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Poet, author and “literary activist” E. Ethelbert Miller makes a point Tuesday during a presentation to soldiers at Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy. Miller and novelist Richard Bausch encouraged soldiers, many of whom deployed to Iraq and will soon head to Afghanistan, to put their experiences to paper. Their visit was part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Operation Homecoming – designed to document wartime experiences.
Poet, author and “literary activist” E. Ethelbert Miller makes a point Tuesday during a presentation to soldiers at Caserma Ederle in Vicenza, Italy. Miller and novelist Richard Bausch encouraged soldiers, many of whom deployed to Iraq and will soon head to Afghanistan, to put their experiences to paper. Their visit was part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Operation Homecoming – designed to document wartime experiences. (Kent Harris / S&S)

VICENZA, Italy — It took years for E. Ethelbert Miller to digest a few of the defining moments that shaped his life.

For Miller — now a famed poet, professor and self-described “literary activist” — those moments include the entry and exit of his older brother into a monastery, his sometimes combative relationship with his mother, the death of his brother and father and growing up black on the East Coast in the 1960s.

Miller told a group of soldiers Tuesday at Caserma Ederle that he felt, and still feels, a need to write down his emotions. So he started penning poetry.

“What can a person learn from your life?” he asked the assembled group, most of whom had seen combat with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Iraq recently. “What have you been a witness to?”

Miller spent more than an hour telling troops about some of the experiences that he had witnessed and put down in ink. Many of his stories had the soldiers laughing.

There are some stories, even in a wartime environment, that could also earn a few chuckles. But others inspire other emotions. And the National Endowment for the Arts wants to hear them all.

So the NEA is soliciting material from servicemembers and their families on their wartime experiences, according to Maribeth Walton McGinley, a member of the National Council on the Arts. At the end of the series of workshops it is conducting, the NEA plans to select and compile the best of the soldiers’ works and publish an anthology.

“You have some wonderful stories to tell that the American people aren’t hearing,” McGinley told the troops. “We have a World War II generation whose stories are being lost. We want to hear your stories right now.”

McGinley, whose Marine Corps colonel husband is stationed in the Pentagon, said it’s “the first time that the endowment has focused on programs in the military.”

Authors such as Miller and novelist Richard Bausch, who was also in Vicenza on Tuesday, are visiting with troops as part of Operation Homecoming, the NEA initiative encouraged by the Department of Defense.

The object, according to program director Jon Peede, is pretty simple.

“We are encouraging the troops to write about their wartime experiences,” he said. Those actually involved in an event have a perspective that can’t be duplicated by others who weren’t there, he said.

Those words were echoed a short while later by Brig. Gen. Jason Kamiya, the commanding general of the Southern European Task Force (Airborne) who will lead most of the base’s active-duty population into Afghanistan early next year.

“No one can write about your experiences and your feelings except for yourselves,” he said.

He encouraged soldiers to write down their thoughts during their next big mission and to plan on how they’ll do so.

“You do have good stories to tell,” he said. “There are people in the States, your peers, that look to all of us in uniform as role models.”

The NEA hopes to elicit material from all of the services and their families. Peede said Vicenza is the third base visited, following stops at Fort Drum, N.Y., and Camp Lejeune, N.C. The next scheduled trips are to Fort Richardson in Alaska and Norfolk, Va.

Author Tom Clancy, probably the best-known of the dozens of authors who are volunteering for the project, will make an appearance there to talk to sailors and their families.

About a dozen visits are set — presently none of the others are overseas — but Peede said the program’s popularity might prompt additional trips.

The published anthology will be distributed free on military bases and libraries, according to an NEA spokesman. And even if a submitted work does not make the book, it will become part of a permanent NEA collection chronicling the war.

Some of those present during Miller’s presentation said they plan to deploy with pens, paper and plans to produce.

Spc. David Stewart said his tour in Iraq was full of “lots of experiences, but I don’t know about just jotting them down.”

He said he did write some poetry in country, just to try to get his thoughts on paper to revisit later.

Spc. Phillip Harrill, also a member of 1st Battalion, 508th Infantry Regiment, said he lost most of what he had written in Iraq. He said he wasn’t sure how important it was to anyone else.

“Things I wanted to remember for myself,” he said. “Things I’ll probably never do again when I leave the Army.”

And things that the NEA says it wants to keep and share with other Americans and future generations.

For more details on the project, see the Web site: www.nea.gov/national/homecoming/index.html.

—Scripps Howard News Service contributed to this report.

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