The Road Back: Poetry & Literature Reading

>>Monica Mohindra:
Good morning. Welcome to the Library and
the Veterans History Project. We’re so glad you’re here. Can everyone hear me? I have a cold, so, yeah, great. I’m so, so just honored
and pleased to be here in recognition of Veteran’s Day
with colleagues and friends, our amazing panelists all day
for this all-day symposium. The Veteran’s History
Project, as you probably know, was started in October of 2000
through unanimous legislation of Congress and passed into
law by then President Clinton. And we have over 108,000
individual stories of first-person veteran’s
experience from World War I through the recent
conflicts, and those come to us through voluntary donation
from the people who create them from all over the country. Some of them we create ourselves
with our staff and colleagues, and the vast majority,
though, come from donation. The Veteran’s History Project
considers a first-person narrative to be anything
that speaks to that first-person experience,
whether it is an oral history, our specifications are 30
minutes or longer of audio or video oral history. But also, items of personal
reflection that tell that narrative arc,
so collections of ten or more photographs,
letters, documents, or 20 or more pages
of journal or memoir. And that gets us to today and
one of the reasons that we’re so excited to kick off this
symposium, The Road Back, looking at poetry and
literature, participating in it, creating it, discussing
it, to cope with and express the veterans’
experience. I’m really excited to
introduce you to our panelists, and I’ll do that
in just a second. But I also wanted to
acknowledge our panelists from the second panel who
will be with us this afternoon and invite you to
stay, grab some lunch and come back and
see that panel. And we also have a film this
afternoon in the Pickford. Just so you know,
that’s across the street in the Madison Building. And while you’re here,
you might as well check out the World War I
exhibit, which is part of the reason we’re
all gathering today. So to begin, I’d like to
share a little bit about each of the panelists who are going
to be speaking with us today and a little bit about
their organizations. Immediately to my left
is Lovella Calica. She is a writer,
and I’m reading this because I want to get it right. A writer, photographer
and multimedia artist. She is the founder and
director of Warrior Writers, a creative community for veterans articulating
their experiences. She has edited four
anthologies of veterans’ writing and artwork, has received
three art and change grants from the Leeway Foundation
and was honored with the Transformation
Award in 2009. A self-published author of
two chat books of her poetry, she is currently at
work on her next book. Lovella is a cofounder of the Pilipino-American artist
collective, Tatlo Mestizas and served on the board of Culture Trust
Greater Philadelphia. Having worked closely with
primarily post-9/11 veterans for 14 years, she has trained
staff of arts organizations and universities around the
country on how to better work with and understand veterans. She is also part of the
Caregiver Program of the VA. A little about Warrior Writers. It’s a national nonprofit based
in Philadelphia whose mission is to create a culture that articulates
veterans’ experiences, builds a collaborative community
for artistic expression and bears witness to
war and the full range of military experiences. They employ writing, painting,
photography and a host of other mediums to reflect
on those personal experiences and express them creatively. Just to her left is
Mohammed Sheriff. Can I say Moe for everyone?>>Mohamed Sheriff: Yes.>>Monica Mohindra:
Moe is a literature and arts education
division coordinator at the National Endowment
for the Arts. Before taking this position,
he managed the translation and creative writing
fellowship programs for the NEA. Prior to the NEA,
he spent four years in the United States Marine
Corps and served in Korea, Kuwait, Japan, Marshall
Islands and Iraq. He received his MFA and
arts graduate certificate from American University. As you may know, the
National Endowment for the Arts was established
by Congress in 1965. It is an independent
federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans
the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise
their imaginations and develop their
creative capacities. Through partnerships with state
arch agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies and
the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts,
learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich
and diverse cultural heritage and extends its work to
promote equal access to the arts in every community
across America. I love our collection of names. Stefanie Takacs is
the executive director of the Touchstone
Discussion Project where she leads organizational
management and oversees educational
curriculum and development, teacher training and coaching. She codesigned with
Howard Zeiderman, Touchstone’s cofounder,
completing The Odyssey, a Journey Home, an NEH, National
Endowment for the Humanities, funded program for veterans, among other numerous
Touchstone Discussion Programs and several textbooks she
developed or codeveloped. She is also the author
of five books on first peoples published
by Scholastic Press. Miss Takacs earned a BA from
Saint Johns College in Annapolis and an MS in educational
psychology from Fordham University. As part of her commitment to
ensuring all people have access to Touchstone’s educational
programs, she runs two weekly
discussion groups as a volunteer within the Maryland Correctional
Institute for women. The Touchstone Discussion
Project is an educational nonprofit dedicated to
building critical thinkers and collaborative leaders through inclusive
dialog and community. Since 1984, their
programs have engaged more than five million people from
school children to [inaudible], from the most vulnerable
and at-risk populations to executives and
political leaders. Rooted in collaborative
learning and leading, they use a train the leader
approach and replicable programs to partner with teachers,
leaders, community builders and volunteers running
Touchstone discussion groups in 47 countries and
in six languages. So you see, it’s quite a panel. VHP, the Veterans History
Project, is a program of the American Folklife Center
here at the Library of Congress. And it has been known
since the beginning when it was called the
Veterans Oral History Project as primarily an effort
of oral history. However, as I mentioned
earlier, we also seek to capture the personal
narrative of veterans and their experience and notice
the influence and the emphasis on personal narrative
as expressed through the way they want to do
that themselves through letters, journal, diaries
and creative works. Those creative works
are two-dimensional. We are not looking
