New Project Helps Student Veterans Tell Their Stories

After analyzing narratives of post-war homecoming, a group of student veterans will lead community discussions based on their own experiences.
May 7, 2020
Barbara Citera
Barbara Citera

Returning home after military service can bring myriad challenges, not the least of which may be feelings of isolation and being trapped between civilian and warrior cultures.

A new University of Arizona project aims to build a stronger community of student veterans and empower them to tell their own stories, with an understanding of the broader context of post-war homecoming across different generations and cultures.

The Thunder of War and Winds of Return project is funded by a $98,921 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, part of the Dialogues on the Experience of War program. The co-principal investigators of the UArizona project, Barbara Citera and Michael Marks, will design a fall semester course for 12 student veterans to explore narratives of post-war homecoming, including depictions in classic and contemporary literature, popular movies and documentaries. The course will prepare the students to lead three public discussions in the spring of 2021.

Citera, an associate professor of German studies, says the project leverages the critical and compassionate perspectives of the humanities to encourage and give context to discussions among veterans about the ever-unfolding journey home.

"This will give the students the opportunity to explore areas they might not be as aware of," she said. "The value in teaching the humanities is teaching critical thinking and different perspectives and rethinking what you know and developing appreciation of other points of view. The benefit of becoming student discussion leaders will be to have a voice and say in the direction of those discussions and develop skills to facilitate the public dialogues."

Programs for student veterans are often in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – fields, said Marks, professor of practice in psychology at the university's Veterans Education and Transition Services Center and program director for the university's Supportive Education for Returning Veterans Program.

"We wanted to expand veterans' ideas about what it means to be a veteran, to reach out more into the humanities – all the poetry, plays (and) art that is centered around being a veteran," Marks said. "It's an identity issue, and that's, again, where there are stories in the humanities that point out this has been going on for a long, long time. "This really gives veterans an opportunity to look at the humanities – what's written, what's drawn, what's painted, what's photographed about war and about what it means to be a veteran."

Program organizers hope to identify a cohort of student veterans who are diverse in their military service backgrounds, as well as in their gender, age, and cultural and ethnic backgrounds and who also use the VETS Center. Participants will be selected primarily from majors in the College of Humanities.

"For the student veterans, this is to help them share that experience and get a dialogue going with other veterans from other wars and also civilians about how America does or doesn't really help in that transition from warrior culture back to the civilian world," Marks said. "As we were putting this together, we talked about what it's like to hear 'thank you for your service.' For this generation, it's not what they're looking for. I think the civilian world knows that but doesn't know what to say. So this is partly for the civilian world to be educated about that."

Citera and Marks will lead the fall course, with additional support from two College of Humanities faculty members who are also veterans: Bryan Carter, associate professor of Africana studies, and Robert Fiore, professor emeritus of Spanish.

"For me, this was a no brainer. The fantastic work at the VETS Center and the welcoming climate at the U of A is already there, so we can build on that," Citera said. "We wanted to empower the students to learn and to become discussion leaders and be able to tell their own stories, while putting them into context of the overall humanities sources they've chosen and studied."

Throughout the course, the students will prepare to lead three discussion sessions in spring 2021. The first will take place on campus and focus on the variety of veterans' experiences on their journeys home, community inclusion and the fight for veterans' rights. The second will be held at Fort Huachuca and will use the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to explore how different times and places have treated returning warriors. The third will take place at the Southern Arizona Veterans Administration Health Care System in Tucson and will use one-act plays, memoirs and poetry to generate conversation about healing.

The grant also supports videographer Luis Carrión in creating a "Thunder of War and Winds of Return" documentary film, which will follow the participants through the project as a way to carry the discussions forward.

Cody Nicholls, UArizona assistant dean of students for military and veteran engagement, said that while the university ranks No. 18 in the Military Times' latest Best for Vets ranking, the Thunder of War and Winds of Return project fills a need because its focus on the humanities gives veterans the chance to process their experiences in a way that other areas of study may not.

"You can't unlive the things you've lived or unsee the things you've seen or unhear the things you've heard. You're bringing that back home with you and how do you navigate that in returning to your family or your community? This really is an avenue for them that brings benefits in illuminating those experiences," he said. "This is a building block. For now and tomorrow, the grant opportunity is a tremendous door we can go through to reach a lot of veterans who might not have seen this as a viable option."