Operation Homecoming

Writing the Wartime Experience


Cover of the publication Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families

Courtesy of The Random House Publishing Group.

This September, Random House, one of the nation's premier publishers, releases Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families, the culmination of Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, a program launched by the NEA in 2004 to encourage U.S. troops to write about their wartime experiences. The anthology of letters, e-mails, personal narratives, poems, and short fiction is written by U.S. military personnel who served after September 11, 2001, and their immediate families. Edited by best-selling anthologist Andrew Carroll, editor of the landmark collection War Letters, the anthology Operation Homecoming is unique in its immediacy -- all of the incidents that inspired the writing happened within the last five years.

Nancy Miller, a Random House Senior Vice President and the Executive Editor, says that after reading some of the submissions, the Random House team realized the anthology would be an important addition to the long tradition of war literature. "We were very pleased to find ourselves one of four publishers considered in the final round," says Miller. "Operation Homecoming captures what journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot -- the first-hand experiences of the men and women directly involved in battle and the reflections of their families back home."

Operation Homecoming will be sold in bookstores and also will be distributed free of charge to military installations, schools, and libraries. Random House will sponsor a ten-city reading tour featuring Andrew Carroll and several of the book's contributors. (Please see the interview with Mr. Carroll about the new anthology and his experience with Operation Homecoming). The Southern Arts Federation, the regional arts organization that administered the Operation Homecoming program, will sponsor another reading tour reaching more than 20 military installations, libraries, cultural centers, literary conferences, and universities.

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia conceived the Operation Homecoming program during a conversation with poet Marilyn Nelson, a visiting writer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point whose father was one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen. Speaking with Nelson impressed upon Gioia necessity of recording the voices of those who had the singular experience of participating in a war, either as part of the armed forces or as a family member of someone in military service.

Marilyn Nelson on left in discussion with a female troop

Marilyn Nelson discusses writing with a participant of the Operation Homecoming workshop

"To paraphrase Robert Frost, Operation Homecoming is about preserving things it would impoverish us to forget. It celebrates and explores individual memory in a crucial historical period," says Chairman Gioia.

Chairman Gioia also notes the importance of Operation Homecoming as a way to foster a connection between the troops and the rest of the American people. "One of the tragedies of the Vietnam War is that no one wanted to listen to the vets when they came back. If Operation Homecoming does anything, it creates a vehicle for conversations between the troops and their families and society."

Nelson concurs, "It's very important to keep military personnel in contact with the majority culture, and to encourage self-expression as a way to fight post-traumatic stress."

The program was the second partnership between the Arts Endowment and the Department of Defense (DOD), following DOD's support for the NEA's Shakespeare in American Communities program on military bases. The Boeing Company enthusiastically signed on as a sponsor, a partnership that has since led to Boeing's involvement in two more Arts Endowment initiatives -- Great American Voices, which brings selections from opera and musicals to military bases, and the Big Read initiative to encourage American communities (including military bases) to discuss great works of literature.

Over the course of Operation Homecoming, distinguished American writers, some of whom were veterans themselves and all of whom had written about the military in some way, conducted writing workshops on domestic and overseas military bases for troops and their families.More than 24 writers led workshops, including Nelson and Jeff Shaara, author of the Civil War novel Gods and Generals. Shaara notes, "In the workshop there was a real cross-section of people -- the 20-year-old private and his wife, a career officer, a retired civilian, and everyone in between. Each one had a story to tell, and no one had ever asked before. "He was sometimes surprised by what had drawn participants to the workshop. "There was a young woman there with her husband, and I thought she'd say she was there because of him," he recalls. "Instead she said she had a grandfather who sailed on Navy destroyers in WWII and faced German U-boats. She said, 'I'd like to tell his story.'"

Richard Bausch addressing a roomful of troops

Richard Bausch presents ten points of advice to young writers at a workshop at Fort Drum in Watertown, New York. Photo: Betty Doherty, US Army MWR

The response to the project by servicemen and women and their families has been overwhelming. By July 2005, more than 6,000 individuals had participated in Operation Homecoming workshops and activities. Workshops were held at 33 military installations, including Cannon Air Force Base (New Mexico), Camp Lejeune (North Carolina), Camp Zama (Tokyo, Japan), and Naval Station Pearl Harbor (Hawaii).

Although each writer's approach to leading a workshop varied, all agreed that it was important to make the participants comfortable, especially as beginning writers. Jeff Shaara opened his workshops by telling participants about how he had gotten into writing. "[I told them] that you had to be passionate about the subject, that I discovered characters in history I was passionate about. I told them, 'The advantage for you is that you're the character.'"

Three female troops in the foregroundseated at a table listening to Tobias Wolf. Other troops and guests are in the background

Troops listen to an Operation Homecoming workshop led by Tobias Wolff at Camp Pendleton in California. Photo: The Boeing Company.

The NEA provided Operation Homecoming participants with additional resources to complement the workshop. An audio guide provided insights into the writing process by respected authors including Richard Wilbur and James Salter. The CD also featured readings of war literature from the Civil War to the present, including Marilyn Nelson's poem "Star-Fix" and a selection from Bobbie Ann Mason's novel In Country. In addition, participants had access to an Operation Homecoming Web site that includes essays on writing such as Dan Rifenburgh's "What is Poetry?" and a streaming video of author Richard Bausch's June 2005 workshop at Fort Drum, New York.

Stephen Lang, a veteran actor known for his portrayals of military heroes, also participated in Operation Homecoming, touring his one-man play Beyond Glory to more than 26 U.S. bases in Europe and Asia. Lang also conducted writing workshops and held post-performance discussions with the troops. (See interview with Stephen Lang regarding his experience with Beyond Glory).

Writers did not have to participate in a writing workshop in order for their work to be considered for the project anthology. The NEA received more than 10,000 pages of submissions, and convened an independent panel of writers to review the submissions and recommend the best for consideration. Ultimately, work was selected for publication based on literary excellence, historic importance, and a desire to present a diversity of genres and life experiences.

Cover of the New Yorker

Courtesy of The New Yorker

In June 2006, the public got a sneak peek at the anthology when The New Yorker magazine published a 16-page section of excerpts from Operation Homecoming as part of its Summer Fiction: Life During Wartime issue. Next spring, a documentary on the program, by the Documentary Group, in partnership with WETA, will air on PBS as part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's America at a Crossroads series.

The impact of Operation Homecoming will last long into the future.Military bases will be able to conduct writing workshops for personnel using the Operation Homecoming materials developed by the Arts Endowment as well as an educational film, produced by Red Car, currently in production. (Please see more on the Red Car project.)

All of the submissions received for the anthology will be housed in an open government archive. This archive will be accessible to the American people who, in the words of Jeff Shaara, will be able to know "what their sons and daughters and husbands and wives and brothers and sisters are really experiencing."