They are raw, authentic voices from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An infantryman describes the shock wave from a car bomb blast as it strikes him in the chest. An officer loses himself in push-ups as he contemplates the lost life of a young Marine whose body he must escort home for burial. A pilot's wife anxiously imagines life without him as she awaits news after a helicopter just like the one he flies is reported down near his camp in Iraq.
At a time when embedded correspondents provide daily dispatches from the front lines, the National Endowment for the Arts is in the midst of a major effort to capture what journalists cannot, no matter how close they get--firsthand accounts from the warriors and the families they leave behind.
The NEA has launched Operation Homecoming, an initiative to encourage and collect writing by soldiers and their families--everything from formal poems and narratives to casual letters home and e-mails, blog notes and journal entries.
In a project akin to New Deal-era programs that sent writers and artists across the country to document the social dislocations of the Depression, the NEA is offering free workshops at bases to nurture new writers among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Such authors as Tom Clancy and Mark Bowden, who wrote "Black Hawk Down," have led seminars.
Writing from soldiers and their families is being collected in an archive for future historians, and the best work is to be published in an anthology due out next year. Already, the NEA has received more than 750 entries in advance of a March 31 deadline for submissions.
"The richness and the diversity is fascinating. It's not that they're writing the same things again and again," said Andrew Carroll, who is editing the anthology. "You get not just what the combat correspondent beside them observes. . . . This is the internal feeling of warfare."
A range of emotion
A sampling of the entries offers tales of longing and loss, hope and human ingenuity, fear and loathing, creeping paranoia and relationships forged across a cultural divide.
There are the quiet reflections of a father offering advice to his sons after flying a nighttime mission over ancient Mesopotamia.
There are chaotic moments of battle, as when a National Guardsman describes his sinking spirits as he crouches for cover in a watery canal while under fire from insurgents in the Sunni Triangle.
"For a brief moment, I felt we had an advantage. I was kidding myself. . . . I was being shot at from three different directions and I was scared," wrote Staff Sgt. Eric Hunt, 37, of Newburgh, N.Y.
There also are moments of humor, as when an Air Force captain describes how a co-pilot, already rattled by tracer fire earlier in the evening, reacts upon noticing an orange glow tracking their plane in the sky.
"He took evasive action. That is how we avoided being shot down by . . . (a) Potentially Hostile Celestial Object, and that is how he earned himself the nickname `Moon,'" wrote Capt. Steven Givler of Warner Robbins, Ga.
The project has excited interest in the military community, with the Defense Department acting as co-sponsor and senior officials at the Pentagon providing enthusiastic public support. The NEA doubled the number of workshops originally planned so it could expand to cover 20 military bases and hospitals. Not satisfied with written entries, some soldiers also have sent the agency watercolor paintings and cartoons.
But the endeavor also has stirred suspicions in the arts community, where some fear it will allow the Bush administration a hand in shaping the first wave of war literature and thus mute criticism. The role of the Defense Department and the co-sponsorship of Chicago-based Boeing Co., a military contractor footing most of the project's $452,000 bill, stoke those fears.
In the Vietnam War and afterward, some of the most powerful voices against the war came from the writings of veterans, said Kevin Bowen, a Vietnam veteran and poet.
"I see this coming as a pre-emptive move, an official literature coming through the military and Pentagon," he said.
Bowen questioned how candid soldiers still in the military would be in criticism because they still must answer to the chain of command. Moreover, military public affairs officers must first review submissions from active-duty personnel, which Bowen contends may be intimidating--though the reviews are supposed to be confined to protecting military secrets.
NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said the agency is committed to keeping the program free of political influence and would base selections for the published anthology solely on artistic merit as determined by an independent panel.
"My experience with people in the armed forces is that they are fairly feisty, frank and outspoken people," Gioia said.
Officials involved with the project portray it as a way to help preserve a record of the way today's soldiers experience war during a time when pen-and-paper letter-writing has largely given way to communication by e-mail.
They also consider it a way to cultivate new writers in a long tradition of soldiers and others who have drawn on wartime experience to become important authors, among them Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut.
"Literature is that writing which lasts. And from our earliest surviving writing, war and homecomings were what moved us," said John Parrish Peede, director of the project.
At a recent two-day writing workshop at Hurlburt Field, Fla., home of the Air Force Special Operations Command, some of the participants held literary aspirations. But many of the military personnel and spouses who attended said they were mostly interested in creating a record of experiences that they could share with friends, family and future generations.
Kelly Desmond, base librarian, said many spouses sought information on the writing project almost as a form of therapy, a way they and their partners could better grasp how war had changed them.
"The thing that happens is you feel like you can't talk to that person anymore, because that person is not the same person who left," said Desmond, who is married to an Air Force officer. "I think everybody thinks, `Writers communicate thoughts. If I can learn to write, I can learn to bridge that gap,' the gap that you feel when they come home."
Many of the submissions were written soon after wrenching experiences.
Lt. Col. Michael Strobl, a 39-year-old Marine manpower officer stationed at the corps' headquarters in Quantico, Va., sat down at his home computer last April and typed out a 12-page narrative after returning from duty escorting the body of a private killed in Iraq.
A somber journey
"Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday," he began. "Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn't know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him."
