When Words Can Fail


Outside the perimeter of life’s expected stresses lies the potential for traumatic stress. Maria Shine Stewart reflects as an anniversary approaches.

Suicide and Student Veterans

Those returning from military service experience significantly more suicidal thoughts than non-veterans, a new study finds -- and authors say colleges can do better.

'Telling' Hard Truths About War

With American society divided for and against the war, returning veterans tend to be viewed more as issues than as individuals. Recent news media coverage has focused on stories about soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who have become violent criminals and on the trials of wounded vets who receive substandard medical treatment. Unquestionably, these are important issues. However, with the Iraq War entering its sixth year and the White House indicating that troop levels will remain at 130,000 for an indeterminate time, facilitating the return of the “average Joe” soldier is an increasingly pressing issue that remains largely ignored.

Since the adoption of the GI Bill during the Second World War, colleges and universities, like the one where I teach, have served as primary gateways through which many vets have found a path back into civilian life. Yet campuses today tend to have visible and vocal anti-war segments among their faculty and students. Ironically, in the post-Vietnam era the GI Bill, a tool designed to facilitate reintegration, places student-vets in environments that many find unwelcoming at best, exclusionary at worst.

As a pacifist, I want to see an end to the Iraq War, the sooner the better. As a citizen, I feel guilty that this desire is my sole contribution.As a result, I don’t know how to engage, how to approach the increasing number of returning vets I encounter in my day-to-day life, inside the classroom and out. When a friend, the University of Oregon administrator Jonathan Wei, told me about an innovative play being performed by student-veterans there, I was immediately intrigued.

Eugene, often referred to as the “Berkeley of Oregon,” has been described as “famously anti-war.” Bumper stickers denouncing the war are ubiquitous, and the words “the War” are commonly graffitied onto stop signs. For Oregon student-vets, feelings of estrangement and isolation were common. Many described to Wei feeling “invisible” and being “unable to connect with friends” upon their return from service. One, a Korean-American woman who had been deployed to Guantanamo, summed up her experience this way: “I just had to keep to myself, keep my head down, go to class, come home. Honest to god, it was like me having to pretend I wasn’t Asian.”

To confront the disconnection that so many felt, first the UO student-vets organized, forming the Veterans and Family Student Association (VFSA). Next, they created a play.

The project began after Wei, in his capacity as coordinator of nontraditional student programs, staged several panel discussions with the 20-odd members of the newly formed veteran students’ group during the 2006-7 academic year. From the meetings, Wei began to see the limits inherent in approaching veterans as a demographic or political issue. He encouraged the association to help the university’s Women's Center (another group he worked with) stage a production of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues.” Inspired by the experience, Wei and the veterans’ group began work on their own original play.

From the start, “Telling” was about the communal process of creation as much as it was about the eventual product itself. Wei and Max Rayneard, a South African Fulbright scholar and Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature, interviewed 21 VFSA members during the summer and fall of 2007. Wei and Rayneard used the transcripts to write the text. John Schmor, the head of Oregon’s department of theatre arts and a self-described “Prius-driving Obama sticker guy,” signed on to direct as soon as Wei approached him with the idea. For most of the student-vets, “Telling” would be their first time on stage. To prepare them, Schmor offered a performance class during the fall semester geared especially toward the production.

Two hundred eighty-five people crammed into the Veterans Memorial Building auditorium near the campus on February 7 for opening night of the three-show run. This was 45 more than expected; another 40 had to be turned away. Three hundred attended the second performance, 245 the third. Among them were current military personnel and veterans, young men with close-cropped hair and “old timers,” grizzled and graying; UO students, some even younger; a spattering of university faculty; university, city and state officials, including representatives from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s and Rep. Peter DeFazio’s offices; and townsfolk of all stripes.

“It was a mix of people like I’ve never seen at a production in Eugene,” said Schmor, who has been involved with theater in the city since his time as a graduate student here, in 1988.

