Program connects veteran experiences with Homer's works

by Berit Svenson | 4/2/18 2:00am

Classics professor Roberta Stewart’s Homer-for-Veterans program, which has veterans read and discuss Homer, recently expanded to the University of Vermont. In 2008, Stewart hosted a veterans-only reading group to examine Homer’s works in Hanover’s Howe Library, with the goal of providing veterans with a way to think and speak about their own experiences in combat.

Stewart said she thought of the idea to share Homer’s work with veterans after reading military blogs while on sabbatical in Italy. As she contemplated works such as Jonathan Shay’s “Achilles in Vietnam” — a book that shows parallels between the experiences of Greek heroes and modern day soldiers — Stewart said she wanted to “actually sit down, open [Homer] and share that experience with a veteran.”

She aimed to “take the experience of a liberal arts classroom and give it to the community,” she added.

“The idea of the book groups is that veterans can become authoritative sources about world literature,” Stewart said. “I think world literature gives us words to cope with experiences.”

At the University of Vermont, classics professor John Franklin began teaching a course on “The Odyssey” this past fall. This term, he is teaching “The Iliad” instead. Franklin said that each week, the class starts with five to 10 minutes of lecturing before the veterans begin a group discussion on the week’s assigned readings. He added that the veterans are also given the chance to compare the readings with their own experiences. According to Franklin, the class helped create a community for veterans to feel a sense of belonging.

“The class started with everybody sitting back and waiting,” Franklin said. “There was a turning point after about a week when they all realized that they had a lot in common with each other, and suddenly everybody was talking and opening up about their experiences.”

David Carlson, coordinator of student veteran services at the University of Vermont and former student veteran, helps facilitate the class. Carlson emphasized that the class allows veterans to know that “this is our burden, not just any individual person’s.”

“We’re not always encouraged to share really emotional and difficult things in our society,” Carlson said. “I think that it’s important to recognize that when people go to war then come home, we have to be able to listen to those stories and understand those experiences.”

While the class is currently available only to veterans, Franklin said he hopes to start a class that will also include individuals who have not served in the military. By including non-veterans in the course, more people can understand the political and emotional impact on the men and women who have served, he said.

According to Rebecca Ivatury, a former trauma nurse in Iraq and member of the 2017 book group at the Howe Library, the opportunity to “read a classic with a classics professor from Dartmouth” appealed to her.

“I had never been in a veterans’ group before,” Ivatury said. “To have an expert in the classics lead the group seemed really worthwhile to me.”

For the veterans book group at the Howe Library, veterans are typically assigned two books to read from “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey” each week. Through their analysis of the epic poems, members of the group are able to find connections between themselves and Homer’s characters, as well as within the class, according to Eric Janisch, a veteran and a current program officer for co-curricular programs for the Rockefeller Center.

“We had a couple of Vietnam veterans in addition to more recent veterans,” Janisch said. “It was really enjoyable to hear about their experiences and see how similar they were. It’s very rare to get to have that kind of intergenerational conversation.”

The book group affords veterans a forum to evaluate Homer’s depiction of war and how it relates to their own experiences without directly judging themselves, Janisch said.

“It’s hard to judge yourself,” he said. “When you are able to look at a character objectively and evaluate their situation, it gives you a reference to compare against your own.”

According to U.S. Marine Corps veteran and 2016 Howe Library reading group member Chad Rairie, Homer’s poems enable veterans to link themselves to soldiers from the eighth century B.C. Reading group members found solace in the idea that they are not alone in dealing with the aftermath of being in combat or in a war zone, he added.

“[The poems] make you feel like you’re connected throughout human history,” Rairie said. “There’s a comfort in knowing that every generation of young men and women who have gone to war and come back have all experienced the same thing.”

Stewart said she wants to continue expanding the program. Since the origin of Homer-for-Veterans 10 years ago, Stewart has traveled to numerous locations to present the idea, with the program continuing to gain public attention for its success among veterans, according to Stewart.