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Students, Community Members Use “War Stories” to Connect With Veterans

July 20, 2015

Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photo courtesy:
Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photo courtesy:

“I remember when I came back [from serving in Afghanistan,] I wanted to talk to people. I wanted people to ask me about my experiences. I wanted people to come up to me and tell me, ‘What did you do?’ I wanted people to come up to me and tell me, ‘What was it like? What was the food like? What was the experience like? How are you doing?’ And the only questions I got from people was, ‘did you shoot anybody?" said Wes Moore, former Army combat veteran and best-selling author, during his influential TEDTalk “How to Talk to Veterans About the War.”

It’s a common experience for the 1.4 million people currently serving in the U.S. armed forces and 22 million military veterans, according to the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). That means 7.3 percent of all living Americans have served in the military at some point in their lives, experiencing training, situations and life-changing events that the rest of the population hasn’t. How does one talk to a veteran about their experiences, then?

Drexel University students and West Philadelphia community members enrolled in this summer’s side-by-side English course “War Stories” are looking for answers in the arts. By reading nonfiction books and newspaper articles and watching films and documentaries about the experiences of soldiers during and after conflict, they can better understand how to engage and listen to a veteran from the family, a group of friends, a neighborhood or anywhere else.

“‘War Stories’ is part of my small, little effort to help close the civilian-military gap and to help students build a language and a perspective about war that would allow them to help close that gap in the future,” said Robert Watts, an associate teaching professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Watts selected nonfiction accounts of soldiers’ experiences in the Battle of Mogadishu, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War, which the VA states yields the highest percentage of living wartime veterans. Texts include Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a semi-autobiographical short story collection about his time serving in Vietnam and the aftermath of that war for a group of soldiers; “Thank You For Your Service,” which documents the struggles a unit of soldiers from Kansas experienced after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq; and The Philadelphia Inquirer’s 1997 series “Black Hawk Down,” later made into a book and a movie.

Additionally, the class researched the history and culture of the times during which these wars were fought. Most of the community students can speak to their own experiences with wars and the period in which they were fought, which Drexel students can learn from during the discussion-based class.

“The community students are often 20 to 40 years older than the Drexel students, so they bring knowledge of the 1960s and the Vietnam War. And they bring the experience of older people who have learned about death and war and the devastating impact war often has on soldiers and on families,” Watts said.

The students agree. “You just get a perspective outside of Drexel University, which isn’t a perspective about learning that everyone has,” said Jordan Stone, an undergraduate computer science major.

Cover of the first edition of "The Things They Carried," one of the novels students in "War Stories" have read.

Students make up a majority of the class. When plans to partner with a local veterans group fell through, the class became open to community members, most of whom are civilians. There is one Vietnam War veteran in the class, and one community student is a researcher on military issues but didn’t serve himself.

“I just have an interest in war subjects,” said David Robinson, a community member and a Vietnam veteran. “I’m a veteran from Vietnam and I know the experiences I have myself. I’ve grown from trauma. It’s like a healing class.”

Watts’ long interest in war and the experience of war inspired him to teach the community-based learning course. His father was a World War II veteran who served in France, Germany and Okinawa, and Watts was a government major in college. Most of all, he says, his motivation didn’t come from his politics or family history, but through his former profession as a newspaper reporter.

“I interviewed people about all kinds of experiences, some of them quite awkward,” he explained. “What I noticed is that people respond well when they have a serious listener asking them about their lives. People come alive in recounting their experiences. They share insights and feelings they haven’t publicly shared with anyone when there is an engaged listener on the other end.”

That experience came in handy when Watts thought about the best ways of emotionally supporting American soldiers. 

“My view is that citizens need to support soldiers whether or not we support the specific wars the soldiers fight,” he said. “I believe we have an obligation to try our best to understand and imagine the war experiences our soldiers undergo.  But Americans are frightened about doing the deep listening that is required to provide that emotional support.  We call veterans ‘heroes’ and say ‘support the troops’ while standing a mile away, which leads to a lot of isolation and alienation among vets. I think we can be better citizens in thinking about war if we come to learn more about what soldiers really go through.”

“War Stories” is the newest community-based-learning course taught in the College of Arts and Sciences that takes place at Writers Room, one of the newest offerings from Drexel’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. The first course “English 360: Philadelphia Stories,” focused on fiction and nonfiction written by contemporary African-American authors who lived in Philadelphia.