I attended the first show. The play’s success stemmed from the connection it created between performer and audience. We, in the audience, sat close to the bare stage and close to one another. “Telling” mixed monologues and blocked scenes that described enlistment and boot camp, deployment, and return to civilian life, giving the student-vets a voice they would not typically otherwise have. The multi-racial cast of 11 included three women and eight men. Nine were former soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, one a recruit, and one a military wife. They played themselves as well as the recruiters, drill sergeants and fellow soldiers that characterized their various experiences in the armed forces.

Watching the student-vets act out their experiences allowed me to reconsider my oftentimes sensational and conflicted impressions of the military. For me, the performance transformed the people on stage from “veterans” to individuals with goals and dreams not so unlike those of nearly every student I teach. They were boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and sisters, history majors and student-teachers, wanna-be musicians and Peace Corps aspirants. Yet they were also young men and women who have had extraordinary experiences in the name of service, young people whose stories we, as a community, need to hear, no matter how difficult it is to do so.

Watching, I felt energized, edified and also entertained, as the performers were really funny. I, along with those around me, frequently burst into explosive laughter. There were also many audible sighs. When it was done, we all gave the vets a standing ovation.

I wasn’t alone in being moved. Activists from the peace vigil that has held weekly protests outside Eugene’s Federal Building since the Iraq War began attended opening night. Exiting the auditorium, one enthusiastically said to another, “By the end I really came to love them.”

For the VFSA, a significant goal, beyond initiating community dialogue, was outreach -- to make other vets aware of the organization. On that score, the play was also successful, as membership in the organization continues to grow at an unusually high rate, from the original 20 to over 75 since the play’s February run. (The university estimates there to be about 400 veterans on campus, though the actual number is impossible to verify, as only those on the GI Bill have to identify themselves.)

Another goal of the veteran students’ group was to strive for greater exposure, and beyond Eugene, “Telling” has generated immediate buzz. Since the play’s opening, several colleges and universities around the state have contacted the association to have “Telling” performed on their campuses, as have a handful of veterans’ organizations. This has resulted in a scheduled five-venue tour for this coming summer. Likewise, at the Student Veterans of America Conference, hosted by Vetjobs and the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs in Chicago, the VFSA was adopted as a national model for organizations across the country looking into the issue of veterans on campuses.

Wei, who now lives in Austin, Texas, has begun working to make the project formula portable so that student-veteran groups nationwide can adapt “Telling” to their own memberships and communities. The process of interviews/script/performance requires specific local application to be most beneficial. While Eugene’s version might resonate with Austin audiences, for instance, it will only truly do the work of reconnecting vets and communities if a University of Texas version is produced, with UT student-vets speaking to individuals from their own community.

Given the UO success, this is an outcome worth aspiring to.

David Wright
Author's email:

David Wright, author of Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers (Scribner 2001), teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Valuing Veterans

As American military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue on unabated, colleges have begun to see greater numbers of veterans flow onto their campuses. And issues of how to accommodate the influx, which is only expected to grow in the years ahead, are climbing the ladder of concerns for college administrators.

As they do so, they should pay special note to the fact that many combat veterans return with mental health needs that can complicate educational achievement. In addition to specific disorders such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, combat veterans experience psychosocial disruption as they rapidly transition from the role from warrior to that of student.

Our work with combat veterans has helped to identify the stresses they experience upon return to college, and to develop a comprehensive yet efficient and quite inexpensive intervention program, called Combat2College, which we’d like to think is replicable on campuses around the country.

The core of C2C, as we call the program, is an ongoing, “seamless” collaboration between a Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and a community college. C2C provides substantial and comprehensive services to faculty, staff and students, yet remains efficient and simple because it centers on making small adjustments to existing college activities and resources, and works closely with existing VA clinical services.

The goals of Combat2College are many: inclusiveness, removal of stigma, respect and appreciation, coordination with veterans’ resources, building camaraderie, and having a “small footprint” by not disrupting existing college activities nor requiring expensive resources.

