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Book Review: Operation Homecoming Edited by Andrew Carroll

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A soldier writes home to his mother:

Dear Ma,

They call them HERO missions, and they're the worst kind.
It's the body bag in the back that makes the trip rough.

Think of this as a book born out of our collective psyche, from Americans who are witness to an event that is shaping this, and subsequent generations.

Sometimes, it's not one writer who tells the story, but several. This is the case with Operation Homecoming: Iraq Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families, edited by Andrew Carroll. It's an anthology of stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Written by soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines, as well as family members, Operation Homecoming chronicles firsthand experiences in the form of essays, short stories, and poetry.

Military Ambulance. From the author's personal collection.The story of how this project came together is worth telling, for it was a broad reaching and collective effort. Operation Homecoming was the culmination of a several years long project thought of and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. According to Dana Gioia, a poet and the former chairman of the NEA, the project was formulated in a tavern full of poets. Many had experience either as veterans or military family members. This is not a surprising. For centuries, poets have chronicled life, whether in meter or free verse. Poets put both imagery and emotions into words. 

From this came a series of writing workshops sponsored by the NEA for military members and their families. They were facilitated by an august group of writers and poets from all genres, such as Tom Clancy and Judith Ortiz. Some soldiers were still deployed, others had rotated out, and many were recovering from life changing injuries. Included were spouses and parents.

Poet and former NEA Chairman, Dana GioiaIn all, this was the chance for soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines to write — in whatever form they wanted — their experiences about war. The response was overwhelming, a watershed of faxes, emails, satellite calls from Baghdad and Kabul, wanting to partake. In all, there were 50 workshops at 25 bases, in five countries. Over 6,000 troops and spouses took them, and another 25,000 received  instruction through audiobook. Let it be said —  this was the crowning achievement during Gioia's tenure as NEA chair.

There were over 2,000 submissions for the book. The selection committee included writers, historians, journalists and editors, who gamely whittled down the final pieces for this book. And what is left is a full story of these wars, the impact, and an accounting of a nation transitioning from unaware, to awake but staggering under the newfound realization.

A mother who lost her son writes:

The Days have become different. Sorrow is a tiny tile in the mosaic, which doesn't lesson the sadness, and flashes of grief still come.

In a poem, a soldier reflects on a cat found in Afghanistan:

She came to me skittish, wild.
The way you're meant to be,
surrounded by cruelty.
I did not blame her.
I would do the same.

A soldier recounts the despicable:

And then there was the matter of rapes. He'd even seen Audin's soldiers taking the boys into their barracks.

This collection represents the experience, not the political divisions that mire discussions among civilians. Operation Homecoming reflects the feelings of those who feel privileged to have the opportunity to bring change, to the frustrations trying to comprehend the culture, and even the difficulties families have navigating life the military way.

Often, it's not the big book written by the telegenic personality who tells the best story of war. It's not the journalist embedded with the troops, nor the General with the big publisher's advance. It's books like this, a collection of small stories, always there — voices insisting to be heard.  We get to witness history written by those on the ground with no other motive than their relate their experience. Operation Homecoming defines the best and worst of who we are as Americans. Easily, this is a classic in war literature.

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