for sculptures of spent ammunition, thank you. But we are looking for poems and
other ways of self-expression and that two-dimensional
capacity poetry. And I’m going to
take this with me and disappear behind the podium, because I found this
amazing collection that I think really
illustrates a lot of what we’re talking
about here today. This is Joseph Rosenblum, and
you can see one of the 80 pages of his journal from World War I. Mr. Rosenblum was born
in Romania, in Romania, and he was drafted into the
US Army in April of 1918. He served in the states
in field artillery. In between guard duty
and 13-mile hikes and all the other
duties you normally hear about in these journals
and diaries and expressions of veterans’ experience,
he actually talks more about the sonnets and
fugues that he was thinking about from his time
playing the piano. And his entire journal isn’t
full of the daily doldrums of what it was like to be
a soldier, but instead, of how Voltaire made
an impression on him. Of how Tolstoy made
an impression on him. I love this page in particular. Down at the bottom
you can perhaps see in his beautifully
expressive script, one is made to kiss their books, expressing such truth
and sincere thought. So you can see from this how
much even in the midst of duty, the need to express
and create and interact with these items can be
so important to veterans. One other collection I want
to draw your attention to is that of Rona Marie Knox Prescott
who served during Vietnam as a nurse in country,
and unfortunately, lost a dear friend of hers through really difficult
circumstances. But when she came back,
she found solace in poetry. And her poems brought
her great comfort, and she left them
at the Vietnam Wall. Because she left them
at the Vietnam Wall, the family of her friend, who
passed away, was able to connect with her, and they found
solace in her poems. So I just set these sort of,
to beg a terrible analogy, touch stones to our
conversation here this morning. And I’ll go ahead and sit down
now and join our panelist. The format will go this way. I’ll ask them questions, and
they will respond to them, hopefully, in a conversational
manner. And then towards the
end, we’ll try to engage with some questions for
those of you in the audience. Thank you.>>Mohamed Sheriff: Test, test. It’s on.>>Stefanie Takacs:
I don’t think I’m on.>>Monica Mohindra:
So thank you, again, for being here with us. This question I thought
it would be nice to throw out to all three of you
for considering, which is, I just gave two examples
of collections that are, that are so important from the
personal narrative perspective, and I’m wondering if you
could talk a little bit, anyone who wants to go first,
from your experience in the work that you’ve done either
in your organizations or as an individual that’s
military-connected or a veteran. A little bit about
the importance of self-framing their
narrative for veterans and how that relates to the
creative and coping process. Is that too tough to start with? Is that a tough questions?>>Lovella Calica:
Jump right in.>>Monica Mohindra:
Is that too much? Well, you want to think
on that one, and Stef, I’ll throw you one I think
it’ll be easier for you. Would that be easier?>>Stefanie Takacs: I can
speak to the initial question. I think for us, in this work
that we started with veterans, while our work in prison
for many, many years, has included incarcerated
veterans. The work that we did through
the NEH-funded program, titled Completing the
Odyssey, a Journey Home, really gave us an opportunity to
hear from veterans, perhaps even for themselves even for the
first time, an articulation of what their experience
of service was like. For many of the veterans,
what they discovered and what we discovered along
with them through their process of revisiting and
exploring experience, was a current relevance
of that experience. And they may have tucked it away and not really revisited
those memories or the, any of the connections that
they had made to others or the connections of
service to their current life. It really was a moment of
reintegration in ways I think for many of them that they
had not really been afforded or given themselves before.>>Lovella Calica: I think to
follow up on that, I think it’s, I think in some ways, you
know, society expects veterans to have certain specific
experiences, you know, sometimes the victim
or the hero, and I think when
you do the writing, when you encourage people
to do honest writing, they get to a place
where they’re sort of pushing past those, you know, stereotypical feelings
and experiences. And you allow, you hope
to allow veterans to come to a better place of digging
deeper and maybe seeing things in a different way and
seeing things in a way that they couldn’t before. So in the military, you know,
you can only think a certain way or believe certain
things or, you know, if you’re in a hospital
setting, you know, maybe you can’t really talk
about some of the problems with the care you’re receiving. And I think for us
it’s really important that we encourage
veterans at Warrior Writers to just not censor
themselves and be really, push for that honesty and
be really open and come to deeper realizations. And through the writing do that. So, you know, some of
them have said, you know, I’m facing problems
with my care. Or I feel guilty
about what I did. So I think, I think in a lot of places you can’t really
say what you need to say or you can’t maybe feel angry
or you can’t feel betrayed or you can’t feel guilt. And I think it’s
just really important that veterans can feel just like
anybody else, whatever they need to feel and say what they
need to feel about it. So I think framing
it that way is, in terms of like just
being really open to whatever needs
to come out is okay. And I think in certain
cases, you know, not everybody’s willing
or able to hear that. But I think it’s just
really important.>>Mohamed Sheriff: Yeah, I
think for me, specifically, writing was always
something I always engaged in. And for me, writing my personal
experiences sort of starts from my childhood, I have
to go all the way back. So my parents are from Liberia,
and we came to this country because of the Liberian
Civil War. So we were in the war for at
least a year with all kinds of, you know, terrible experiences. And that sort of,
that experience sort of put a signature on my
entire life, right, you know. And I think, for me, after going
through the military and going to the military to
sort of understand what that crazy experience was. For me, the writing
was a way of sort of making those experiences
abstract where I could look at them and see, this
would speak to this, and this would speak
to this, right. And to your point of being able
to express yourself openly, it was something I always did because I had to
get it out, right. And for me, writing was that
medium that just played so well. Even when I was in Iraq, I
