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Carrying a country on their backs, And telling their stories

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Susan Thornton Hobby is an editor and a writer. She serves as a board member and the recording secretary for HoCoPoLitSo.

This is a guest blog post by Susan Thornton Hobby in commemoration of #ThankASoldierWeek (Dec 19-25) and sharing #veteranswritingproject


I’m a Quaker. I don’t believe in war. Among my many bumper stickers is this one: “War is not the answer.”

But I do believe in warriors, and in supporting those who believe differently than I do and who serve their countries.

This week is “Thank a Soldier Week,” a commemorative week made up by a marketing company. But I agree with the sentiment. Other than on Veteran’s Day, I don’t believe Americans think about the troops, much less support them enough. Fewer than one percent of Americans have participated in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of us don’t have direct experience with wartime, unlike in past generations.

My Grandma Jane had five children serving in World War II at one point; her daughter Margaret joined underage and drove a transport truck.

I had three grandfathers, two by birth, one by marriage. All three were in the military. My mother’s father joined the National Guard at 17, then at age 20, when World War II broke out, he joined the Marines. He rose to the rank of sergeant major, and served in special forces in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He retired after 35 years in the corps. My mother stands when she hears the “Marines’ Hymn.”

My father’s father was in the Marines as well, met my grandmother at Quantico and drove supply trucks through Shanghai during World War II. Fifty years afterward, he could still describe the route he drove through the city.

My stepfather’s father served in the Canadian Army and landed on France’s beaches during D-Day. My stepfather took his father to Normandy for the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion, and for a few weeks, they visited battlefields, villages, and cemeteries together. He remembered distinctly many spots they found.

I had heard stories of war, some of my grandfathers’ tales and some from my years as a reporter. I had seen old black and white pictures of battles and movies about conflicts. But I don’t think I truly started to understand the horrors of war until I was in college, when I read Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece, “The Things They Carried.”

That’s the power of story, the power of literature, to describe something in a way that thirty years later, I can’t forget the image of a man carrying, through Vietnam’s horrors, a small, milky-white pebble found on a beach by a girl and mailed to him.

O’Brien describes the literal things these soldiers carried – canned peaches and mosquito repellent, rifles and smoke grenades, girlfriends’ pantyhose and letters from home. But he also talks about the metaphorical burdens they bore: “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

Or later, he writes, “Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections.”

His writing humanized the soldiers and the Vietnamese people they were fighting; with the act of inventing characters and story, he told more truth than I’d ever heard about war.

I think the “Thank a Soldier Week” is meant to urge everyone to express gratitude to those who have served, and to maybe put together a care package or two. Those are good aims. But I think we need more stories, more stories about war written by people who have actually been there. I urge people to learn about and support the Veterans Writing Project, which offers free writing seminars and workshops for veterans, service people and their families. Their sister site publishes out a quarterly literary journal, O-Dark Thirty (O-Dark-Thirty).

The Veterans Writing Project describes itself as: “We approach our work with three goals in mind. The first is literary. We believe there is a new wave of great literature coming and that much of that will be written by veterans and their families. The next is social. We have in the United States right now the smallest ever proportion of our population in service during a time of war. … Our WWII veterans are dying off at a rate of nearly 900 per day. We want to put as many of these stories in front of as many readers as we can. Finally, writing is therapeutic. Returning warriors have known for centuries the healing power of narrative. We give veterans the skills they need to capture their stories and do so in an environment of mutual trust and respect.”

We should read more of their stories, so we can understand the troops who keep us safe. Literature brings me joy and solace; I can only hope it does the same for the soldiers who are carrying what most of us cannot.

#ThankASoldierWeek (Dec 19-25)

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