Strobl went on to describe, step-by-step, the somber journey from the military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to the 19-year-old Marine's hometown of Dubois, Wyo., and his own thoughts as he traveled.
"Now, as I watched them carry him the final 15 yards, I was choking up. I felt that, as long as he was still moving, he was somehow still alive," he wrote.
Staff Sgt. Jack Lewis, a 41-year-old Army reservist who is a hardware-store clerk in Seattle, started writing e-mails to friends back home shortly after he arrived in Mosul, Iraq. He submitted a description of an attack by a suicide bomber who detonated a car bomb near Lewis' vehicle.
"You don't hear anything as the flash first spikes 80 meters into the air at the speed of light," he wrote. "Then there is a whistling rush of atmospheric displacement, fleeing ahead of a sound wave that will kick you in the chest like an angry mule. Through your body armor. Behind an armored windshield."
"When you're not in the movies, nobody gets up and dusts off their clothes," Lewis added. "Bad guys and bystanders just lie there, seeping meat juice and staring at nothing. Not even the good guys and heroes get up."
In Colorado Springs, Melissa Herman, the 30-year-old wife of an Army pilot, wrote about the day last February when she waited to find out if her husband was among casualties in a helicopter that went down.
"I think to myself, `I would know if he were gone wouldn't I? I would feel it,'" she wrote. "But then I wonder if that's even possible. Is it just some silly little girl's fantasy of how she and her lover are connected?"
It was someone else's husband who had died.
This is one of the first wars in which large numbers of women have duties that place them in danger. And the entries include writing that reflects this.
Staff Sgt. Sharon McBride, a 34-year-old public affairs officer at Ft. Richardson, Alaska, sent to NEA a letter she had written to her unborn daughter after McBride spent a year serving in an observation post in the Sinai Desert. She wrote the letter in less than two hours, at a time when friends at the fort were shipping out for Afghanistan.
"Dear baby," she started. "As you grow inside me, I have been thinking more and more of what it means to be a mommy in the U.S. Army. Let me be the first to tell you, though, that we have a rough road ahead of us, kiddo."
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A soldier's letter to her unborn child
From "Dear baby," by Staff Sgt. Sharon McBride, U.S. Army, written while pregnant with her daughter after duty in the Sinai Desert.
Her daughter is now 11 months old, and McBride was recently told she will be deployed to the Middle East in February.
"As you grow inside me, I have been thinking more and more of what it means to be a mommy in the U.S. Army.
Let me be the first to tell you, though, that we have a rough road ahead of us, kiddo. . . .
. . . I can only hope and pray that you remember the lessons I will teach while we are together and that they will help you when we are apart: Always share your cookies, never call names, remember to say `I'm sorry' if you are wrong, wash behind your ears and brush your teeth, and say `I love you' every chance you get.
Lastly, don't forget to pray for Mommy and the other parents that often have to be so far away from their little ones. We don't want to leave, but sometimes duty calls."
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`Today, I miss him'
From `Taking Chance'
by Lt. Col. Michael R. Strobl, USMC, who escorted home the body of a Marine
"Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher Medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn't know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him. . . .
. . . From Dover to Philadelphia; Philadelphia to Minneapolis: Minneapolis to Billings; Billings to Riverton; and Riverton to Dubois we had been together. Now, as I watched them carry him the final 15 yards, I was choking up. I felt that, as long as he was still moving, he was somehow still alive.
Then they put him down above his grave. He had stopped moving."
"You don't hear anything as the flash first spikes 80 meters into the air at the speed of light. Then there is a whistling rush of atmospheric displacement, fleeing ahead of a sound wave that will kick you in the chest like an angry mule. Through your body armor. Behind an armored windshield.
Instantly there is smoke, dust, falling debris. At its darkest nexus, as you steer around a crater stained by the remains of a suicidal idiot who bought a vision of martyrdom peddled by some tinpot mujihadeen, you can't see to the end of the hood. . . .
. . . When you're not in the movies, nobody gets up and dusts off their clothes. Bad guys and bystanders just lie there, seeping meat juice and staring at nothing. Not even the good guys and heroes get up. Their buddies pull them back into the vehicle and expedite to the Combat Support Hospital."
From `Girl Interrupted'
"Mariam is 28-years-old. She knows things women her age in the United States do not. A couple of weeks ago I was in Baghdad, visiting with Mariam. There was an explosion in the distance. `What do you think,' I asked, `car bomb or mortar round?' `Definitely a mortar round,' she replied. Most girls in the U.S. have a tin ear for such things."
From `One Day in February'
"I think to myself, `I would know if he were gone wouldn't I? I would feel it.' But then I wonder if that's even possible. Is it just some silly little girl's fantasy of how she and her lover are connected? . . . The cold reality is I will find out when men in uniform knock on my door. . . .
. . . Then I imagine my reaction when the news comes and there is no denying it. Recalling every war movie I've seen provides me with graphic detail of the mangled aircraft. It makes my heart ache. Though it's not real, I can feel the devastation and hurt of knowing that I am alone. I feel trapped in a tornado: screaming, crying, angry, then numb. . . .
. . . It is several days before he is able to call. I do not truly feel at ease until I hear his voice on the other line say, `Hey baby.'"
On the Internet Military families interested in contributing to the NEA project can find more information online at operationhomecoming.org Read the complete essays at chicagotribune.com/ homecoming