would write every day, you know, because it just had to, if
it didn’t come through me, it would just stay in me, right. And then, you know,
going to do my MFA, they sort of structure what
you’re saying and allow you to really frame yourself
and see yourself on a page to make yourself a
character, right, where you can really
objectively look at yourself. And it’s extremely cathartic,
obviously, and useful.>>Lovella Calica: I think too,
writing, what we talk about is that it provides a
little bit of distance.>>Mohamed Sheriff: Yeah.>>Lovella Calica: So you
can kind of look at it with a different perspective
instead of being in it and all these experiences being
in your head and on top of you. You have that distance and
you say, well, you know, what word do I want to use? Or what was that
experience really? And so it’s kind of like playing
with Tetris or, you know, just kind of figuring it out
and you have that distance and it allows just
a little space. And then you have that
perspective and you can see it in a different way than sort
of being consumed by anything.>>Monica Mohindra: It’s
interesting when you talk about making it abstract and
making yourself a character and finding that distance. It leads me to consider
a little bit about what Touchstones is doing
with the like Homer’s Odyssey. And I’m wondering, Stef, if
you could talk a little bit about the role of existing
works of poetry and literature and examining veterans’
experience, because it strikes me that
those themes are very connected.>>Stefanie Takacs: When we were
looking at our program design, part of the structure was to
include works of literature from two different
periods of conflict. So we had the Odyssey
representing an ancient conflict. And then we wove in
more contemporary voices through personal accounts
and fiction and poetry. And so for us, those
literary excerpts or selections are
similar in the way that you described
providing distance. For us, the text also
provides distance. It allows some space between
the immediate experience. And you read about whatever
it is that Odysseus is doing and considering how your, one’s own experience
is or is not like that. That distance allows you to
sort of go closer or not, right. You can sort of choose
how close you want to get until you’re ready. And we bring in the
more contemporary piece, which really is closer,
simply the language is closer, the experience is closer. So it was very interesting to
sort of watch over the course of the discussions how the
veterans would first look at this ancient work and relate
their own experiences to it. And then look at a more
contemporary piece. And it would become
much more, you know, closer to home, obviously. And I think in that, being
able to take those risks, that are part of
that self-exploration and using these, whether it’s
writing or pieces of literature as tools for self-examination.>>Monica Mohindra:
In your experience in helping the veterans
see themselves or maybe from personal experience,
as a central character to this larger story, did you
find specifically you, Stefanie, but anybody who wants to answer, did you find it shifted
the way it expressed as the program goes along, the
way they expressed themselves?>>Stefanie Takacs: We did find
that, and part of what was, I think for us, really
so meaningful in terms of the feedback at the end of the program was the
veterans themselves recognized that there had been a lot of
movement within them personally. And sort of a type of redefining
of and reclaiming of experience that they may really not have
known what to do with prior to going through this process. But I think it was, and
with the writing, it’s also, it’s the process, right. This takes place over time. And I think that’s a really
an essential component in having this become
fruitful for each individual, on an individual basis.>>Mohamed Sheriff:
Yeah, I think, you know, I think it’s a really great
narrative out right now, kind of empowering in words,
but anything [inaudible]. For me, reading those
narratives, it’s sort of, it’s like when you meet
another veteran, you guys, it’s almost like you speak
a different language. You understand point by point
exactly what the experience is. And you’re speaking words, but you’re seeing a whole
world attached to that. And that’s not experience. I think, oftentimes when
I’m reading something, I’m like do they even
get what’s going on here? Because this is like
speaking to you. This is my experience. And you see yourself, you
know, luminating in some sense. And it feels like home. It feels like, yes, this is my
voice, this is my experience. I’m not alone in this, right. You also get a chance to revisit
it in a safe space, right. And I think that’s very
important, at least a safe space in your head, I guess,
because it affects you. But it’s just the other half of
why I think writing, you know.>>Monica Mohindra: It’s
interesting that you say that, because it seems like it
doesn’t matter where in time that veteran’s voice
is coming from. Is that true for you personally?>>Mohamed Sheriff:
Yeah, absolutely.>>Monica Mohindra:
That’s really interesting. We face this theory,
this conception, maybe it’s a misconception, quite a bit in the
work we do here at the Veteran’s
History Project, this notion that veterans
are reticent to talk about their experience and
that, you know, oh, you know, my dad served or my mom
served, but she just, she really doesn’t want
to talk about that. Or my director served,
and she thinks her story isn’t important. You know, there’s sort of this
barrier that you have to get across about that they’re
not just reticent to speak about their experience
but that that pushes them to another direction
of also being resistant to seeking support
or help or therapy. And you know, there’s this
notion they talked about this that there’s no I in team. And you know, from a veteran’s
perspective, you are so used to being, having a
mission and having a team. And I’m wondering,
specifically, I’m thinking here of stuff here and Lovella. But if you’d like to talk from
that first-person experience. If you could both
share a little bit about how do you overcome
those potential barriers to participation? Is that a concept that
affects your work? And to make it really
complicated, I’ll throw another
twist in there. How do you overcome that
barrier to reach the veterans with whom you work, and
then how do you expand that past just the
veterans that you’re working with in this moment
to get your message across to other key
stakeholders in the community?>>Lovella Calica: Well I think,
first of all, to your point about it’s hard for people to
talk about, veterans to talk about their experiences. I mean I think that’s
based in history, right. So for how many years
has everybody been told, oh don’t ask grandpa
about the war, right. So that’s a cultural thing
that’s been happening for however many years. And I think our generation
