Art Works Blog

Writing it Down with Operation Homecoming

Washington, DC

Operation Homecoming contributor Daniel Uhles (left) and his son Neil on May 9, 2005. Neil was leaving for his second deployment to Iraq. Photo courtesy of Daniel Uhles.

In 2004, the NEA partnered with the U.S. Department of Defense, the Southern Arts Federation, and The Boeing Company to launch Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, a project to encourage U.S. troops to write about their wartime experiences. Operation Homecoming featured creative writing workshops---led by authors such as Marilyn Nelson, Richard Bausch, and Tobias Wolff---for military personnel and their families at U.S. domestic and international military installations. U.S. military personnel who served after September 11, 2001, and their families were also invited to submit their work for a project anthology. (Prior participation in an Operation Homecoming workshop was not a qualification for submission.) Published by Random House in September 2006, Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families comprises letters, e-mails, personal narratives, poems, and short fiction culled from more than 10,000 pages of submissions.

One of the writers published in the Operation Homecoming anthology was Daniel Uhles, whose sons Neil and Drew were deployed to Iraq in late 2003 through early 2004. Marine Lance Corporal Drew Uhles was killed in action in Iraq on September 15, 2004, a few days before his 21st birthday. Neil, who deployed as part of the Illinois Army National Guard, served two tours, safely returning to his family in April 2006. Daniel Uhles submitted two letters written to his son Neil: The first letter is a prayer of thanksgiving for Neil's safe return, while the second letter is a plea to Neil not to re-enlist after his younger brother's death. Here's an excerpt from an interview we did with Daniel Uhles in fall 2006 about his participation in Operation Homecoming.

NEA: How did you get involved with Operation Homecoming?

DANIEL UHLES:  On January 23, 2005, Mike Dorning wrote an article in the Chicago Tribune, which caught my eye. The article,"Through their eyes---and words," reminded me that my children had written me letters, and I sent them one at least every week. I even had the thought in the back of my mind to keep everything together for the family's history. My father had been in WW II, and since he left us after having four small children, I never really knew him. In a nutshell, I believe he may even have had what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. The sequence went like this:  Fall in love in high school; sign up for the Army; go through years of combat; come home and start a family; then fall in love with someone else. Then exit. This is a long way of saying that I never knew Robert Uhles, he never knew his four children, and I wanted my kids to know everything about me, us, them, etc. No blanks from here on out.

The book Keeping Faith by Frank and John Schaeffer may have initiated that spark to write about my children's experiences while in the service of their country. This is a book about the son's basic training in the Marine Corps, and I drew parallels.

NEA: How has participating in Operation Homecoming changed you, if at all?

UHLES:  Initially I thought, "Now what is there to reach for?" I got over that. As I said, there is much left to do for the family coming up behind me. They have to know the stories of our heroes---and villains, if you will. My writing ability has now been validated, so I can carry on with the assurance that it's OK to bare my soul, because the family has to know. 

I never associated our family with the military until Drew was [killed in action] in Iraq. When the interviews [about his death] started, it seemed like that was the first thing they reached for. Only then did it hit me that yes, we are a military family, and I'm damned proud of it. And now I can feel the pride others must feel in the same situation.

NEA: [Former NEA] Chairman Gioia has said, "If Operation Homecoming does anything, it creates a vehicle for conversations between the troops and their families and society." What conversation would you like to have with those in society who aren't part of the military, as either a member of the armed forces or as a family member?

UHLES:  Over the years since I came back from overseas, I've noticed one thing standing out---civilians just don't get it. This isn't an indictment, but when they see veterans in parades or at the local VFW barbecuing and enjoying each other's fellowship, the civilians don't give them a second glance. Only when a tragedy hits home, such as [my son] Drew getting hit in Al Anbar does the pain come home to them. In the civilians' defense, let me say this: They take care of those who take care of them. After the Casualty Assistance Office comes to the front door, the second person there will always be a neighbor, a civilian neighbor. In essence, the civilian and the military person are on different but equal plains, both benevolent, and both dependent upon each other.

You can read the complete interview with Daniel Uhles here.

Read more about Operation Homecoming in NEA Arts Vol 4, 2006, or visit the Operation Homecoming page on the NEA website.

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