C2C is inclusive and serves all veterans, disabled or not. Inclusiveness is crucial because many veterans with post-combat adjustment difficulties will not admit to those problems. This “silent” group poses difficult problems to departments of special services. Standard procedures for such programs begin with the student coming to the departments and identifying themselves as having a problem and needing help. Designing methods to reach and help this large but silent group of veterans has been challenging, and specific methods are described later in this article.

To serve all veterans, we have worked hard to destigmatize the program, in two ways. First, the overwhelming emphasis within Combat2College is on identifying how military experience and training are positive assets that can be channeled toward the formation of attitudes and behaviors to promote success in college. Second, the program does not emphasize post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other disorders experienced by veterans of the ongoing wars. It is realistic and truthful, and notes that these are problems experienced by some veterans, and provides information regarding referral resources and positive coping skills. However, the primary focus is on assisting the veteran to explore and identify the aspects of military training and combat experience that promote personal strength and psychological resilience, and how these can be channeled toward success in college.

It is difficult to quantify the benefit veterans receive from entering a college environment that conveys respect and appreciation, but there can be no question of the immense value of communicating "thank you for your service" and "welcome home." In C2C, these messages are communicated early -- typically before the veteran starts classes -- often, and from multiple sources. Another demonstration of respect derives from the faculty training program described below. Knowing that the college administration has placed high value on the veteran, and that faculty have invested precious training time to learn basic information about the veteran's military and combat experiences, is an indirect but powerful communication that the institution values the veteran.

The removal of stigma must be balanced by the availability of appropriate clinical and psychosocial resources for veterans in need. The stigma associated with these resources can be mitigated by disseminating knowledge of resources to all veterans, not just to those singled out as being in need. In Combat2College, education regarding available resources begins before the veteran starts classes, and, most importantly, does not wait until there is a crisis.

Focus groups with combat veterans who had already enrolled in college revealed a common theme of distress and discomfort until “connecting” with other veterans on campus. Our program, therefore, includes numerous formal and informal ways for veterans to find each other. All are devoid of stigma and integrated within traditional college activities and courses.

The final guiding objective of C2C was to have a "small footprint" on existing college programs and services. In practice, this meant utilizing existing resources, such as courses already within the curriculum, but making small adjustments to enhance their relevance and usefulness to veterans. Faculty training was especially challenging and was addressed by segmenting a day-long training program into short, self-contained modules, such that multiple modules could be combined into a day-long workshop during faculty orientation week, or used singly during a departmental in-service session.

The objectives of Combat2College have been achieved by making small and inexpensive adjustments in many areas of the college, including the Web site, initial admission information packet, faculty training, creation of a Veterans Club within the normal club structure of the college, modest modifications to introductory courses, creation of a multidisciplinary Veterans Committee, and close coordination with the District of Columbia Veterans Administration Medical Center.

A wealth of high quality training material, suitable for both faculty and students, already exists. This material incorporates cutting-edge input from leading scientists, has extremely high production values, and is available at no charge. The training material is freely available on the National Center for PTSD, Brain Injury Association, and Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center Web sites.

The above media can be enriched by discussions such as: 1) the assumptions, belief systems, sensitivities, and political views that can affect student/teacher relationships and the teaching environment for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans; 2) comparisons of present veterans’ return-to-home experiences to prior warrior-to-civilian transitions (e.g. Life magazine photos of ticker-tape parades for returning World War II veterans); 3) the differences between transition from high school to college, versus transition from combat to college; and 4) analysis of factors in the current college environment that might cause difficulty or discomfort to veterans, and exploration of how to mitigate these.

A preponderance of community colleges have courses designed to help students generally make the transition to college, like Montgomery College's DS106 and DS 107. These "how to be successful at college" courses most frequently use one of two texts, Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life (Downing, 2005) or Your Guide to College Success: Strategies for Achieving Your Goals (Santrock and Halonen, 2007), or a curriculum designed by the professor to cover similar issues and topics.