it’s different now because we have Facebook. We have Instagram. We have all these things where
everybody’s trying to speak. So I think that’s changing. But part of it, it’s culture. And I know about, you know,
I’ve read about veterans who came home and sort of
people didn’t want to hear about their experience. Or they started to talk, and
then everybody left the room. So, I think it’s hard to
also find opportunities to really talk about
those things. Like, you know, you’re not just
going to walk up to someone in a bar and say oh,
so how was it in Iraq? And if you do, it’s not
really the right moment or space to do that. And you also don’t know if that
person is going to ask you, have you ever killed anybody? You know, so we need
to create these spaces that are appropriate
to talk about. So the things that we’re
doing with Warrior Writers and Touchstones Project,
these are the ways that people are able to do this
because the space and the time and the moment was created to
say okay, we’re going to talk in depth about these things. And one of the things that Warrior Writers does
is we do these working with vets 101 training where
we say, don’t ask things like, did you ever kill anybody. You know, we talk about
posttraumatic stress. We talk about how these things
happen and how to interact with veterans in a
way that’s healthy and supportive to
really listening. In terms of speaking about these
things and also seeking help, I think that’s culture too. So it wasn’t until
the 80s I think that posttraumatic stress
was even put into the books as a real disorder
or a real condition. So, now that everybody knows
that it’s a thing, that’s good. But we still need to talk
about what that really means, and we need to make it
okay to talk about that. So at Warrior Writers we
say it’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to talk
about these issues. And we’re not therapists. I’m not a therapist. None of our team members are. But we are connected, we are
well-connected to resources and alternative healing
and other people and other opportunities
for people to get support. So, we don’t just say
go talk to a therapist. We’ll say, hey, do you
want some referrals. Do you want me to sit with
you while you call someone? Do you want me to take
you to an appointment? And we follow up with
people and we say, you know, there’s also acupuncture. There’s also massage. There’s also reiki. There’s lots of other
opportunities. And I think, you know,
culturally, we’re sort of stuck in this talk therapy thing
which not everybody likes to do, veterans or not,
especially veterans. But also just kind of
thinking about the whole self and the whole body in
terms of what that means. And also not just, it’s
not just that veteran’s job to go get help, but it’s our
job as culture and society and community to be involved
in this reintegration process. I think people see the VA
and they see, you know, these programs out
there for vets. So the veterans are
getting taken care of. Well, no, that’s all
our responsibility. The VA is not funded enough, and
we can all be engaged in this. And so for Warrior
Writers, we really believe that art can help do that. And it allows people
a way to connect. You can really say
things through art that you can’t easily
say just on a panel or an academic conversation. So I think with art and
community involvement, we can really sort of set the
stage and say this is an open and welcoming space for healing
and connection and talking about these hard things that’s
there’s not really opportunities for in everyday life.>>Stefanie Takacs: I think
in our experience, which is –>>Monica Mohindra: Pardon me.>>Stefanie Takacs: very
similar, the initial approach with gaining trust from
people requires time. And that is not something
that can be accelerated. So we build that
into our programs. And we, these are
not one of moments where people come together. But these are, you know, eight,
nine, ten-week long programs. We also have brought
veterans in to train veterans to run the discussions together so that it is a partnership
already. Going across the different
line from civilian to veteran and building trust across
those different sectors of our society. Going forward, what, in training
veterans to run the program that we developed
through that NEH funding, one of those discussion leaders
is a Vietnam veteran then took the program to a homeless
shelter in Baltimore City and replicated the program there
with a very different population of veterans than who we had
seen in our first two programs. But that is part of
our hope and our aim is that these are highly
replicable programs. And when veterans themselves are
trained, then it’s no longer, it can go out and have wings, and their work can
reach other people. Because the level of trust
from veteran to veteran is so much greater initially
than what we could hope to achieve as civilians. But that is, as we look at our
next iterations of programs, we are, not only will we
replicate the work that we did with the Odyssey Program,
but we are building a program that is deliberately bringing
civilians and veterans together to look at a couple of works. And we hope that, again, we’ll
be able to train veterans, and we’ll also train civilians
in that program to then take that program out to
other communities. So I think the need is great and
creating opportunity for people as volunteers to
have something to do. I think many people aren’t
sure what they can do. And so, you know, I think that
that’s part of what these types of programs are offering
to people.>>Lovella Calica: To add to
that, I think it’s important to recognize the value of
veterans’ family members. So I’m a military family
member as well as you. I think that the family
member community is interested in engaging and talking
and getting the veterans to talk about this stuff. So I think we also, Warrior
Writers also got an NEH grant, the dialogues and the
experiences of war. And so we’re doing
discussions in Philly, and we have family members
as part of that as well. So I think the family members
are interested in coming out and participating and, you know,
there’s lots of conversations across the, you know,
veteran community about engaging family
members more. Because the family members,
I think, well obviously, they have access
to the veterans. But also, they are really
looking and needing the kind of support and conversation
because obviously, it affects us all so intimately.>>Mohamed Sheriff: Yeah,
I’ll just piggyback off of that your earlier point. I think there’s something
greatly unique to having a community of people
who are focused on writing but also focused on
veterans’ writing. I think there’s a distinction
there when I was in my MFA, and it was okay because, you
know, you become this anomaly and you’re writing
about something from a unique perspective. But it’s also very isolating,
and you feel alone and you feel like you’re saying something. And you’re very scared to say
