War and Words

Veterans sometimes return from service feeling burdened by their experiences. The humanities let them know they’re not alone.

  • December 5, 2018
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

Jeb Wyman remembers the day in 2003 when a young student at Seattle Central College approached him. He had to drop out of his classes halfway through the fall quarter, he told his instructor—he was being deployed to Iraq.

“He was the first of my students to identify as a post-9/11 veteran,” says Wyman, who’s taught at the college for more than twenty years, “and in the fourteen years since, I’ve had a lot of veterans.”

That’s no surprise, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now deep into their second decade. Wyman, not a military veteran himself, nonetheless felt a need to seek out insights and educational solutions for those returning from service. He toured fourteen community colleges around Washington, interviewing close to ninety student-veterans enrolled there.

“Many didn’t come from families that had higher education as part of their family culture,” Wyman says. “So community college is where a lot of these folks make their first entry into education, and they see that as a way to find their new next chapter in life.”

One result is What They Signed Up For: True Stories By Ordinary Soldiers, a book Wyman compiled from eighteen soldiers’ true accounts of their service. Another is the nonprofit organization of the same name, which uses proceeds from commercial sales to distribute free copies of the book to veterans, service organizations, and student groups, to broaden understanding of US veterans’ experiences. Yet another is the coursework Wyman guides student-veterans through in specialized classes as academic director of the Clemente Course in Humanities for Veterans, which he’s worked with for the past three years. There, the syllabus includes Homer, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, the Bhagavad Gita, Epictetus, pre-Colonial North American history, Native culture and slave narratives.

“This is not like a college course,” he says. “We don’t have textbooks, we don’t lecture. It’s conversation, discussion, and primary texts.”

In his Speakers Bureau presentation for Humanities Washington, Wyman explores the personal stories of veterans he’s interviewed, and links them to the age-old stories of war, survival, and loss that can be found in the study of human cultures worldwide.


Humanities Washington: When we talk about veterans finding meaning in the humanities, what do we mean by “humanities?”

Jeb Wyman: The humanities are the disciplines of history, art history, US history, philosophy, literature, writing. I like to characterize them as the endeavors that tell the story of human experience. We have humanities that go back to the dawn of culture or civilization. We have art that precedes literacy. We have, for example, Homer’s stories—2,000, 3,000-year-old literature and continuing on to the present. For a lot of veterans, this is an opportunity to engage in an intellectual endeavor in a community of all-veterans, so they have that kinship with each other, to engage the world of ideas. And as we discuss pieces of art or poems or stories or events in US history, they relate their own experiences to them. Part of what happens, I think, is they realize their experience has been recounted over the centuries. The veterans who preceded them faced similar issues, similar feelings. It tends to be a pretty powerful experience.

When veterans come into the Clemente program, what prior experience of the humanities do they usually have?

We take anyone who has been a veteran in any discharge status. We have had young Marines in their twenties—and in the last of our cohorts, we had vets in their seventies, who were Cold War vets from the ’50s. Some of them have had previous education; some have had no education whatsoever. So it’s really a new experience. For one, it’s studying something that’s a world of ideas, rather than purely utility training, which is what encompasses most of their previous experience. If they could engage with the humanities, then they would have this recognition: They could engage any level of society, and they were fully worthy, intellectually, of education too. So we’re one of two in the country that are exclusively veteran-oriented Clemente courses. There’s one in Phoenix and this one here in Seattle.

What hurdles are there to grappling with the material?

My background in community college kind of serves me in this, because I have had literally thousands of students entering into higher education, and realizing they can engage any material. Ancient Greek literature, at first blush, might seem challenging. We’ll sit down and we’ll read a passage together, and they will readily start discussing the characters and their motivations and actions and what’s at stake. A lot of that is developing the confidence and practice of reading texts. That’s one of our missions, to lay the groundwork so they can go from our class and succeed in college, learning how to discuss knowledge.

Every veteran will tell you that most of the movies and the media reports don’t represent war as they really experience it.

Every soldier’s experience is different, but what’s universal about military service?

When I started this book project, I had a mentor named Peter Schmidt, director of mental and behavioral health for the Department of Veterans Affairs. From him I learned that every veteran’s story is like every other veteran’s story is like no other veteran’s story — which is to say people’s experiences are unique, but there are universals, and universals that really stretch across time. One is that intense sense of community, and fraternity and sorority, among veterans. Something they desperately miss when they leave the service are those bonds. There’s the hardship that they’ve all experienced; there’s the physical hardship of training; there’s the physical hardship of deployment; there’s the separation from family, leaving for seven to fifteen months back and forth on deployments and trainings. There’s a sense of pride and discipline, intense honor, which is intensely important to them, and integrity and responsibility. In the military system, everything ends up being a matter of life or death. They’re literally, at every level, feeling this really overwhelming responsibility —and that wears. That’s a point of long-term stress for them. The military is kind of a closed universe of values and relationships, and having to leave that universe can be one of the most painful things about being a veteran.

What’s the importance of seeking out and recording soldiers’ stories?

Some of the therapeutic value is organizing the story—and I’ve seen this happen with vets, when they see their whole story laid out and it kind of makes sense. If they have trauma in their story, trauma fragments memory. Some of the value is in sharing their story—”I don’t have to carry it alone.” I feel that we as a country, and as individual citizens—we’re participants, and we make decisions to send men and women into war. We have a moral obligation to know their stories and understand what that actually means for those folks, not just during the war, but in life after they come home. We go see movies, and we might read books, but every veteran will tell you that most of the movies and the media reports don’t represent war as they really experience it. I did come to this conclusion: That the closest a civilian can come to really understanding war is to sit with veterans, and hear the story directly from veterans.

Jeb Wyman is presenting his Speakers Bureau talk, “Coming Home: How the Humanities Help Soldiers Find Meaning after War,” across the state.

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