Chapel Hill -NC Vets For Words 2016

Vets for Words 2016 Poster

NC Vets For Words: A Veterans’ Book Group gives veterans a chance to connect with one another, share their experiences, and strengthen their sense of community through literature and discussion. The group is open to any veteran, regardless of age, gender, or branch of service. We will meet once a month for five months starting on Weds. March 23, 2016 to discuss a selection of short readings (10 - 40 pages per session) broadly related to war and homecoming.

  • Each session will last approximately two hours (6-8 PM) and include dinner
  • Readings will be provided in advance and free of cost to all participants. 

This group is not a class or a therapy session, nor will participants be pressed to discuss their own service experiences.  Instead, the focus will be on reading and discussion of texts which will act as a springboard to related thoughts or experiences that participants may want to share. The conversations will be shaped and determined by the participants, but will be facilitated by: 

  • John Howell, a ten year veteran of the NC National Guard who deployed to Iraq as a combat medic in 2009-2010
  • Dr. Hilary Lithgow, an English lecturer at UNC Chapel Hill whose research and teaching focus on the literature of war

The reading list will feature writings by authors who are veterans of conflicts ranging from the Civil War to Iraq and Afghanistan including Ernest Hemingway, Karl Marlantes, Mariette Kalinowski, Brian Turner and Phil Klay among others (see below for our 2015 reading list; the 2016 reading list will be posted shortly). In the 2016 session, we will also consider the longer tradition of war writing by looking at excerpts from Homer’s Iliad and Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam. Although the readings will focus on topics that are relevant to veterans including combat, discussion will not focus solely on combat experiences, and we will make connections between the literature of war and a broad range of human experience.  

This program is free, but requires registration. Availability is first come, first served. People interested in joining the group should call John Howell at (828) 610-8387 (828 610 vets) or email him at

NC Vets For Words is a part of the Veterans Book Group program offered by the North Carolina Humanities Council in partnership with the Maine Humanities Council and eleven other state Humanities Councils across the country. The program has received major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities' Standing Together initiative, created to promote understanding of the military experience and to support returning Veterans. 

2016 Readings and Topics List

Please note:  readings will be provided in advance and free of cost to all participants.

Please note: readings for meeting 4 and 5 are provisional and may be changed depending on the interests of the group.

MEETING 1:  Weds. March 23 - Coming Home/The Military-Civilian Divide

Readings (14 pages total): Phil Klay "After War: A Failure of Imagination"(2014); Cara Hoffman, “The Things She Carried” (2014); Walt Whitman "The Dresser" (1865)**; Karl Marlantes What It Is Like To Go To War (2011) (excerpt from Chap. 9 “Home” pp. 202-207) 

**Please note: The Whitman poem is famous and relevant to the other readings for today, but it also describes wounds in graphic detail. Please feel free to skip the poem if you prefer to do so.

MEETING 2:  Weds. April 20 - Bureaucracy as a Military Experience--Comic and Tragic
Reading: Phil Klay “Money as a Weapons System” (2014)

  • Optional Additional Reading #1 “Reclamation” (11 pages): A US Marine Reserve Unit is assigned to clean up a WWI British Cemetery in Al Kut, Iraq. While the mission at first seems wasteful, given the urgent needs of the people in the city, in the end the narrator is surprised and humbled by its importance.
  • Optional Additional Reading #2 “Wednesday 2/23/05” (2 pages): A 21-year-old Specialist has a brief but memorable encounter with a young Iraqi girl.
  • Optional Additional Reading #3 “Lunch With Pirates” (13 pages): A US Army Staff Sergeant deploys to Afghanistan and encounters a situation more complicated than any “cultural sensitivity” briefing could ever have prepped him for: “I had never in my pitiful life knowingly exchanged pleasantries with a man who was regularly trying to kill me.”