all the things you want to say. You’re really scared
to write all the things that you really want to write
in the way that you want to express it, because
you are self-conscious about how you will be perceived. The difference of this
community is that everyone sort of shares that experience. Everyone has quote/unquote
extreme things to express, right. And there’s a safe space
where you don’t feel judged. Where you don’t feel
like you’re saying to much or doing too much. And that’s why I think it’s
very unique to have these places and get the word out for
veterans to go to these type of places as opposed
to your regular MFA.>>Lovella Calica: And
I think that the trick about what you’re
talking about too is if you’re the only veteran in
that space then they’re going to see your experience as
the veteran experience.>>Mohamed Sheriff:
Right, exactly.>>Lovella Calica: And
I think we, you know, we really need to push those. You know, you mentioned
a couple of books. The books out there right now,
you know, Phil Cly [phonetic], Kevin Powers, these are also
all like straight white males. So we really need to push
to include those voices of the female veterans, people
of color, indigenous veterans, queer veterans, they’re out
there, and their voices need to be held to the light. And if we don’t do that,
you know, we’re just sort of hearing the same sort of
stories and also just kind of saying okay, this is
the veteran experience, and we just really need
to push back on that.>>Monica Mohindra:
So many themes here that I was really hoping we’d
get to exploring the notion of veteran to veteran is
something we’ve been talking about with some of
the other panelists in the conversations
leading up to this symposium. The notion of where the
powerful connection happen. It doesn’t have to be veteran to
veteran, or can you reach past that because from our
perspective, part of the power of the work that we do at the
Veterans History Project is in connecting people to
the veteran and giving them that tool for a meaningful
activity that exempt inappropriate
questions or uncomfortable questions,
but allows them to do that important self-framing. And the notion of it
sounds a lot like the ways in which you overcome
those barriers to finding the veteran is
through that veteran pipeline, veteran to veteran, family
member to family member and that need to have the
authentic beyond putting a flier, you know, at the library
or the local coffee shop. But one thing that you’ve each
touched on too is, you know, the work that each of
us does really dances around that we are not
medical professionals. We’re not sociologists. We’re not people
who are counselors. But we’re engaged in work
that enables self-expression and so enables a
kind of freedom. And I’m wondering
if you could talk, and I think really all three
of you would have things to say about this, but this idea about these writing programs
can sometimes be or working with arts or working
with discussion, that it’s therapeutic. But is there some other, what
other benefit or, I mean, if we’re not therapists, why
are we all here doing this? Is there some other benefit
that isn’t therapeutic to what this process is? And would you mind
talking a little bit about specifically
the creative process and whether that’s tapping
into existing creative items or engaging in the
creative process that you, from your perspective,
see as beneficial to the veterans you’re
working with. You want to go first, Moe.>>Mohamed Sheriff: Yeah, sure. I would say, I mean the
one daunting this is that veterans commit
suicide a lot because they don’t have
a certain space or venue or outlet for a lot of things. I think that, number one, just
reaching people, allowing people to be visible and deal with
their issues and get it out and feel like they can do
that in the same space. I think that alone is a good
measure for why it’s important. I think, you know, taking your
experiences that are terrible or maybe deemed terrible
and making art out of it helps other
people, right. If I see that and I
see that experience and I know I’m not alone in this
experience, but also you get to own your experience. It doesn’t own you. And I think that’s
the most important. And that’s not something
that you come across in any other
sense, right. Like art allows you to feel
like I own this experience. I crafted. I make it. I mold it. I present it. You know, I can make the most
horrible things sound beautiful and poetic and all
these other things. But I own that, right. It doesn’t own me,
and it’s not in me and it’s not tearing
me apart, right. I think that, and giving
somebody the awareness of that, to have that ability of
power, I think is, you know, absolutely worthwhile.>>Lovella Calica: I think
for a lot of veterans that, so we work with active duty
service members in the D.C. area who a lot of them are
sort of getting gout of the military,
transitioning out. And I think there is at the end of that military career
a question of identity and purpose and mission. And so I think that the artistic
process I think can really be helpful in figuring
out, you know, who am I now, what am I now. We do a prompt with the
active duty service members, sort of when I say I
am an American soldier. And so we encourage them to
say when I say I’m a parent or a teacher or a lawyer or whatever other identities
they’re starting to dig into in thinking about
what’s next for them. So I think it’s helpful in terms
of finding identify, you know, obviously a lot of folks we
work with find a new identity and purpose in writing and
art and sharing that process with other veterans
and disadvantaged youth or whomever they
want to work with. I think the other part is to
speak back to another point that I made about sort of
painting the full picture of the military experience. So I think sometimes
veterans assume, it’s okay, that we’re sort of asking them
to paint a specific picture. Okay, we’re only looking for
the combat medic to paint this, you know, sort of gory picture
of their military experience. Well, that’s not what
we’re looking for. We want to paint the
full picture of the range of military experiences. And so we want every
piece of that puzzle. We want the full painting,
and it’s really important that everybody is part of that. And so I think knowing
that your story and your perspective is
part of the broader picture and not just sort of feeding,
you know, society and the media and the, you know,
the movies, you know, the same sort of thing. But that there are
boring days of war, right. Or that military
sexual trauma happens. Or, you know, all these
different sort of experiences that are not part
of the mainstream. And I think it’s really
important that people recognize that there is an audience
for that and we are looking to hear those full experiences
and not just, you know, when you’re deployed
but when you come home. I mean that’s what we’re
