When, in the fall of 2015, Longwood University (Farmville, Virginia) and Military Experience and the Arts put out a call to military, veterans, and family members to tell their stories, we were uncertain about who, if anyone, would respond. We named this effort “Home and Abroad” to emphasize that we wanted to learn about the personal experiences of those who served overseas in the military and those who supported them stateside. We have been surprised at the numbers of individuals who have contacted us and by the power of their stories.
Who are the readers?
Who are the readers of these stories of military experience? One other writer can help answer these questions. Hospital chaplain and retired Navy veteran, Willie Smith, Sr. recounts a fictional version of one man’s experience of brutality, using graphic imagery in a terse, powerful poem, “The Patient.” Here a man tells “the visiting chaplain” that, coming out of the shadows, he had surprised his horse, who then turned on him: “He confessed of having only the living witness in him spared from the hoofs and massive muscles / Thrusting up and down from the high heavens, and falling upon his head, arms, wrists, groin, legs—as if all at once . . . “ Bearing “witness” here is not simply easing his conscience about how he has injured people he cares about but also attempting to prevent others from taking similar action. He knows he has hurt his family, perhaps not physically but certainly emotionally. And, like many converts, he hopes to prevent others from imitating his actions.
Home and Abroad authors are bearing witness to the trials, challenges, and rewards of military service. Their readers are fellow members of the military, veterans, and family members, but, perhaps more importantly, our current civilian population, which is often spared such realities. We acknowledge that there are many ways in which citizens serve the nation—as teachers, police, medical personnel, business leaders, laborers, farmers and many more. However, in other professions, individuals have the option of resigning if they feel their work situations are unacceptable. Giving up a job may cost salary, benefits, and future prospects, but members of the military do not have that option except at the end of their current time of enlistment. What they give up to protect our freedoms is their own freedom. Like firefighters and law enforcement officials, they are also volunteering to put themselves in harm’s way. And, unlike in past generations, today’s wars are carried on by a tiny minority of the nation, about 1% of its citizens. The remaining 99% can choose to take for granted what that 1% does. The hope of Home and Abroad is that many of us will agree that citizenship in a country with an all-volunteer military mandates that all understand what is undertaken to protect the nation’s way of life.