The gathering at the post library was small but significant: A few active duty personnel, some patients and medical staff from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a handful of librarians, a retiree or two and at least one military spouse.
They came to hear about "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," a National Endowment for the Arts initiative that encourages military members and families to put their experiences on paper.
"Nobody writes with greater authenticity or authority than those who’ve experienced themselves the hardships of war," best-selling author Andrew Carroll told the group.
Thousands of pages of stories, songs, poems and other works have been submitted since the initiative began in 2004, said Carroll. He is visiting military installations across Germany, emphasizing the importance of writing and preserving these stories.
Carroll and a diverse group of American writers, including Tom Clancy, Bobbie Ann Mason and James McBride, have conducted writing workshops worldwide for military members.
Some of the writing was compiled into a book, "Operation Homecoming," (Random House 2006), which Carroll edited. A companion documentary was nominated this year for an Academy Award and several Emmys.
"These writings contain a great amount of heartbreak, pain and suffering," Carroll said. "It’s important that we hear them, because one of the greatest disservices we can do to those who serve and to their families is to romanticize or sanitize in any way these experiences."
Although writing can be healing, Carroll said the primary mission of Operation Homecoming is not therapy, but history, preserving first-hand accounts from troops and family members.
"From the very beginning, the NEA included the home front: the children, the spouses, the parents," Carroll said. "This is a part of the war experience, and they too serve, as you all well know."
After Carroll’s presentation, including readings from the book and documentary excerpts, the listeners stayed around for coffee, questions and conversation.
Carroll shook hands with a woman who apologized for arriving late. She was in uniform, having evidently come straight from work. Someone introduced her as a doctor at LRMC, and Carroll thanked her for her service.
"It’s really an honor to do what we do," she said.
Some asked the author how to submit their stories to Operation Homecoming. Others sipped coffee and told their stories to each other.
"My kids want to know when I’m coming back," said an Army reservist to the woman next to her.
"How many kids do you have?"
In response to elevated eyebrows, she explained, "I’m a teacher."
Back in Pittsburgh she teaches preschool. With her military unit, she recently built a school in Central America.
"You should have seen those kids’ faces when they saw that school," she said. "If they saw a library like this, they would think it was Christmas."
A new assignment brought her to Germany.
One man had just returned from two years in Iraq. He seemed to prefer watching and listening rather than talking.
Another man quietly asked Carroll for an Operation Homecoming packet to give to another soldier from his unit.
Carroll spoke to each person and encouraged several who said they might have something to write about.
Earlier in the evening, Carroll emphasized the reason to preserve these stories.
"We think of memorials and monuments constructed by stone and metal," he said. "But to me, these very … fragile pieces of paper are a memorial to these troops and their families, because it is their voices, their words."
"No one can tell their stories better than they can."
For more about Operation Homecoming and writing submissions, see www.operationhomecoming.org and the Spouse Calls blog http://blogs.stripes.com/blogs/spousecalls.
Terri Barnes is a military wife and mother of three. She lives and writes in Germany. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and see the Spouse Calls blog at http://blogs.stripes.com/blogs/spousecalls