all dealing with together. You’re deployed. You’re far away. That’s over. But when you come back, we’re
all going to do this together. So I think that’s also
what’s important and part of this whole picture is that
you have to talk about that too because that’s something that
we’re all engaged in still. I don’t know if I
answered your question.>>Monica Mohindra:
You made me think about a lot of other things. Stefanie, did you
have anything to add?>>Stefanie Takacs: Yeah, I
was just going to, in our work, part of the creative process
for us is the return home in and of itself we see as a
creative process, right. What is a home? And for us, that is
not a static thing. And for veterans who
are transitioning back to civilian life, to give
themselves the freedom to understand that as a
process rather than a place. And to use dialogue
and writing to discover and formulate that place. While it’s therapeutic,
I think also what happens in the process is there’s a lot of critical thinking
that’s happening. And it was really very rewarding
for us to hear from the veterans with whom we worked how
important it was for them to be able to think critically
about their experiences. And of course, in our model, we’re also tapping
into the leadership. Every person who’s been in service has had a
leadership capacity. And our goal is in
developing a way for or a better understanding for how those leadership tools
can come to play every day in their civilian lives. So, really, those connections,
building new connections or recognizing the
connections that are there but that have not been formally
tapped into or recognized within the veterans’ community
is really an important part of the process.>>Monica Mohindra: I love the
way you frame the road home being something that
is not static. And it seems like
so much of the work around helping foster
self-expression in veterans is a notion that
it’s a process not a product. And that connects, again,
to so much of what we do that I really appreciate is oral
history and these collections of first-person narratives have
so many moments of benefit. And they have this, an oral
history is both a process and a product. So you get this emergence of two states happening
at the same time. Which I think is very common
in the creative process. So you create a poem
and you create a poem and you create a poem because
it’s, when you write it and then when someone else reads it. And then when you read it aloud, and so much of what
you’re talking about resonates with that. You also, each of
you have mentioned in your responses touching on
the aspect of working primarily with recently returned veterans or having a Vietnam
veteran lead a discussion and the veteran pipeline
getting one veteran to help another veteran
understand about this project or this effort that
you’re engaging in. Do you find in particular,
and I’ll start with Stefanie, and I’d love for each of
you to respond to this. Do you find that there
is a particular benefit or a particular, it doesn’t
have to be a benefit, I’m trying to frame this
as open ended as possible, but what is the result of
engaging across generations? So with World War II
veterans, Vietnam veterans, Korea veterans, to
recent conflicts. Is there anything that you can
share about that experience?>>Stefanie Takacs: I think what
we heard was a real appreciation within the cross
generational groups for the, I guess universality
of experience. And while each person’s specific
experience in service is unique, to recognize the way in
which service over time in many ways, it’s
a shared bond. And sometimes that bond has
to do with the call to serve. So how a person ended up
in service to begin with. Sometimes the bond
is the branch. Sometimes it is where
one served. There are so many opportunities
to recognize those bonds within a space where at first, one may think those
experiences are going to be so radically different. And yet, one finds, again,
that the commonalities are so much more prevalent
and so much richer than one might initially
anticipate.>>Mohamed Sheriff: Yeah, I think there’s something
very special and important and credible about
getting veterans that recently transitioned. For instance, when I got out
in 2008, I had no idea any of this was available. People there, there’s
a community outside of the military. And I went through periods of extreme loneliness,
extreme separation. And for me, I threw
myself into like school and suppressed everything
else because I didn’t feel like there was a safe
space for me to deal with things, to talk
about things. I also felt that I wanted
to be, I thought dealing with things was to be as
far away from anything that resembled the military. So I think there’s
something else to putting out that narrative that
like this is a safe space. You can transition
smoothly here in a calm way, as opposed to trying to bury
your demons or self-medicate or other things, right. And I just think that recent,
it’s just very important to get them that, you know.>>Lovella Calica: Yeah I think,
we’ve, I’ve talked to veterans who said that they didn’t talk
about being a vet for 20 years. And I think, obviously, I
think the more you hold in, the more dangerous
it gets, right. So we think we’re
protecting ourselves, but we’re really just sort
of setting ourselves up. So I think it is important
to get folks to talk now. But you know, we have
folks, like Bruce, who, our Vietnam veterans
and are sort of mentoring our veterans
and working together. And I think definitely, we
need to look at their work. But I think what’s
more valuable really is to build those relationships. Because you have Vietnam
veterans who have been dealing with posttraumatic stress
for 20, 30 years and can talk to the younger vets
about how to do that. They can talk about writing. They can talk about
all these other things. But, you know, I’m
always the person who has to bring up the hard things. And I think there’s
part of what’s difficult about that is that, you know, some of the younger veterans
are, you know, really, you know, they’re in with the
times, right. So they’re open to
people that are trans. They’re open to gay people. They, you know, they’re
not racist. So I think some of the older
veterans that are veterans come into contact with our having
that sort of struggle with how to manage the generational
differences. And I’ve seen that play out. But I’ve also seen the opposite
of that where people are, you know, really on the same
page and really getting a lot of those relationships. But I think definitely
there’s a lot of value there, not just looking at the work
but in really engaging in those. And even though some of those
relationships are difficult, I think it’s, I think
there’s value in kind of engaging those differences
and conflicts and trying to figure it out together. Because those veterans
are more likely to listen to the other veterans and have
those conversations and maintain that relationship and try to
