By Gerry J. Gilmore
WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2006 – About 50 authors, including current and former servicemen and women as well as family members, gathered in the library's Thomas Jefferson Building last evening to sign copies of a 377-page book of their observations and experiences in the global war on terrorism. "Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families," contains nearly 100 stories of personal truths observed on battlefields and at home during the war.
"What the writing did for me was very cathartic," retired Navy Dr. (Cmdr.) Edward W. Jewell said of his participation in the project. Jewell, 51, is an anesthesiologist who wrote of his experiences aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort in the Persian Gulf during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"I think the mission that the USNS Comfort performed is one of the great untold stories of the war," he said.
The Random House-published book, officially released at a ceremony before yesterday's book signing, is the product of more that two years of work. It contains 89 nonfiction and fiction stories written by nearly 100 U.S. servicemembers and family members. Some authors wrote more than one story.
David S. C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said having troops and family members record their wartime experiences "would give all Americans a better understanding of their service and sacrifice and of the sacrifice from their families."
The Operation Homecoming book project also would "help our troops grapple with the difficult challenges that duty has called upon them to confront," Chu said at the ceremony.
The anthology "tackles hard truths," Chu said, noting that good and courageous people die during wars. Yet, the book also tells of the goodness and kindness that emerges during conflict, as well as the spirit of duty to country, he said.
Jewell chronicled his shipboard observations on pages 50 to 56 of the book. In his journal entry dated March 28, 2003, he wrote: "The doctors are all bored from underutilization, but the surgeons seem particularly restless. There are so many of them and not enough cases to fill the time."
But, conditions aboard the USNS Comfort were to change drastically, as noted in Jewell's entry the following day. "We got creamed with fresh casualties last night, 30 new patients, both sides, all needing immediate and significant intervention," he wrote.
"The injuries are horrifying," he added.
The National Endowment for the Arts co-sponsors the Operation Homecoming book project, which the Boeing Company underwrites. In the book's preface, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia recalled his conversation with Marilyn Nelson, Connecticut's poet laureate, in April 2003, not long after the United States entered Iraq.
"The daughter of a Tuskegee airman, Nelson knew the pressures on military families," Gioia wrote. "Having recently taught as a visiting writer at the United States Military Academy at West Point, she suggested that the enlisted men and women might benefit from the opportunity to write about their experiences."
Gioia and Nelson discussed the differences between the literary world and the military in America.
"We spoke about how separate the worlds of literature and the military are in our society and how crucially important the art of literature might be to military personnel undergoing huge changes in their lives," Gioia wrote.
"What would happen if the nation fostered a conversation between its writers and its troops?" Gioia asked.
Gioia noted at yesterday's ceremony that Operation Homecoming kicked off April 20, 2004. Troops and family members were asked to write down their wartime experiences at workshops held at stateside and overseas bases. Celebrated writers like Tom Clancy, author of "The Hunt for Red October," Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down," and Bobbie Ann Mason, author of "In Country," and others assisted as writing coaches.
Immense demand required a five-fold increase in workshops, with 50 held between April 2004 and July 2005 at 25 military bases. More than 6,000 people participated in the workshops and related activities, submitting more than 1,200 submissions, Gioia said.
The book's editor, Andrew Carroll, praised the budding authors. "Your humanity has come through in this material, and we are so proud of every one of you," he said.
After penning his autograph onto the page of another book last night, airborne soldier and Iraq war veteran Staff Sgt. Jack Lewis, 42, reflected on his participation in the project.
"What it does for me is irrelevant," said Lewis, an Army reservist from Seattle. "I hope that it is valuable for the American public." Lewis served with two Stryker brigade combat teams during his 2004-2005 deployment in Iraq.
He wrote two non-fiction pieces for the book, "Road Work" and "Purple-Hearted." In "Purple-Hearted," Lewis describes a young soldier under his care who was destined to be wounded, Spc. Joshus Yuse, as "a near-total dingbat with no sense of planning who still manages to get things done."
Yuse went on to distinguish himself after he was wounded by an Iraqi bullet and evacuated to Germany for more medical treatment. Lewis comments on Yuse's coolness under duress and praises the young soldier for "taking it like a man."
Navy Reserve Cmdr. Kathleen Toomey Jabs, 40, whose Navy officer husband deployed to Iraq in 2004, wrote a fictional account, "Safekeeping." The writing tells the story of Brenda Croce, a military mother who is leaving her 4-year-old son Tommy to deploy to the Middle East.
Jabs wrote that Brenda told her son as she was getting ready to leave, "only the barest facts about an important Navy job Mommy needed to do." While Brenda didn't want to leave her son, Jabs described her as resolved about her mission.
Jabs, who is now a public affairs officer in the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, said the anthology offers what "we don't really get to hear -- what the soldiers and the people over there are actually thinking and experiencing."
She said she felt no pressure to write with a particular "slant" or political viewpoint. "It was totally free," she recalled, noting the writing coaches were "trying to make it a more artistic project, if anything."
A 30-day book tour at U.S. cities and military bases begins Sept. 15 in Atlanta, NEA spokesperson Sally Gifford said. The tour makes its first military base stop at Fort Benning, Ga., on Sept. 16. A full listing of visits is posted at the Operation Homecoming Web site.