Careful review of these courses indicated that they could be made "veteran relevant" with only minor adjustments and without interfering with the courses achieving their primary original objectives. These adjustments proved to be nearly identical for both courses and therefore are presented below as general recommendations. The most important adjustments were: 1) adding information about veterans’ resources to the sections describing general college resources for students; 2) in the sections regarding student self-exploration, exploration of how military training and combat experience can contribute positive attitudes and skills to promote success in college; 3) since this curriculum typically includes teaching students about learning disability, adding curriculum regarding post-traumatic stress disorder and combat stress; and 4) in the typical descriptions of the differences between high school and college cultures, adding material regarding the differences between military and college cultures (shouting, curt answers, and scowling may be normative in the military, but alienating and even frightening to civilian college students and faculty).

Using the above and similar procedures to make a college more welcoming and hospitable will produce widespread benefit, but there will remain a portion of veterans who have significant mental health issues. The Returning Veterans Outreach and Education Clinic at Washington's V.A. Medical Center, and similar programs at V.A. polytrauma centers throughout the country, provide services to all returning veterans with any type of mental health issue. Services include outreach, education, assessment, and treatment. A therapist from the D.C. clinic visits Montgomery College regularly and facilitates veterans’ access to the entire range of these benefits and services. Similar close linkages are realistic and feasible between Veterans Affairs programs and colleges.

In summary, C2C demonstrates that it is possible to create a “veteran friendly” college using efficient and inexpensive interventions. The interventions do not disrupt the activities of the college, rely heavily on existing resources, and essentially have a small and non-disruptive footprint. While veterans with mental health problems so severe as to prevent effective college participation without assistance are served, the program addresses and seeks to provide benefit to all veterans, even those who deny or refuse to identify themselves as being in difficulty or needing services.

Lastly, while the program is realistic regarding combat-related psychopathology, it also assists the student to self-explore ways in which military training and combat experience can be a source of strength and can be channeled towards facilitating success.

Rose Sachs and the CTC Team
Author's email:

Rose Sachs is director of special services at Montgomery College. Other contributors to this essay include Joseph Bleiberg, Gregory Leskin, Stacey Pollack, Mathew Reinhart, Joan Goagh, Larry Miller and Lee Becker.

The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum Est

Cane. Short haircut. Young. Here in a community college, that means “Veteran. Wounded.” I always introduce myself to see what help they need at school. Or perhaps what help I need, because I am so ashamed of what I, the people, have put these veterans through with little result or purpose.

One cane I’ll call Tony I’ve lost altogether. He wasn’t thirty years old. An improvised explosive devise, an IED, in Iraq had caused his wounds, he told me. Brain trauma, which showed in his speech and thinking. The limp was because the IED had broken his neck. In the fog of war, no one had discovered the fracture until he was in a hospital in Germany. Just the effort of walking left him sweating in the lobby. He had his veterans benefits paperwork. A colleague and I made sure he had what he needed and knew the right lines to register. I looked two days later. Tony wasn’t registered. I telephoned. He’d been mugged on the subway. I talked with his father. I offered to drive over and pick Tony up. We couldn’t get Tony back to school. He only wanted to go to community college for job training. Another cane is still in school.

For the sake of these canes, and the coffins, too, how about an assignment for us all this week? Let’s distribute at every meeting and every class we attend this week copies of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” (Click to download, or see below.) Ask two questions. Did Owen write this to train English majors? How can we prevent these scenes from ever happening again?

What is war but the petulant refusal to solve a problem by other means? Who’s accountable for a citizenry able to solve impossible problems? Colleges and universities? My teaching self keeps asking. Any gathering of one or more U.S. academic leaders is quick to proclaim that the U.S. has the finest higher education system in the world. Are we failing in classrooms if our graduates create a world of so many canes and coffins?

Fine to stop here if you’ll agree to read and assign to every student and friend in sight either Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming or Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, both by Jonathan Shay. A MacArthur Prize winner, Shay is a psychiatrist who works with combat veterans. My clumsy paraphrase of Shay’s argument: Combat is exponentially worse than anyone who hasn’t been there can imagine. We’d have to be crazy to think a society can train and send young people to kill and then expect those same young people to return to civilian life and live happily ever after.