figure it out together instead of just arguing with
someone on the street. That’s going to go nowhere. But if they’re veteran to
veteran, they’re kind of trying to figure it out together. That work is going
to be happening.>>Melanie Mohindra: At the risk
of taking time away from some of the other things we
wanted to talk about today, I’m so interested in whether you
see a direct result between that and the creative process? Do you think it impacts
what’s happening when they’re creating works?>>Lovella Calica: In terms of
those relationships with the? Yeah, I mean I don’t, I think
that the veterans are going to write their identity. So I’m thinking of Ryan
Holleran who writes about being gay in the military. And I don’t think that he’s
necessarily writing more or less because he’s engaging
with these conflicts, but I think he should. I think that that’s where
that sort of work happens. I know those kind of
things can happen, but I don’t necessarily
see it happening in what I’m doing
and what I’m seeing.>>Monica Mohindra: Some of the conversations
we’ve been having leading up to this have been about
the tension between whether or not the creative
sparks or whether you’re from our perspective talking
about creating an oral history or a first-person
narrative together or whether you’re talking
about writing, whether it has to be veteran to veteran
and where the benefit comes from broadening the circle and making sure you’re
getting other people, and Lovella, you speak to this. You’ve spoken to it for this
previous hour that we’ve talked about how we all have to
have some responsibility, whether we’re veterans or service military
family connected or not. And I wondered, in your specific
programs, and I think Moe, you probably have a lot to say
to this from the perspective of the work you’ve
seen at the NEA. But if you could, if you
wanted to take a minute to talk a little bit
about the importance of reaching beyond the echo
chamber of just veterans and of veteran-connected
people and how your work gives that opportunity or doesn’t,
or if that’s a challenge. I see you nodding
your head, Stefanie. I assume you –>>Stefanie Takacs: Well,
we very much believe in all of the work that we do
that solving problems or building understanding
requires everyone at the table. And any assumption, by
whomever that veterans coming out of service ought to
do that alone should be that that should be a solitary
process, that’s not a viewpoint that we embrace at Touchstones. We really feel that
we have a lot to learn from veterans’ experiences and that we do not make
those opportunities available to us as a society. So I think that in the
future, as we continue to work with more groups of veterans,
we will be inviting more and more civilians to be co-participating
in those programs. Our programs are always
open to the public, and I think that part of what
we have been trying to learn in the first iterations
of the programs that we’ve been running is how
are we sensitive to the needs of the veterans, right. That needs to be
something that’s at the forefront
of our thinking. And at what point is it
constructive for civilians and veterans to be together. And it may not be that
that’s where you start. But that one builds
that trust over time so that those groups can
be constructive together in building a new understanding. So for us, it’s vital. It’s vital to our
society that we have, that we hear the
voices of veterans. That the leadership that has
been instilled and practiced in service is available
to us as a country. And I think we’re starting
to see more of that, even in the political sphere,
with the number of veterans who are stepping up
for public office. And, you know, I think we
will continue as a country to move more in that direction. At least certainly,
that’s our hope.>>Mohamed Sheriff: I would
absolutely agree with that. I think to the extent that
we can get veteran voices in the mainstream from whatever
perspective they’re coming from, I think it’s extremely
important because, you know, when I came here I thought, when
I first moved here I was like, this is not a town that’s
sympathetic to veterans. You have to have an education
to be heard in any sense. And I don’t think that
should be the case. Like no one should be
feeling that, right. But if you move to the South
then maybe they’ll care to your experience. But if you’re in D.C.,
no one cares, right. So you sort of feel
muted in that sense. But I don’t think that
should be the case. And I think the way you,
you know, resolve that is by putting the veterans’
voices out, promoting it. At the NEA, we have the National
Intrepid Center of Excellence where they do this
holistic wellness therapy. And that sort of stays
in an isolated bubble because it’s dealing,
people dealing with TBI, traumatic brain injuries. But the Blue Star
Museum Program is one that I think engages the public
and engages the experience and allows veterans to come in. But there’s a dialogue
that happens when they come into the museums. So I think in that sense, I
think the NEA’s platform is able to spread that message, you
know, in that way, yeah.>>Lovella Calica: I mean I
think, you know, like I said, we’re doing the National
Endowment for the Humanities
Project in Philadelphia where we have these discussions. But I think, you
know, we’ve done, Warriors Writers has done
poetry readings where people, not that many people come,
so I think it’s still hard to get people to come out and
listen to veterans’ poetry. And I think people sort of, I think some people have the
assumption that it’s just going to be sad or hard or gory. And some of it is. But I think it’s also
our responsibility. Part of the reason
Warrior Writers came to be when I started it
11 years ago was because I was hearing all these
stories and poetry by veterans, and I thought, this has to
get out there in the world. People have to hear this. This is what’s happening
to our service members. We only hear from the media. We hear from the government. We don’t hear from
veterans themselves. So we need to hear this. We need to know what’s
happening to the people that are serving
and are coming home. And so I think, I
don’t know what, I don’t know how to do that. I think there’s, you
know, I think again, it’s sort of people
want the victim. or they want the hero. And we need to engage opening
that up and saying, you know, you need to be ready
to hear all of it. But it’s not easy, and I think,
again, that’s why we do the work with vets 101 training
before we have people come and volunteer with us. You know, you need to get
a little bit of a handle on what’s, sorry, on what, who,
you know, the population is, who the constituency is. And what’s going to create a
safe and comfortable space. And, you know, how to take care
of yourself during that process. Because, you know, if you
hear a story by a veteran and that’s really impacting you, maybe because of your own
