NEA Arts Magazine

Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

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Wyatt Prunty

Writer Wyatt Prunty at Hurlburt Airfield. Photo: A1C Kimberly Gilligan, Hurlburt Air Field PAO

"As you grow inside me, I have been thinking more and more of what it means to be a mommy in the U.S. Army. Let me be the first to tell you, though, that we have a rough road ahead of us, kiddo. The life of a soldier isn't an easy one."

These thoughts are from Staff Sergeant Sharon McBride in her letter "Dear Baby," submitted to The National Endowment for the Arts' pioneering initiative Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. Operation Homecoming has offered McBride and thousands of other troops a welcome outlet to share their writings with a national audience.

Since the launch of this groundbreaking program in April 2004, the NEA has sponsored writing workshops at more than a dozen military bases nationwide, including Fort Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska; Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia; Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska; and Marine Corps Camp Pendleton in California. More than 1,000 troops have taken part in the workshops.

A wide range of distinguished writers have shared their insights with the troops. Among them are Tom Clancy, author of Hunt for Red October, Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, and poet Marilyn Nelson, author of The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems.

Tobias Wolff, critically acclaimed author of the memoir This Boy's Life, led a workshop at Camp Pendleton in February. He saw both therapeutic and literary value in Operation Homecoming. "This project recognizes the whole person - the needs of the spirit, the needs of the mind. One need is having your story known," Wolff said. "As citizens...we not only have the responsibility to help make those stories known, but to know them ourselves."

In addition to the workshops, the NEA has issued an open call for submissions from military personnel, reservists, National Guard members, and Coalition Authority members who have served since 9/11, as well as their immediate families. More than 1,000 troops have submitted writings in genres as diverse as letters, memoirs, short stories, and poetry. Subjects have ranged from the heartbreak of losing comrades-in-arms to advice for young children waiting for the return of a parent. To provide more guidance to aspiring writers, the NEA created a website (www.operationhomecoming.org) with sample submissions and essays on writing by participating authors such as Richard Bausch and James Salter.

Victor Davis Hanson speaking to a roomful of Marines

Military historian Victor Davis Hanson at a writing workshop at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Photo: The Boeing Company

Following the submissions deadline of May 31, 2005, all eligible writings will be preserved in an appropriate federal archive. The best of the writings will be featured in an Operation Homecoming anthology, to be published in 2006 and distributed to military installations, schools, and libraries.

"This is an important opportunity to create a dialogue between the military and arts communities," said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. "The workshops have encouraged a broad range of troops to write, and there is immense literary and historic value in creating a new collection of wartime literature."

The project is being presented in partnership with the Department of Defense and the Southern Arts Federation. Operation Homecoming is made possible through the support of The Boeing Company.

Recent Operation Homecoming workshops

Cannon Air Force Base
Clovis, NM
January 18-19, 2005
Writers: Richard Currey and Dan Rifenburgh

MacDill Air Force Base
Tampa, FL
February 10-11, 2005
Writers: Joe Haldeman and Judith Ortiz Cofer

Camp Pendleton
Camp Pendleton, CA
February 24-25, 2005
Writers: Tobias Wolff and Victor Davis Hanson

Fort Bragg
Fayetteville, NC
March 16-17, 2005
Writers: Andrew Carroll and Stephen Lang

Naval Station Pearl Harbor
Honolulu, HI
April 21, 2005
Writers: Stephen Lang and Richard Currey