Last summer, Dr. Brett Holden, theatre and film, taught a class at the Chautauqua Institution in New York called “Witnessing War: The 20th- and 21st-Century Soldier Experience in Literature and Film.” Though rewarding in itself, the class resulted in a special opportunity for Holden and a possible new avenue for helping soldiers who have been through war.
Holden visits a reconstruction of an Army field hospital from Balad, Iraq.
“It was a wonderful week, and the class was an intensive reflection on the cinematic and literary representations of war and how veterans’ experiences as seen through their diaries, poems and letters home interfaces with film versions,” said Holden, who has studied and taught about the impact of war on soldiers and their families for many years. A major focus has been the reintegration of the warrior into civilian life; he is particularly interested in how film and veteran literature might be used to aid in the process.
The Chautauqua course packed into five days what he normally covers in a 16-week class at BGSU. “It was an incredibly dynamic group,” he said. “We had doctors, lawyers, retired military—including a colonel—scholarship students and veterans from Korea, Vietnam and World War II.”
Also in the class, he later discovered, was Dr. William Gardner, a pathologist with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Gardner is also executive director of the American Registry of Pathology.
Since a large part of what goes on at Walter Reed is helping heal returning soldiers, not only physically but psychologically, Gardner was especially interested in Holden’s work. He followed up on the class by inviting Holden to give the Calendar/Binford Lecture on Nov. 19.
The audience for the lecture, which was held in the National Museum of Health and Medicine, comprised doctors, psychologists, military officials, therapists, recovering soldiers and others devoted to the care of veterans.
At his talk and the dinner beforehand, “I felt for the first time that I was speaking to individuals who knew exactly what I was talking about,” Holden said. “The American public does not have a clue, or a clear picture of, the wars that we’re fighting or their effects. We need to work more than ever to understand the returning soldiers and ask how we as civilians can assist with their reintegration.”
Not the Hollywood version
Holden’s lecture, called “Utilizing the Literature and Film of War to Facilitate the Warrior-Civilian Transition,” dealt with the significant potential that exists in utilizing such materials to help soldiers readjust following combat. Unfortunately, he said, the typical depiction of combat and soldiers in Hollywood productions has dealt heavily with concepts of heroes and glory—the opposite of the reality of war.
“The true story of the struggle with fear and anxiety is seldom told,” Holden said. “It’s closely tied to the survival instinct and not a measure of a soldier’s fortitude; the physical effects of war, from the environment to disease to lack of sleep; the separation from loved ones and fears of growing apart and of spousal infidelity; the worries about homecoming and how they might be viewed and whether they’re different now and how their life goals have changed. Society discourages us from telling this and prefers stories about heroes and glory. It shames soldiers for admitting to these feelings.” But all these factors play a role in a warrior’s reintegration to civilian life, he added.
In addition to giving the talk, Holden met with others at Walter Reed, including Thomasine (Tammy) Alvarez, president of the Friends of the Uniformed Services University (USU) and wife of the first pilot shot down over Vietnam, who was a fellow inmate of John McCain’s in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” At the request of Dr. Gardner, Holden had reviewed a documentary she helped fund called “Fighting for Life,” about the experiences of military physicians in training at the USU and the challenges they face in caring for the wounded in military hospitals at home and abroad.
He also toured the USU campus, in Bethesda, Md., and Walter Reed, experiences he described as “emotionally overwhelming.”
“I met individuals who work in soldier care who every day must walk among human beings who are struggling with major life changes. They went into the war with one idea of what their future would be but now find it’s all different.
“At USU they’re training doctors who are going to see things you’re never going to see. It takes a special kind of person to be a doctor or a physical therapist in that kind of setting where you’re dealing with people who have been harmed in every way you can be harmed.” Holden had high praise for the compassion and commitment of everyone involved in the effort.
Team dedicated to veterans
Throughout the visit, Holden and his hosts discussed the soldier experience, soldier recovery, and how his courses and service work may contribute to soldier reintegration. He also shared information about the Veteran Assessment and Service Team (VAST) at BGSU, an apolitical service group he convened in 2003 in which students spend a year working with families, soldiers in the field, and nonprofit and other service organizations. Its members provide special support for the Ohio Army National Guard’s Bravo Company of the 148th, located in Bowling Green, and Alpha Company, in Walbridge.
Students in VAST can co-enroll in Holden’s “War, Film, and the Soldier Experience” course for an academic component to the experience. In addition to the films and soldier testimonies studied, the course features guest speakers, calls from soldiers on duty and service-learning opportunities. The intense teamwork and study are aimed at creating a “better-informed student and one who is prepared to become an activist and help shape change,” Holden said.
Holden has worked in military issues for about 10 years. While he is not a veteran, “I grew up among veterans and soldiers in my family who were deeply affected by war. They scoffed at Hollywood films and were incensed by pro-war films that glorified war. They warned me, ‘Don’t buy into this.’”
Then around 1998, three years before 9/11, he began to notice rising tension in the Middle East and realized “we needed a better understanding of conflict and the real costs of war. I had just begun to glimpse the magnitude of those costs, and they are just overwhelming, more than most people ever imagine.
“Because one of the primary ways students learn about the world is through film (if it’s in a film, they’re convinced it’s real), I began creating courses that would motivate students to learn in different ways,” he said. One academic effort, the Veteran Project, pairs students with former soldiers, many of them members of his students’ own families. They interview them using a Human Subjects Review Board-approved set of questions, to gain a deeper understanding of the war experience.
His efforts on behalf of soldiers and veterans were recognized in December at a military family night volunteer appreciation banquet held in Columbus, at the invitation of Maj. Gen. Gregory Wayt, Adjutant General of Ohio.
War’s impact on the University
Because of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, “we as a university are going to have more and more of these soldiers returning, and their reintegration will become an increasingly important issue for us,” Holden said. He hopes that the courses and group he has developed could be used to assist in their successful transition and to help the rest of the campus understand their situation.
Undergraduate Student Government, and especially Sen. Johnnie Lewis, has expressed interest. In addition, senior Jessica Precop is developing a Web site devoted to the reintegration of veterans through an internship in the Office of the Dean of Students.
On another level, Holden is part of the new Peace and Conflict Studies minor degree program and is co-teaching “Peace and Cultural Legacies of the Nuclear Age” for the third time. The program has “brought together a variety of us who are passionate about finding ways to resolve conflict before there’s tragedy,” Holden said.