parents in the military, whatever, you know, you have
to take care of yourself. So I think this idea
of self-care and community-care is something
that we’ve been talking a lot about Warrior Writers. Self-care being, you
know, go to therapy. You know, go to your
appointments. Take your meds, you know,
get acupuncture, whatever. But also community
care whereas, you know, we’re making these
resources available. We’re having wellness days. We’re checking in
with each other. You know, we’re providing meals. We’re not going from 9
a.m. to 9 p.m., you know, these sort of things around
how do we create a culture that can really handle
hearing some of these stories and supporting people in
their process of coming home? Which I think also, you know, my
partner’s been home since 2004, and he still, you know,
he didn’t come here today because he wants to
stay home and wants to, you know, be by himself. And you know, he’s just
dealing with a lot of anxiety. So I think also the
understanding that it’s a process and
it’s a long process. And people go through that
in these different ways. And there are a lot of different
ways that you can engage with people in, you
know, supporting them and not necessarily talking about the military
experience, you know. Talking to veterans about their
kids or, you know, their hobbies or their artwork or whatever. It doesn’t always
have to be like so, let’s talk about the
military, talk about. I’m a person too, you know. Like, you know, that’s
one thing we talk about in Warriors Writer, people just see veterans as only
veterans and you can only talk to them about that kind
of stuff, and that’s all that they want to talk about. Or that’s all that they are. And for people who are
coming out of the military or have come out, they want
to have other identities and other things that they’re
thinking about and doing. It’s important that we as
civilians recognize that and see them as just people.>>Mohamed Sheriff: Yeah. Yeah, I would agree with that. I think so much that what’s
really frustrating a lot of times is that a narrative of the veterans are a sealed
society, and you sort of walk and operate within that. And that’s frustrating that it
doesn’t speak to the individual and the individual’s experience
and that individual’s voice. And that’s, it’s one of those
things where you sort of, like your husband, sorry, you kind of hate the
veteran narrative, right. You hate hearing it. You hate stuff like
this because it’s almost like it’s already controlled. You’re seen as this
thing, but you’re not this. You’re not going
to this experience that you had in your
life, right. You would like to be able to
take the veteran’s mantle off at some point, you know,
like just be a person.>>Monica Mohindra: There’s so
much that you, so many rich bits that you’ve talked about
as we’ve continued the conversation, and I’m struggling
to come up with a good way to bring it to a natural
conclusion because what I want to do is just ask you
questions all afternoon and explore all these
things that you’ve touched on that we talk about all the
time and around and around and around talk about
them with guests. We talk about them with poets,
and I just thank you so much for sharing both on the
personal and the professional. Because in this work
you have to. You have to do that
all the time, and it can get uncomfortable. So thank you for doing
that here with us. I do need to manage our time, so I’d like to give
you each an opportunity if there’s something you
wanted to share this morning that I didn’t cover, I
didn’t get the question in the right way. If you want to think about
that, and while you’re thinking about that, as soon as they’ve
had the chance to answer that question, we can
take a few questions from the audience before we
really have to wrap it up. I’m told we can take
one question or two questions
from the audience. Is there anything further
any of you would like to say?>>Lovell Calica: In
preparing for this, I talked to a few veterans
and there was one thing that someone said that
we really, you know, he said you have to say this. And as a representative
of veterans’ organization, this is something that
happens, I think, a lot. You know, I’m speaking that. But anyway but he thought
that it was really important that I recognize and say
that sometimes when we talk about veterans writing, you
know, we sort of talk about it in this sort of healing
and therapeutic way. While that’s true and
important and valuable, and that’s the case
for some people, it also depoliticizes the issue and the things that
they’re writing. And it’s important
that, so it’s important that we recognize veterans
as free-thinking individuals that are not just
writing just to heal, but some of them are writing
to articulate their stance on the war, their stance on,
you know, the state of the VA and the lack of funding,
and I think it’s important that we recognize, you know,
the diverse voices within that and say and recognize that
yes, healing is part of it. But that we can’t always
depoliticize it in that way because then it sort of
takes, again, away that power of veterans and their
individual stories. You know, already
they’re in the military and they weren’t allowed to sort
speak openly about, you know, whatever they believed in. And I think that
we can’t perpetuate that once they’ve gotten out. We need to see those
stories for what they are. So, I needed to say that for
Kevin and the rest of them.>>Monica Mohindra:
Thank you, Lovella.>>Mohamed Sheriff: I don’t
know if I necessarily need to say this, but I think
there’s something to be said, and this sort of piggybacks
off what you’re saying, that I guess I would try to
communicate to take the veteran out of the veteran box. Their story doesn’t start at
this, you know, moment in time. It’s a longer thing. I would like to think that
everything that happened before and after still matters. This is not just
the [inaudible]. I would say take the veteran out of the veteran
box and stretch them.>>Monica Mohindra:
Thank you, Moe.>>Stefanie Takacs. And I guess I would encourage
people to continue finding ways to have dialogue together
and to explore what it means to be an American together. And to sort of see the bigger
picture, service within that, as you’ve just described, right. But the entire continuum
of one’s life and to really make room for
that to be, to allow room for that in your own mind.>>Monica Mohindra: Well, thank
you, all of you for sharing this and for the work
that you’re doing. And Moe, thank you for
your service to us. I also need to thank David
Surface at Fordham University for his help in formulating
the questions, and Angie Hinzey from ISCOPES at GW University for help formulating
the questions. Thank you all for being with us, and I hope that you will
continue the conversation with us and hear more poetry and
more thoughts this afternoon. Thank you very much.

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