Art Works Blog

The Things They Still Carry

During his service with the 3rd Infantry Division from 2002 to 2006, Hector Ocampo served two tours of duty in Iraq, the first in 2003 and the second in 2005. His experiences there are never too far from the surface, particularly on his birthday, which triggers memories of an earlier birthday celebration spent in the middle of the desert, far away from friends or family. “It’s very tough,” he said. “I was in Iraq in 2003 when the war started. It’s been a long time, and I’m still dealing with it.”

Despite his own struggle, Ocampo is committed to helping others who must also cope with the lingering effects of combat. As the Big Read coordinator for the Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin, Illinois, Ocampo has spent the past several months helping veterans connect with The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s seminal novel about the Vietnam War. The program, which began on September 1, will conclude this Monday on Veteran’s Day.

Although the Big Read is open to the entire Elgin community, a number of events have been tailored specifically to Vietnam veterans. For one project, local vets were photographed with relics from their service in Vietnam: a uniform, dog tags, a cross, their scars. For a four-day period, the library also hosted The Wall That Heals, a touring 250-foot replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

The impact of such events, said Ocampo, has far surpassed his expectations. “I've had families send us letters telling us that their husband hasn't been able to open up in over 40 years, and the Big Read has helped him open up like never before,” said Ocampo. He suspects one of the reasons for this emotional response is the instinctual familiarity he shares with participating veterans, despite their service during different conflicts. “There's this sense of respect for each other,” Ocampo said. “They felt very comfortable and that was very evident throughout our programs and events.”

This comfort level grew as a sense of community was established among veterans as they gathered for Big Read events. As they socialized and reminisced, Ocampo said the literal sense of being together has given way to the larger realization that they are not in fact alone. Although this is beneficial for any veteran, it has been especially meaningful for those who were once stigmatized for serving in a deeply unpopular war, and were greeted with blame and anger rather than gratitude and recognition upon their return.

But even old wounds can mend eventually. At the Wall That Heals, “I had veterans telling each other ‘welcome home’—Vietnam veterans specifically,” said Ocampo. “‘Welcome home. Thank you for your service.’ Things that they never heard before. These are the things that specifically Vietnam veterans need, that sense of recognition, that appreciation. They didn't receive it, but now here it is.”

The Wall also featured a mobile vet center and medical clinic, where Ocampo helped veterans sign up to receive health and medical benefits—some for the first time. “There are veterans that I run into that are Purple Heart recipients, and they've never received any type of benefit,” said Ocampo. “They're entitled to it. It shouldn't happen. It's in a way our responsibility and our duty to help in any way possible.”

Although the Big Read will conclude on Monday, the library is already beginning to develop plans for future programs, including informal support groups for veterans. For Ocampo personally, the experience has helped him realize that for now at least, the most meaningful service he can provide for his country is helping his fellow vets.

“I’m just very proud, not just to be a veteran but to assist [other veterans] in any way possible,” Ocampo said. “Even if it's just one veteran, I feel that it's enough…. That’s the only thing that matters to me.”

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