“Home: it was less of a place than an act of imagination now, a realm fundamentally disconnected from what life had become. The time difference was part of it—dawn in America was dusk in Iraq—but after nine months it was more than that. Soldiers had a hard time explaining Iraq to one another; how could they explain it to someone whose life had nothing to do with the pucker factor of climbing yet again into a Humvee?”
—“The Good Soldiers,” by David Finkel, in Standing Down: From Warrior to CivilianSince September 11, 2001, approximately 2.5 million American military personnel have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, or both. More than a third of them were deployed more than once. Given these enormous numbers, many people are personally connected to a recently returned veteran. The connection may be close—a niece, a brother, a cousin, a spouse—or it may be more distant—a colleague’s daughter, a former student, a childhood friend. Even if you don’t personally know a veteran, they are important members of your community. And sadly, many of them struggle to reintegrate themselves into home environments that feel very different upon their return.
The challenges veterans face when transitioning to postwar civilian life are not unique to recent vets. Productively reintegrating into their communities, recovering from emotional and/or physical wounds, and relating to family and friends who haven’t experienced the reality of war have all been daunting "welcome home" tasks of soldiers for centuries. From the Civil War to both World Wars, from Korea to Vietnam—some things, it seems, never change.
It’s hard to know how to support our veterans. Is there a way to ease their transition? At the Great Books Foundation, we grappled with that question and wondered if reading and discussing literature could help. Could we provide an opportunity for vets to come together and reflect on their war experience? Could Shared Inquiry™ discussion help vets support each other and create a forum for friends and families to better understand the perspectives of their loved ones?
Our answer to these questions resulted in a powerful new anthology: Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian. With 44 selections ranging from Homer’s Iliad to personal accounts by vets who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, the collection is ideal for veterans, friends, and families, as well as readers interested in the meaning of war and military service. Standing Down was created for Talking Service, our new initiative to develop reading and discussion programs for veterans.
Talking Service features discussions focused on the stories, essays, personal accounts, and poetry in Standing Down; skilled discussion leaders who help participants speak up about their service experiences and the challenge of returning to civilian life; and convenient discussion sites at veteran’s service centers and other local community centers.
Reactions to Talking Service and Standing Down have been incredibly positive at veterans centers in the Chicago area, and discussions are scheduled through the end of the year. Authors whose work appears in Standing Down (such as Ed Hrivnak) are also starting discussion groups in other parts of the country.
“The enthusiastic support of Talking Service by veterans themselves has been overwhelming and gratifying,” says Donald Whitfield, Director of Great Books Discussions and founder of the Talking Service program. “In many years of leading Shared Inquiry discussions, I have rarely had the privilege of being with such insightful and tough-minded individuals who engage with ideas as if their lives depended on it.”
Of all the outstanding anthologies the Foundation publishes, Standing Down is a personal favorite. When my father—an Air Force veteran— returned from Vietnam in 1973, vets were vilified and scorned on their return. I was too young to wonder about his distress, but now I can imagine how difficult it was for him. I thought about my dad’s experience when I read a 2011 Pew Research Center survey that found 44% of veterans surveyed who served in the ten years since the 2001 attacks acknowledged that reentry to civilian life was difficult for them. Standing Down and Talking Service are the Foundation’s efforts to acknowledge the struggles of all veterans and to hopefully lessen them.
The national book release for Standing Down will take place on December 4 at Chicago’s Pritzker Military Library. The event will include a panel of the book’s contributors, including Benjamin Busch, Ed Hrivnak, and Edward Wood Jr . The book release is open to the public, so we invite you to attend. You can register now or read more about the event.
There are numerous ways you can become involved with Talking Service, whether you are a veteran yourself, a veteran’s family member, or a concerned citizen who wants to support those who have served in the armed forces. For more information, visit talkingservice.greatbooks.org or call 312-646-7167.
Talking Service is supported by generous grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Wounded Warrior Project, and the Plante-Moran Company. Standing Down was funded by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Sharon Crowley works in marketing at the Great Books Foundation.