words of war and war’s aftermath because, according to Talking Service moderator and University of North Georgia professor Kristin Kelly, “Literature can mitigate the pain of war.”

Sharing, too, can mitigate pain. Program facilitators were not necessarily surprised by the veterans’ response to the literature, but rather by the way they responded to each other. Facilitators expected to see a bond between veterans of recent conflicts, but were thrilled also to see a bond between younger veterans and those who had fought in earlier conflicts like Vietnam.

Civilian moderators Kristin Kelly and Randy Hendricks, a professor at the University of West Georgia, were powerfully moved by their experiences. “What truly impressed me about the program,” says Hendricks, “was how much I myself learned from [those] who participated, particularly ways that civilians and veterans might find grounds to talk.” Kelly’s experience taught her that civilians bear a responsibility to hear the stories of their soldiers: “Witness is powerful medicine. I encourage all citizens to participate in one of the most crucial conversations mankind must continue to have: the human costs of war.”

Now referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, postwar trauma has always been the heavy price combat exacts on soldiers and the societies to which they return. Indeed, should it come as any surprise that the Iliad, a story of war, is followed by an entire second volume, the Odyssey, devoted to the difficulties of a warrior’s homecoming? Stories like that of Odysseus help veterans understand this transition, a process that can take years, or even a lifetime. World War II veteran Edward W. Wood Jr. explains, “People out there are still walking around wounded. . . . the route from combat to cure is a coherent story about yourself.”

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