With a trivial yet-4F childhood injury in my already charmed life, I absolved myself of any thought of war or military service when my turn came, in Vietnam. Through circumstance in recent years, I’ve met these Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in my classes and my office every day. Three friends have been at war. Two in Iraq. One in Afghanistan. I just never knew if the three would reply to the next e-mail. Those were friends. I cannot imagine what a family endures.

What little I really know of war I’ve learned over the past three years. Each semester, I’ve had at least one Iraq or Afghanistan veteran in a class or looking for help to apply to a four-year college. I wish, I wish Tony’s story were the exception. Twice I’ve been to events where the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School honor students who are veterans or in uniform. Sitting with these students, twice, I could only wonder why we, the people, were sending these thoughtful, intelligent and dedicated human beings to war. Ever. As a group, these were finer people than I’ve ever encountered in any job I’ve ever had. I can’t imagine any of them making the mistakes that are routine on Wall Street.

I’ve tried asking veterans if they feel that we, the people, truly understand our role in sending troops to war. The soldiers are not the ones to ask. They went because, in the U.S. system of government, we sent them through our representatives in Congress. Those against a war are as responsible as those in favor.

I turned instead to two friends in higher education, Jim Wright, a Marine who just retired as president of Dartmouth, and Linda Bilmes, a Kennedy School professor who is co-author of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. Wright and James Selbe of the American Council on Education have for years been visiting military hospitals, to help wounded troops go on to college.

“We need to recognize the full costs of war when we agree to take on a war. And caring for the men and women who have served is a part of the cost,” Wright said. He was back from his 19th visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “This is our legacy and our responsibility.”

The Devil's Workshop
Highly Selective
Veterans Day Survey

Institution Current Undergraduate Veteran Enrollment
Yale 0
Princeton 0
Williams 0
Harvard 4
Dartmouth 16
Stanford 30
Bunker Hill
Community College

(c)Inside Higher Ed

Bilmes focused on where colleges and universities may have succeeded in research but failed in education, in teaching future leaders to analyze and to think through a problem. “Before the Iraq war we were told that it could cost $60 billion. The economics adviser, Lawrence Lindsay, was fired for suggesting that the cost could be as high as $200 billion,” Bilmes said. “We now know the war has already cost us $1 trillion and the long-term costs -- once you take veterans health care and disability compensation and economic costs into account -- will exceed $3 trillion. Why wasn't there any discussion of this beforehand?” As reported here in 2007, Bilmes herself suffered for trying to discuss the true costs ahead.

Back to Owen and the “blood shod,” the lame and the blind, “Drunk with fatigue” and the “the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” The traditional press may agonize over publishing images of the dead and wounded we, the people, sent to war. The Web is ahead of traditional media. In Google Images search “Iraq, wounded” to see the people Wright and Selbe champion. Wilfred Owen would recognize the scenes.

Even with the generous new (It’s about time) G.I. Bill, veterans struggle. I know the enlisted men and women, not the officers from the Kennedy School and HBS, whose readjustment is difficult enough. I wrote here about a former sniper, struggling to stay in school. He is okay for now. Barely. Enrollment in a third-tier state university by a veteran with Ivy League ability is survival, not victory.

IHE has also written about John Around Him, an Oglala Sioux who drove a tank in the Iraq war. John is beginning his second year at Dartmouth. With what I know now about enlisted veterans and the obstacles they face, a miracle is the only explanation I have for John’s success.

Another, wounded in Iraq but no cane, has vanished. He writes better than I do. Juggling school and family and work and slim finances was too much. Something always disrupted our agreement to visit the (heroic) Boston Veterans Center Friday afternoons. Part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Vet Centers, championed by Garry Trudeau in Doonesbury, focus on combat veterans. (See Trudeau’s citations here.) Remember that most enlisted men and women started out in poverty and then return, carrying the trauma of war, to that same struggle. Poverty is difficult enough without PTSD.

Let’s hand out Owen’s poem this week and see what we can discover.


