Even before John Howell left for Iraq in 2009, he loved Walt Whitman’s poetry.
As a soldier, he identified with Whitman’s description of the injured he saw in the Civil War battlefields and field hospitals.
In “The Wound-Dresser,” a grandfather recalling bandaging a soldier’s “stump of the arm” pleads with the reader not to forget their sacrifices.
“So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,” Whitman writes.
Once Howell came back from deployment, he understood Whitman’s somber shift in tone. Howell said his experience as a combat medic in the Iraq War left him with similar feelings.
“Whitman once wrote about the Civil War that ‘the real war will never get in the books … Its interior history will not only never be written –its practicality, minutiae of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested,’” Howell said. “I think veterans have a responsibility to connect with others and promote an understanding of what it means to serve so the ‘minutiae of deeds and passions’ will never be forgotten.”
At NC Vets for Words meetings, Howell, a student in the Duke Physician Assistant Program, uses his love of literature and service background to bring veterans together through works like Whitman’s poems.
The reading group began last year with a focus on combat veterans. This year it has expanded to include veterans of all backgrounds, including two women.
The group, which meets monthly at the Chapel Hill Public Library, is led by Howell and UNC English professor Hilary Lithgow.
Lithgow specializes in literature on military history. When she discovered she was teaching veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in her classes, she realized the readings she approached from a scholarly perspective had real implications for some of her students.
“We use literature to have a conversation, connect, reflect and to see how the military experience is a part of the human experience,” Lithgow said.
Some aspects of the military experience are universal, she said.
“Those feelings of coming home and finding home has changed, the frustration of navigating bureaucracy, experiencing a tragedy firsthand – these are common themes in literature and these are common issues our vets deal with,” she said.
Don Roberts, a Vietnam veteran who attended last year, said the group helped him find common ground with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
“There are some ways we are completely different, like Iraq and Afghanistan was entirely a volunteer army while I was drafted,” Roberts said. “But all of the veterans here today didn’t get the luxury of a victory parade like the World War II guys I grew up listening to. We struggle with coming to terms with an end without celebration.”
Both Lithgow and Howell believe literature can play a role in pre-deployment training.