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Take Five: Author Andrew Carroll on helping veterans tell their stories

2008 photo of Andrew Carroll 300 pxls
Provided by Mr. Carroll

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Author Andrew Carroll believes America's warriors have plenty to say about their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and that no historian or journalist can tell their stories as well as they can.

Carroll is the editor of "Operation Homecoming" (Random House 2006), the well-received anthology of personal accounts of war gathered by the National Endowment for the Arts. A new paperback version of the book will be released on Memorial Day by the University of Chicago Press.

The importance of wartime writing isn't a new concept to Carroll. He has written several books on the subject and in 1998 founded the Legacy Project to preserve correspondence from all the nation's wars. Carroll will be in St. Louis to attend the VA's Welcome Home celebration for veterans Saturday at the Soldiers Memorial.

Carroll, along with such well-known American authors as Tom Clancy, Jeff Shaara and Bobbie Ann Mason, have conducted writing workshops for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He will participate in a new phase of the program at VA facilities, including the St. Louis VA Medical Center, which served as a pilot site for the workshops last summer.

Carroll credits the success of the "Operation Homecoming'' program to its fair and balanced approach.

"When the book first came out I was anxious that both sides would sort of cherry pick it and find things to make a political point,'' Carroll said. "There are certainly some very graphic descriptions of warfare. And there's also a lot of talk about how these troops are proud to be serving with one another. And some express frustration, and some express hope and there's just a real wide range of emotions. But what you focus on is the humanity of the troops -- of seeing these men and women not just as soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines but as somebody's father or sister or son or daughter or best friend.''

We talked by phone with Carroll about the "Operation Homecoming" project and his visit this weekend to St. Louis:

After reading so many of these personal accounts, are you still surprised by what these authors write?

People say to me, you must at some point get a little numb by all this. Or, you must get used to it, almost like a doctor. And it hasn't happened. I'm still touched and moved by the pieces I read.

One of my own skepticisms about "Operation Homecoming" was what is there left to say? This was a couple of years ago -- and we had embedded reporters, and 24-hour news, cable, the Internet, the whole thing. Is there anything these solders can tell us that we really haven't heard? And just story after story was nothing I'd ever seen before.

We've got this one piece by Jack Lewis called "Road Work," and it's about a convoy that hits an Iraqi vehicle late at night. And the way Jack describes the aftermath of it and this grieving Iraqi father who has just lost his son. And you find out that Jack, too, has lost a child, and the empathy he has for this man. I really want people to understand the humanity of these troops. They are very thoughtful about what they do. And it's just breathtaking.

Whenever we do readings, I tell people it's not what you're expecting. And I think that's part of the issue. We need to find new ways of telling these stories and getting these stories out there. Because I think people are war-weary at this point. I hear all the time from friends of mine who are journalists that there are no stories left to tell. We have 150,000 troops over there; there are 150,000 stories left to tell.

How do you convince veterans to tell their stories when they say, "but I'm not a writer?"

Everybody's a potential writer and to some degree there's a stigma about writing. They say, "Oh, I'm not going to go off and write a poem." And you don't have to. You could write a journal or you could write a screenplay or a book or just write short stories. Or it could be in the form of letters.

These men and women who do not often consider themselves to be writers have an extraordinary voice, and I think we need to hear it. I think we need to listen to them. So many troops have said to me, "When people ask, what can we do for the troops, the first thing is just listen to us." They are very modest. In fact, the things they talk most about is their brothers and sisters in arms. They want people to know the sacrifices that others have made in times of war.

These troops are actually phenomenal writers. In some ways they are so modest about their own abilities, but when you think of all the elements of good writing: Discipline. They're the most disciplined individuals in the world just by the nature of what they do. Creativity. They're actually taught and trained how to think creatively in different circumstances. Of course, when they're doing it, it could be life or death, but these are very inventive and intelligent men and women.

There's also a sense of just having great stories to tell. Well, a 19-year-old soldier on a one-year deployment might have more stories than some of us will ever accumulate over a lifetime.

Today's military seems more open to sharing their stories. Is this a generational trait?

I don't think it's so much a difference in who these men and women are generationally. I think it's just that technology has changed so much. Whether it's from past wars to the current conflict, people are pretty much the same.

In the past, it took so much longer for information to get to the home front. A battle would happen and it could take days, weeks, months before we would find out what happened at D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge. Today, you have reporters embedded: A bomb goes off in Baghdad and you don't just hear about it, you've just seen it happen. It's given the troops a greater freedom in expressing themselves because they realize their family members have already heard about it.

The technology is great, but what happens to these personal histories -- the emails and digital photos -- when computers crash or laptops get stolen?

I hear from a lot of families who say, "Oh, we'll go through those emails later and pick out the ones we like." No. Make it a habit. Every time a new email comes, print it out that day, put in a file, keep it chronological. You will be so glad you have that.

When I visited Iraq a couple of years ago, a soldier was doing a DVD letter home to his mom. So, he set the camera up and stood in front of it and said, "Hey, mom. Just want you to know how I'm doing. Here's what's going on and have a merry Christmas."

The technology has advantages and disadvantages. One of the problems is I've heard from troops during the Vietnam War. They would send audio letters home where they would just talk into a tape recorder. Well, the problem today is no one uses reel-to-reel recorders anymore so the technology is obsolete, and we won't have a record of what those troops said and what they experienced.

What message will you be delivering in St. Louis?

The biggest challenge is spreading the word about this project to the veterans -- especially the men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan -- and letting them know about these workshops.

Nobody can tell these stories better than they can. And that's not meant as any sort of slight against historians -- of which I would like to call myself -- or against journalists. But the best way to understand what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and the home front is hearing the voices of those who served and their family members.

There is not just a historical element to these eyewitness accounts of what it felt like to be in Baghdad or Fallujah or Kandahar or Kabul, but there's a personal element. A lot of troops have said it is cathartic for them to put pen to paper.

When I first read about this project, I was skeptical that they were not going to get a response. With the Legacy Project I started 10 years ago, I found that it takes some veterans years before they feel comfortable sharing their letters and so forth.

And here you have the National Endowment for the Arts -- an agency within the executive branch of the government -- saying send us your most intimate personal letters emails, journals, poetry. I thought there is just no way this is going to happen. And I was completely wrong. They were overwhelmed with material.

This is going to be the single greatest record of what these troops and their families have gone through -- and it's all in their own words.

For more information on Operation Homecoming, go to: www.nea.gov/national/homecoming

To read about Andrew Carroll's Legacy Project, go to: www.warletters.com

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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