OFF THE SHELF
REVIEWED By Richard Currey
Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families, Random House (386 pp., $26.95)
Any American seeking an authentic insight into our military campaigns of the last few years should read Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families. For all the value in many recent books dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan, no single book that I have encountered tells the story with such power, immediacy, lyricism, and hard-won humanity. Indeed, Operation Homecoming should be in every school, university, and public library in the land. It certainly should be on the desk of every member of Congress.
Operation Homecoming is the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) initiative that involved writing workshops for troops and their families. These workshops were led by a group of more than 20 distinguished authors, all of whom had personal and literary connections to war and the military. The project aimed at the benefits of self-expression and self-understanding that writing about wartime service might yield.
Originally envisioned as a modest undertaking, the response to Operation Homecoming surprised both the NEA and DoD. Expanded and extended over two years, more than 6,000 troops and family members participated in 50 workshops on bases at home and abroad, as well as aboard two ships in the Persian Gulf. Learn more at: www.nea.gov/national/homecoming/index.html
Operation Homecoming offers 89 service member-writers as exemplars of what was seen in workshops and later received by the NEA as part of a national permanent archive—10,000 pages documenting the view from the ground (and in the air) in Iraq and Afghanistan by Americans of every belief and perspective.
I had the honor of being one of the writers who conducted workshops and later served on the book’s editorial panel. But Operation Homecoming is in no way our book. We might have conducted workshops and made suggestions about what to include in the final anthology, but we did not direct anyone on what to write, nor did we censor or temper their emotional truths after the fact. Nor did the NEA or DoD. The result: Hearts are laid bare in these pages.
The volume’s closing lines offer a poignant summation of why Operation Homecoming matters. Staff Sgt. Parker Gyokeres, based in Tallil in 2003-04 with the USAF 332nd Fighter Wing, wrote that “those of us coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan are not looking for sympathy. We may be reluctant at first to talk about what we’ve been through and some troops might never be able to open up…. There are things about war that people will never comprehend unless they have experienced them firsthand. But I hope those who need to will reach out, and it’s helpful knowing there are people who care about us and are at least making an effort to understand…. Thanks, above all, for listening.”