Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (Du Quoin, IL)

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Daniel Uhles (left) and his son Neil<br />

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 late 2003 through early 2004, Daniel Uhles's sons, Neil and Drew, were deployed to Iraq. Neil was part of the Illinois Army National Guard, while his younger brother Drew was a Marine. Lance Corporal Drew Uhles was killed in action in Iraq on September 15, 2004, a few days before his 21st birthday. Neil served two tours, safely returning to his family in April 2006.

Daniel Uhles submitted two letters--written to his son Neil--to Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. The first letter is a prayer of thanksgiving for Neil's safe return. The second letter is a plea to Neil not to re-enlist after his younger brother's death.

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: What made you decide to submit work for the anthology, and why did you choose these particular letters?

UHLES:  My submissions were based entirely on egotism. I just wanted to see if I was good enough to be affiliated in any way with the NEA because of the weight it would carry in my own mind. "Hey look at me. The NEA actually thought my writing was good enough for their anthology." I would have been extremely disappointed, after writing for the years that I have, to have been told that my writing didn't mean much, and it may have been--or will be--laborious for my children and grandchildren to read. Your acceptance reinforces my ego, but more important tells me to carry on with the family history.

Neil Uhles (left) and Drew Uhles in the family's front yard on June 1, 2004.  Photo courtesy of Daniel Uhles  

NEA: How does your son Neil feel about having your personal letters to him published for anyone to read?

UHLES:  Neil and I have not talked about this, but being as close as we are, I do know that he is both embarrassed and proud.

NEA: What was your experience with writing before Operation Homecoming? Does writing continue to be part of your life?

UHLES:  As I indicated above, I'm trying to tell my family about its own history as I know it--from my own perspective. Remember I was once a seven-year-old boy with a nine-year-old brother, seven-year-old sister, and a six-month-old baby brother. We were destitute. Hungry. On welfare. My children need to know these things so they can pass them on to their children and their children's children.

Also, for years I blamed my father for all that went wrong in our family, but I realized later that war is hell, and that isn't just a cliché. Leaving my mother was one thing, but walking out on four babies is quite another. There is no other way to explain such an action other than "The War."

Writing has always been part of my life, and always will be. Who else would listen to me if not myself? I try on a daily basis to write something, even if it's the mundane. However, my challenge has been to take Drew's letters and try in my own way to glean what he was telling us. Did we make mistakes raising him? (Yes.) Did he love us? (Yes.) Did we know his innermost thoughts? (No.) We didn't know he wanted to be a writer until we lost him.

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: What do you hope readers will gain from experiencing the Operation Homecoming anthology?

UHLES:  If we get nothing else from this book we should see this:  In our midst I know there are angels, and now I know that there are heroes, too. The person sitting next to you on the train, or the person ahead of you in the supermarket may be the hero you don't know but need to know. Find out what his story is, and it will surprise you. Better yet, turn to page four [of the anthology] and read Antoinette by Captain William Toti. I sat next to him for the book signing, maybe two or more hours, and had no idea of his heroism at the Pentagon. A humble man and a true hero. Read the combat accounts and see why we're a free nation. Read the stories of the combat survivors in the hospitals and ask yourself why they want to go back. The book lays it out for me. We need our heroes!

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.

NEA: What has the reaction been like for you from people who have read the anthology?

UHLES:  Believe it or not, I downplayed my involvement so much in Operation Homecoming that even my own children were surprised. To go into Amazon.com and order a book with my name in it just stuns me. Now I wish I hadn't been so humble. I went fishing with one of my best friends yesterday, and he asked me to sign his book.  Now that's special!  I'm now building it up as the great book that it is, and I only wish I could have the night of [the launch party on] September 12th back so that I could thank everyone again for all they've done--and to shake hands with the real heroes that were there sitting beside me.  In my opinion they're gods.

Also, the people I did tell about the launch party ask me about it.  I can only say it was a dream come true. The Library of Congress, Congressmen, generals, waiters, Andy, Dana, the heroes, where do I stop?

For more information on Operation Homecoming, please go to www.operationhomecoming.org