GSU Student Veterans Take the Lead in NEH Class on War and Trauma
Say soldier, and the world replies hero. It hums anthem and shouts flag, then it whispers suicide, homeless, PTSD. There is a vocabulary surrounding soldiers and veterans being designated by platforms, observers, and critics, and that language reflects a polarized view of the military experience, one that fails to acknowledge the complexity of soldiers' lives. A small group of U.S. military veterans and their professors at Governors State University—thanks to a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) co-authored by Drs. Rosemary Johnsen and Andrae Marak—are partnering to tell the full story, and they're doing it in the classroom with words like professionals, leaders, and scholars. Their lexicon acknowledges the lofty themes and hard realities—it has to—but at GSU, the focus is on learning. In addition to support services provided by the Veterans Resource Center (VRC), the university is invested in the academic journey and contributions of U.S. military members.
For six weeks, five veterans—all students at GSU—met with Drs. Johnsen and Marak to talk about the body of creative work that has sprung from the war experience. They read Wilfred Owen's poetry, and they watched documentaries on political performance art. They read Tim O'Brien's fiction and debated its veracity and meaning, and they did all of this in preparation for the full class—War, Trauma, and Humanities, an upper-level English course in which the veterans serve as discussion leaders for other students.
They were chosen by the professors, both members of GSU's College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), after a round of interviews. Each student veteran is being compensated for participation.
Jermaine Drayton, an Interdisciplinary Studies (IDSS) student who served 21 years in the U.S. Army, said he felt surprised when he learned about the class.
"You know, you can be in a crowd of military people and we can vibe. We don't even have to know each other. When [civilians] want to know the things that we've been through—and we want to share it—and they want to understand what we went through and why we feel the way we feel, it shocks me," Drayton said. "I was an engineer in the military. That's totally different from poems, but when we got into the dialogue and were actually taught how to read poetry, it was eye opening. Somebody way before us wrote it down on a piece of paper. We can read what he was feeling when he was deployed, and it's the exact same things we're feeling now."
And vibe they do. Before class begins, they chatter and joke like friends who have known one another for years. Their conversations roll from football to news to the week's readings inside of a minute. When the subject of service arises, they trade anecdotes—most laced with laughter, some more somber.
Victor Garcia, another student leader from IDSS, spent four years in the Marine Corps. In his own words, he carried the responsibility of lives under his command in Iraq.
"I didn't want an easy job in the Marine Corps," Garcia said. "When I got to the fleet, I was made a team leader, then I was made a squad leader, and I left as a platoon sergeant. Each of them carried more and more responsibility and responsibility for subordinates. You worry about their lives, along with the command and administrative duties."
In 2004, Garcia's squad leader was killed in combat, and that leadership was put to the test.
"The moment he was killed, it fell on my shoulders. I remember going through his gear and thinking 'Now is not the time to grieve because I have guys to lead. We have to continue on because we have to continue on with the mission.' The leadership never left. I never had a chance to let the feelings go until I got out," Garcia said. "Part of the mechanism of my transition back to civilian life was actually writing about my experiences."
Long before Johnsen and Marak conceived of the course, Garcia wrote his story of Fallujah—a city 50 miles west of Baghdad—to cope with his grief, and it became part of a collection of veterans' stories at University of Chicago. Like the authors he studied—from WW I to Vietnam—Garcia found relief in committing his experience to paper.
Garcia fought in the first battle for Fallujah and returned as relief during the second, taking over for other Marines who had engaged in combat during the first push, he said. Kevin Smith, director of the VRC, shared some insight on the significance of the two battles.
"[Fallujah] was one of the hardest times in Iraq—our forces ran into a lot of issues and lost a lot of lives," Smith said.
Raw footage of the second battle there reveals still streets occupied by tanks, fallen bricks from mosque walls spilling into dust, and the report of machine gun fire and artillery echoing off of buildings from rooftops. Between rounds, soldiers call out and—occasionally—force smiles. Before either battle, Muriel Williams, an Army Reservist for over nine years, was deployed to Iraq to help rebuild infrastructure in the northern part of the country. Although her unit wanted to assist in Fallujah, they never made it there—their interpreter advised against it.
"I was a Civil Affairs Specialist. We were considered the people people. Our job was to go out and embrace the people and help society get back up and running. I was part of the public facilities team, so water, sewage, electrical—that was on us to go out and reestablish. It's a two sided coin. We're still trying to defend ourselves and wrap our arms around the civilians. There were many places where our assistance was well-received. Then there were others that did not want our presence at all. We desired to do work in Fallujah over the summer of 2003, but our interpreter had strongly advised against it. He said Saddam [Hussein] couldn't control the people there."
Marak, who serves as dean of CAS at GSU, talked about the veterans' experience and pointed out the intellectual exchange occurring in the classroom.
"Our student veterans have found themselves and each other in the poetry, literature, and correspondence that we have covered," he said. "In doing so, they've learned more about themselves even as they have created some unique channels for expressing their combat experiences with the rest of us who have never faced similar dangers."
Rob Mason, an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve who served in Saudi Arabia and a student in GSU's Independent Film and Digital Imaging program, said he joined the class as a discussion leader so that he could continue exploring his own and other veterans' stories.
"I've talked with veterans on campus and veterans in other areas of my life—I'm part of the VFW—about their experiences, and I really want to do something in film that focuses specifically on veterans' stories. It's not the easiest thing to do to get veterans to talk about our experiences. We may do a one-on-one or a small group setting, but if there are too many people that have not had that kind of experience—it just doesn't grow into something more. When I saw this class being offered, I saw an opportunity to do that, because I knew I would be sitting with [veterans] who really want to tell their stories and who identify or have an opportunity to identify with the material that's already been written," Mason said.
In talking, Mason referenced the value of telling stories against the backdrop of veteran suicide.
"The stats for veteran suicide are extremely high. I've come in contact face-to-face with at least three veterans that I knew well within 24 hours of them taking their lives. I wish I had known a little bit more about the situation before I left their presence, but—you know—that situation, I'm real close to, and I would like to use a project like [filming veterans' experiences] to help bring those stories out, to keep us from going down that road. Because a lot of times when we're there in that place, we feel like the enemy has invaded on our home turf and that we're fighting this battle alone. And we're not, but it appears that way because we hold so much in, and we're not talking about it."
Akya Gossitt, the youngest of the class leaders at 31, served four years in the U.S. Army and is finding camaraderie through both her classmates and the literature, and she sees the class as an opportunity to tell real war stories.
"My life is real and my experiences and the friends I've lost are real ... [this class] creates a safe space for us to communicate with each other and realize [you're] not the only one and learn with other veterans. I'm learning that the things I experienced in recent wars are no different than any other wars that happened generations before," Gossitt said. "The stories that I have are not saluting the flag and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Those aren't my experiences. Challenging those narratives and those visuals of what [people] think being a veteran is about is extremely hard sometimes, because people think they know. It's life. It's real life that has been glorified in the media, and the grit of the things we do to protect our country has been overshadowed."
In addition to the course, the NEH grant is being used to bring veterans' stories to the entire Governors State community through several on-campus programs.
On November 6, oral historian Patrick Russell will present a talk on his mission of collecting WW II combat stories and archiving them in the U.S. Library of Congress. November 14, poet and memoirist R.M. Ryan will give a reading from his book There's a Man With a Gun Over There—recollections from his experience during the Vietnam era—and on December 4, a special town hall discussion will be held and filmed on campus, featuring all five student veterans.