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wick Sloane
Author's email:

Wick Sloane writes The Devil’s Workshop for Inside Higher Ed. He teaches at Bunker Hill Community College and is the author of “Common Sense,” a pamphlet asking if the bachelor’s degree is obsolete. Download the pamphlet free here.

The Story of an Essay

War is with us in community college. Students from Eritrea. Ethiopia. Lebanon. The Sudan. Somalia. The drug wars in Colombia. The Congo. Afghanistan. Iraq. Bunker Hill Community College this semester had 388 U.S. military veterans. The unofficial counts I’ve seen make that the most of any institution in Massachusetts – including the universities and all their graduate schools. BHCC Veterans of all Nations is the name of the student organization. All who have lived through war may join, and members include students from every African conflict, all sides in the Middle East and the Colombian drug wars.

One afternoon in March, I was visiting a seminar pulled together this semester to address the many needs of these men and women. That afternoon, we were taking an inventory of what was missing so far in the college’s offerings for them, services and courses. Algebra review. More about transferring to four-year colleges. More help with Veterans Affairs’ red tape. Careers beyond law enforcement and corrections.

"Do you think Tim O’Brien would come visit?” one student asked. The class had read a few chapters from The Things They Carried, by the Vietnam veteran/author.

I’d try, I said. This was on a Wednesday. I explained that such authors usually had complex schedules. A visit probably couldn’t happen this semester. Then, at home that evening, my e-mail inbox had an announcement from the Harvard Book Store. Tim O’Brien was coming in three weeks on the 20th anniversary tour of The Things They Carried. I set off smiling, dialing, Googling, e-mailing. By Sunday, O’Brien had agreed, gladly, to visit the BHCC veterans while in town.


The Devil's Workshop
Highly Selective
Veterans' Day Survey

Institution Current Undergraduate Veteran Enrollment
Yale 0
Princeton 0
Williams 0
Mount Holyoke 3
Smith 3
Harvard 4
Dartmouth 16
Stanford 30
Bunker Hill Community College 388

With 388 veterans eager to see an author of so many books revered by faculty and students anyway, the scene at the reading was a mob. I heard that a Vietnamese student had spoken with O'Brien afterward and that she and O'Brien had ended up embracing, both in tears. I tracked down the student. She didn't have enough money to buy one of O'Brien's books, I learned. Tim O'Brien sent a copy, signed to her.

In the meantime, Mount Holyoke College put this student on the waiting list. I suggested that she write up her experience with O'Brien and that we send that to Mount Holyoke, to keep the persistence on. Mount Holyoke did accept the student. Her essay is below (reprinted with her permission). All I'll say as a teaser is that her grandfather, who recently died, was a Viet Cong general.


Reflection by Tam Nguyen May 10, 2010

The author Tim O’Brien came to Bunker Hill on March 25th for an event hosted by the Veterans Club. The event drew so many people that the A Lounge, where it took place, became overcrowded. People were standing wherever they could find a spot -- at tables, near the podium, and they even filled the hallway leading to the lounge. Despite the mass of people, the audience was silent. As I came into the room, I was drawn into an invisible circle that trapped me, and the force drawing the audience and me in was Tim O’Brien. He was casually dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and his favorite baseball cap. He spoke slowly without too much volume. Every word he uttered was clear, concise, factual, and devoid of excess emotion. Each word, however, trapped the audience in an emotion, and besides me, I saw a few others shedding tears from his presentation.

I joined the audience in the middle of the event, after finishing up at work. When I came, O’Brien was discussing “The Man I Killed,” one of the most famous stories in his novel The Things They Carried. “The Man I Killed” describes O’Brien’s reaction when he looked at the dead body of an enemy he just killed. O’Brien looked at the man’s wounds and imagined different stories about him. He was a young boy with a typical life who wished every day that the Americans would leave, so he would not have to join the war. The story, at every moment it was discussed, evoked many personal feelings and memories from me.

