Thursday, November 6, 2014

J.A. Moad II - Veterans’ Voices Month: Listening to those who served

J.A. Moad II is a former Air Force C-130 pilot with over 100 combat missions who served as an Assistant Professor of War Literature at the United Air Force Academy and as a fiction editor for the War, Literature & the Arts Journal (WLA). He writes online essays for the WLA Blog, and his short stories, poetry and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. He has performed on stage at the Library of Congress and The Guthrie Theater as part of The Telling Project. He currently resides in Northfield, MN where he flies for Delta Airlines and is working on a novel about an American military in a not too-distant future. 
(This was published as an Opinion piece in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on October 22, 2014.)

Whenever I speak on the topic of Veterans or war, I always start with the same questions: has anyone ever served in the military? How about your siblings, parents, or children? A few hands climb into the air, but only a few—a reality reflecting the small percentage of people who understand the challenges faced by Veterans. The Minnesota Humanities Center is working to change that in part through a new law dedicating the entire month of October as Veterans’ Voices Month.

Last year on Memorial Day, Sebastian Junger called on Veterans to tell their stories. He said it was a way of sharing “the moral burden of war”—an effort to reach out to the ninety-nine percent who’ve never put on a uniform. I acknowledged the importance of hearing Veterans’ stories, but realized they’d be hesitant to speak to civilians. How could I help to make this dialogue possible?

As a former educator, Veteran, and the son of a Vietnam Vet, I understood that it would require a concerted effort from artists and educators, along with community and government leaders. For me, the solution was grounded in the Humanities—a sentiment echoed by the Veterans’ Voices program at the Humanities Center.

While in discussions with the Humanities Center and key state legislators (Rep. Jerry Newton, Rep. Bob Dettmer, and Sen. John A. Hoffman), we crafted legislation that would dedicate the month of October to teaching and studying the stories of Veterans. It would serve as a prelude to Veterans Day, and with the help of some talented educators and writers in Northfield, we kicked off the project last fall. The results were astounding: the bill unanimously passed both legislative houses and on May 16, 2014, Governor Mark Dayton signed Veterans’ Voices Month into law. Minnesota is now the first state to devote an entire month to honor, recognize, and celebrate Veterans.

It seems all too appropriate that this initiative begins here in Minnesota, a leader in the humanities and the birthplace of Tim O’Brien, one of the greatest war writers of our generation. Much like the post-Vietnam Era, we’ve become a society inured and exhausted by the longest conflict in our history. We hear about Traumatic Brain Injury, Post Traumatic Stress (not a disorder), sexual assault, suicides, and a Veteran’s Administration plagued by failures of past and present policies. But we haven’t heard enough of the individual stories. It’s time we did.

Veterans’ Voices Month is only part of a long-term initiative of the Humanities Center that draws on the power of the humanities to call attention and amplify Veterans’ stories and contributions. Veterans’ Voices is building a network of Veteran organizations, artists and individuals to capture the authentic voices of the men and women who’ve served and died on our behalf.

While the project here is a just getting off the ground, it is part of larger endeavor that’s gaining momentum across the country. Over the last few years, I’ve witnessed the power of honest expression by Veterans. Whether it’s a production of The Telling Project, where their stories come alive on stage, a reading by the soldier-poet, Brian Turner, or the Pulitzer Prize-winning exhibit, Always Lost (currently touring Minnesota), the words and images always resonate through an audience. Veterans’ Voices is about bearing the weight of these stories into the present—into classrooms, libraries, community groups, churches and town halls… It’s about discovering what we can learn from these Veterans. It’s the only honest way to share the moral responsibility of war.

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Pioneer Press on October 21, 2014.

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