MEETING 3: Weds. May 18 - Fighting for Democracy & the Dehumanizing Effects of Occupation on the Occupier

  • "The Charge of the Light Brigade"(1854) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1 page): The event this poem describes is both a military disaster (a "blunder" as the poem puts it) and a scene of immense courage and discipline, and that contrast lets it open up questions about the meaning of service that mightn't emerge otherwise. Poetry is meant to be heard not just read, and though this poem is usually read in a bold, forceful voice, I highly recommend this less obvious reading:​ 
  • "The Things They Carried"(1990) by Tim O'Brien (18 pages):  I'm guessing some of you may already have encountered this famous story, but even if you've read it before, it will reward re-reading (and for those of you who haven't read it before, settle in to enjoy a classic). O'Brien served a 13-month tour in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 (see below for more details about his service). While this story is held together by a fairly straightforward narrative about a young First Lieutenant in Vietnam, I'm hoping we'll be able to focus more on the significance of the story's title and what you make of its ideas about the weights (actual and symbolic) that service members carry. [I've attached two versions of this doc. to this email b/c one person reported having trouble opening the pdf version.]
  • "To the Fallen" (2004) Sergeant John McCary (4 pages):  This is a short and simple email written by a U.S. Army Sergeant serving in Iraq in 2004, but it echoes elements of both Tennyson's poem and O'Brien's story, and offers its own compelling description of the meaning of military service.
  • "To a Conscript of 1940"(1940) Herbert Read (2 pages):  The setup for this poem is deliberately blurring boundaries--a ghost is speaking to a soldier conscripted to serve in World War II, but the narrator makes it hard for us to tell who is the ghost and who is the living person at first.  Read, a veteran of the First World War, has a particular take on the meaning of his war and his service, but I think if you sat him down with O'Brien and McCary and those troops who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, they could have a pretty interesting conversation.  See what you think... 
  • Excerpt from Shakespeare's Henry V (2 pages):  One of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare's work, this one captures a more traditional set of ideas about military service. In some ways it is in strong agreement with the other readings for today; in other ways it is in conflict with them. The first link below is to the actual text of the speech and the relevant lines before and after it; the second link is to an excerpt from an excellent movie version of the scene, which brings the words of the speech to life in a powerful way

MEETING 4:  Weds. June 15  - Resiliency and Coping Mechanisms

Reading: John Steinbeck The Moon is Down (1942)  In this masterful tale set in Norwayduring World War II, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck explores the effects of invasion on both the conquered and the conquerors and uncovers profound, often unsettling truths about war—and about human nature.

Reading: Mariette Kalinowski "The Train" (2014); Ernest Hemingway "Big Two-Hearted River"(1925)

MEETING 5:  Weds. July 6 - Military Experience From Ancient Greece to Today

Reading: Jonathan Shay Achilles in Vietnam (excerpt) (1994); Bryan Doerries, The

Theatre of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (excerpt) (2015)

MEETING 6: August  5

Reading:  Hemingway "Big Two-Hearted River"; Ross Boyce "Forever War" [a short article, not Filkins' book of the same name!]; Brian Turner "Perimeter Watch"; Benjamin Busch "Subtext

• [optional] Adair "Why the Swamp is Tragic"


Archive of 2015 Readings and Topics: 

Coming Home / Communicating with Civilians

Readings:  Phil Klay "After War: A Failure of Imagination"(2014); Ernest Hemingway "Soldier's Home"(1925); R.H. Tawney “Some Reflections of a Soldier”(1916); Alfred, Lord Tennyson “Ulysses,” 1833

Double Vision / Flashbacks

**Please note: The Whitman poems are famous and very relevant to the other readings for this month, but they also describe wounded men in graphic detail. Please feel free to skip these poems if you prefer to do so.

Readings:   Mariette Kalinowski "The Train"(2014); Brian Turner "At Lowe's Home Improvement Center"(2010); Walt Whitman "Old War Dreams" (1865); "The Dresser" (1865); and David Morris "The Evil Hours" (2015)

Combat Experience from the Civil War to Today

Readings:  excerpt from Richard Moe's Last Full Measure (on the Civil War); excerpt from E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa (WW2); Tim O'Brien "Ambush" (Vietnam); excerpt from David Maraniss's They Marched into Sunlight (Vietnam); excerpt from David Finkel's The Good Soldiers (on Iraq in 2007)

The Impact of Combat Experience

Readings:  Karl Mirlantes -- first chapter of What It's Like to Go To War (2011); Ross Boyce, "The Forever War" (2014)

Reintegration/Family Life

Readings:  Jesse Goolsby "Touch"(2010); Siobhan Fallon "Tips for a Smooth Transition"(2014); Phil Klay, "Redeployment" (2014)