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.