It’s commonly said that war distorts all the values of humanity. War only allows action, which is that a man kills another man, so he will not be killed himself. But, to learn this deconstruction of humanity from a soldier who was put in a situation where it was either kill or be killed, brings the cruelty of war to a new dimension. This extreme situation pushes a human into a dead-end; it traps him or her in a corner where the only choice is either to give up on conscience, or to die. How come this type of situation dominates war, when people all across the world are taught not to kill? We understand that when a soldier kills another human, he has a good reason to do so: he is trying to protect himself and survive.

However, war causes combatants to lose sight of the value of humanity. The act of killing another human crosses a line which devalues the life of another human being. Once the line is crossed, what the soldiers see and feel becomes the hidden part of war that only a soldier, not an outsider, can tell. And I think the most of this hidden part has been covered in the darkness of war trauma, which Vietnamese and American soldiers all experienced. At least, that is what I found out from my family members and friends.

My family has many members who were devoted to the war. They fought and killed to survive and contribute to a Vietnamese victory. They were honored and received many medals and rewards which they should be proud of. Yet, besides their accomplishments, I have never heard a specific war story vividly describing a battle.

For example, my uncle often used words like “we fought,” “we won,” and “we lost.” He never told stories about what actually happened: who he met, how he fought, or what he thought about the war. In fact, my uncle and the millions of participants, real people, are hidden behind characters. There is a key emotion that is always missing from history texts, novels, and movies, seemingly because no one really knows the truth or they just never tell. I wanted to get the answer from my uncle, but he usually stayed quiet and immersed himself in deep thought whenever I asked him about the battles he participated in. He would never tell me anything, and I could feel that the war created a secret circle around him which would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Another person that the war will bother for eternity is my friend Arthur. He is an American Vietnam veteran, who is devoted to obtaining an education and helping his fellow veterans. After leaving the war, he suffered for many years. In spite of the trauma plaguing Arthur, he fights the pain with optimism, which has gotten him through all his days.

One day, I asked him about his time in Vietnam. He smiled and joked about the “lousy” food he ate and the deep forests he had been through. But just like my uncle, he would not talk about the enemies he faced and how he fought. Again, the war remains hidden! How amazing it is that two individuals from two opposite cultures, who fought on opposing sides in a horrible war, share the same feelings?

Throughout the event, these experiences and connections were running through my head, and the stories were capturing me in the invisible circle. I wondered why, when Tim O’Brien was speaking about his own experiences, I couldn’t get away from the similarities to my own experiences. The presentation came to an end, and I decided to stay afterward. I joined the line, which was meant for Tim O’Brien to sign his books, even though I didn’t have one of his books and couldn’t buy one, either. I just thought that I had to talk to him.

While I was waiting in line, memories again encircled me, and many thoughts came into my mind. I kept thinking about my grandfather who passed away. He was a General in the American War, and if all the soldiers I know keep the war hidden, my grandfather -- who had more war stories than anyone in my family -- also had more secrets as well. Then my mind wandered to my high school literature teacher who lost her whole family in the war, and was disabled by a bomb in 1972. I also recalled a taxi driver whom I met last year, who was laughing when he told me that the Vietnam War cost him his two brothers. And right before I got to Tim O’Brien, I thought about my friend Arthur, who came back with a hidden part of his life which he barely shares with others. I wanted to tell Tim O’Brien all I knew and to express to him all my emotions. But, once I came up to him all I could say was my name and that with all that I have heard, we, both Vietnamese and Americans, share the same feelings. The moment was unforgettable. We hugged each other, and just like the shared emotions, we both cried.

I was drawn to Tim O’Brien by an invisible circle of war experiences and memories, probably because I somehow felt its existence by my own experiences and memories. He was the first one to open up and share such intensive stories of the war, and gave me the emotions that I have been searching for. I cried and cried as I felt connected to O’Brien and the soldiers on both sides. But above all, it was the greater understanding of my uncle, my grandfather and Arthur that I appreciated the most. We know that nothing can be changed about the war. Time can never be turned back. There are wounds to be healed and others that won’t disappear. However, we move on and find peace of mind by knowing that we at least share the same feelings with someone, somewhere.

Wick Sloane
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