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JEFFREY BROWN: Cpl. Paul Leicht, a Marine photographer, just returned from Iraq with a story to tell.
CPL. PAUL LEICHT: The only lights were the stars above and strange fluorescent lights in the village. The Marines in front of me cautiously crept along the muddy, fog-enshrouded road.
JEFFREY BROWN: In Iraq, Leicht kept a journal of his experiences, like the night he took this photo during a firefight in Ramadi.
CPL. PAUL LEICHT: For a long time I had heard the gentle sound of my camera clicking against my rifle, and my boots scraping across the wet pavement.
Unseen dogs began to bark and growl as if rabid and starved; tremorous explosions nearby shook me to my bones. The faces of my wife and sons passed before me in the mud as if ghosts.
TOBIAS WOLFF: A very impressive piece of writing, and obviously he doesn’t forget much of what goes on.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tobias Wolff, a prominent writer of fiction and memoirs, was delighted recently as he listened to Leicht’s words in an unusual writing workshop.
TOBIAS WOLFF: You feel the mud, everything’s visual; you hear things. You hear pops in the distance; the fluorescent lights, the rabid growling of unseen dogs, which is a very — I think the fact that you can’t see them makes it even more unsettling.
And you notice there’s no emotional language in it at all. He evokes the feelings of being isolated and kind of unto oneself as one is in such a situation, even though linked with others.
JEFFREY BROWN: The seminar was part of a program called Operation Homecoming, a unique partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Defense Department.
TOBIAS WOLFF: I come here, in all honesty, not as a teacher this weekend, but as a student. I want to know what has happened. I want to hear your stories.
JEFFREY BROWN: The idea is to give a voice to soldiers, sailors, and Marines back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Dana Gioia is chairman of the NEA.
DANA GIOIA: A lot of people don’t feel that they’re writers, so that they don’t really have the right to tell their stories. What we’re trying to do with operation homecoming is to give these troops and their spouses the permission to talk about their experiences during these wars because these are important stories.
JEFFREY BROWN: A dozen workshops have been held on military bases so far, with writers and poets lending guidance to service members and their families.
A selection of the best entries will be published in book form. Camp Pendleton, the Southern California home to some 35,000 Marines, has sent more people to Iraq, and suffered more casualties, than any other military base.
A recent workshop in the “Semper Fit” Field House was open to all military personnel and their families. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson spoke to several dozen Marines.
VICTOR DAVIS HANSON: I think the most exciting thing about military history the last 30 years is writing from what they call the ground up, or the face of battle.
JEFFREY BROWN: But will the average Marine want to write from the ground up? Pendleton’s commanding general, Timothy Donovan, likes the program, but he’s not sure how many it will reach.
MAJ. GEN. TIMOTHY DONOVAN: It’s just not in the nature of the Marines who join the Marine Corps. They come in for a different reason. They come in for, specifically for the very physical, demanding intensity, the toughness, the discipline. And I tell you what, if you looked at their scores, English was probably not their most favorite subject in high school.
JEFFREY BROWN: Even Corporal Leicht, who enjoys putting pen to paper, said the subject matter can be tough.
CPL. PAUL LEICHT: Seeing people who are two steps away from dying because of their wounds. I don’t know, I wasn’t sure what to say. I felt like whatever I would write would just kind of trivialize what I had seen, like I couldn’t do the experience justice.
JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think you need a little distance?
CPL. PAUL LEICHT: Uh-huh. I haven’t even really told my wife about some of the more graphic things that I experienced and saw. And in a way, I don’t want to ruin her innocence or my kids’ innocence.
JEFFREY BROWN: Tobias Wolff, who’s perhaps best known for “This Boy’s Life,” a memoir of his childhood, was an army paratrooper in the Vietnam War. He wrote an acclaimed memoir of his time there, called “In Pharaoh’s Army.” But it took him 25 years to do so.
TOBIAS WOLFF: It took a long time for me for things to sift and to settle into a pattern. Also it took me that long to be willing to be honest about my own complicity in events over there that had caused me some embarrassment and regret.
JEFFREY BROWN: Much of your experience was inglorious, if that’s the right word. And yet you found a way to write about it?
TOBIAS WOLFF: Mine was not a glorious war, and I was embarrassed by that. But it was a war not unlike those that others lived through too, and it’s not something I’m particularly ashamed of. But it was something that I was hesitant to tell the story of at a certain point.
JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote near the end of “In Pharaoh’s Army,” “I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.”
TOBIAS WOLFF: Somehow or another for me the act of writing became redemptive and it was a way of progressing toward sanity and order. Somehow the writing gave me my life back.
JEFFREY BROWN: And also you became a writer.
TOBIAS WOLFF: Indeed, yes. It gave me my life back and gave me a life.
JEFFREY BROWN: These three women, two retired Marines and one still on active duty, came to the workshop for different reasons. Shara French, a retired gunnery sergeant, said she started keeping a journal when her husband, also a Marine, was deployed to Iraq last year.
GUNNERY SGT. SHARA FRENCH: I was watching Fox News and what flashes across the screen is the breaking news, that 12 Marines were killed near the Syrian border. The awful flashes in my mind immediately are marines in dress blues standing at my door.
JEFFREY BROWN: She says writing calmed her anxieties.
GUNNERY SGT. SHARA FRENCH: Sometimes it gets running around in there. Everything’s running around in there. Once I put it on paper, it calms me down and I feel more at ease about things. It’s a release. It just gets it off my chest basically, you know.
JEFFREY BROWN: Barbara Cogburn served for seven months in Iraq.
GUNNERY SGT. BARBARA COGBURN: All of a sudden I heard a thunderous boom. And another loud crack startled me. A large piece of shrapnel impacted the window right in front of me, shattering the window.
JEFFREY BROWN: Cogburn says hers is a story that isn’t often told.
GUNNERY SGT. BARBARA COGBURN: Very few times do I read about women in war, combat or their perspective. Just normal, every day-to-day women.
So my perspective was, it might be interesting for someone to see what it’s like for us as women to experience a war in just a regular combat support role.
JEFFREY BROWN: Nancy Arroyoavila came to the workshop to learn how to start writing about her time in Iraq.
GUNNERY SGT. NANCY ARROYOAVILA: For me, it was very difficult to put it on paper because I left two teenage boys at home, you know.
JEFFREY BROWN: Have you been able to talk to them and tell them what it was like, or is writing an easier way to tell about it now?
GUNNERY SGT. NANCY ARROYOAVILA: Writing will be easier for me when I’m ready to share it with them. I have never shared with them all the things that I saw or that I felt. I’m not sure they’re old enough to process it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Operation Homecoming, like the war it deals with, hasn’t been without controversy.
In Poetry Magazine, poet Eleanor Wilner questioned the purpose of the program, asking: “Are these returning troops once again being used as a shield against the scrutiny of the very policy which put them in harm’s way in the first place?”
I asked Chairman Gioia about that.
DANA GIOIA: I don’t think that Operation Homecoming in any sense as propaganda. I imagine that we’ll probably have something in the book that will make everybody unsettled no matter what their politics are, because that is the reality of the situation. But what we’re getting at is really the truth of these events as individuals saw them moment by moment.
JEFFREY BROWN: For Arroyoavila, at least, the workshop was an unqualified success: It unlocked her writer’s block.
GUNNERY SGT. NANCY ARROYOAVILA: We were Marines on an Army helicopter. Please, God, I hope they can fly. As the red streaks flew past our helicopter, I finally entered reality. There was no guarantee of a safe return. My life, seeing my boys become men, was in the grasp of one bigger than me.
JEFFREY BROWN: The NEA plans to publish its collection of war stories next year.