HEIDELBERG, Germany — He was an ignorant civilian, by his own account. He called Marines "soldiers," for example. He didn’t know what the troops were like, how funny they could be, or how modest or stoic. He didn’t have a clue what they endured, the physical suffering, the emotional sacrifices.
Then the letters started coming in — first old letters from past wars, and, later, letters written by troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To say Andrew Carroll was impressed would be an understatement.
"I cannot express how much admiration I have for these men and women," Carroll, now among the country’s foremost experts on wartime correspondence, said in a phone interview from his home in Washington. "It’s a kind of suffering and hardship I’ve never experienced in my life, and never will."
For the past decade, collecting, preserving and publishing letters written by troops and their families, and, more recently, encouraging and teaching troops to write, has been his job and his calling. "It’s not what they teach us about what troops do," Carroll said. "It’s the wisdom we learn about, the hope, the passion….I think they have a lot to teach us about humanity."
Carroll is embarking on a tour of U.S. Army Europe. He’ll be speaking at eight libraries and one larger venue — starting and ending in Heidelberg — from the end of August through the middle of September. His aim, he said, is to get troops and families enthused about the importance, and joy, of writing about their experiences and keeping those letters and e-mails for posterity.
"To say to them, ‘Your voices do matter,’ " he said. "It’s not meant to be school. People have a good time. It just turns into a really amazing conversation."
Carroll has been part of a group of writers who’ve taught writing workshops to troops in the field, including Iraq and Afghanistan, as part of an effort initiated in 2004 by the National Endowment for the Arts called "Operation Homecoming."
Carroll said he initially didn’t think Operation Homecoming would work. He thought it was too soon; it often takes decades for warriors to feel comfortable sharing intimate letters. He thought that after the embedding of news reporters in Iraq and soldiers’ blogs and digital photography, there’d be nothing new to say. He thought that the NEA project, funded by Boeing, would disallow raw, real, graphic war experiences.
"I was wrong on all counts," Carroll said.
Thousands and thousands of pieces of writing came in, "really fresh, unique, brilliantly written perspectives,"
Carroll said. The writings were edited but not censored in any way, Carroll said.
"The word in the office was that these troops have earned the right to say whatever they wanted to say," he said.
An anthology was published by Random House in 2006, received unanimously rave reviews, and was named by the Washington Post as one of the best books of the year. Next came a 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary inspired by the book, also titled "Operation Homecoming."
Carroll was asked to edit the book because of his previous work, including the Legacy Project, in which, with the help of Dear Abby, Carroll persuaded thousands of veterans and their descendants to send in copies of their old letters. That effort resulted in an anthology edited by Carroll and published in 2001 called "War Letters."
Today’s troops, he said, write as well as those from the past, in part, he said, because they’re trained to be hyperalert, often have a succinct communication style and have amazing experiences to write about.
"Once they’re given the opportunity, they write phenomenal pieces," he said. And not just the "Marines, who after a couple of beers admit they write poetry.
"We have this quote I love, from [Ralph Waldo] Emerson: ‘When a man does not write his poetry, it escapes by other vents through him.’ I say, ‘You may think you’re not a writer, but I bet you really are.’ "
Where and when
All library appearances are at 7 p.m.:
Heidelberg PHV Library, TuesdayWiesbaden Library, WednesdayStuttgart Patch Library, Thursday, Aug. 28Baumholder Library, Tuesday, Sept. 2Landstuhl Library, Thursday, Sept. 4Schweinfurt Library, Tuesday, Sept. 9Bamberg Library, Wednesday, Sept. 10Grafenwöhr Library, Thursday, Sept. 11A final engagement in Heidelberg is scheduled for 3 p.m. Sept. 15 at a venue yet to be decided.Admission is free for all events.
For more information on Operation Homecoming, visit www.operationhomecoming.gov