In the front of the room sits a panel of four veterans, all prepared to talk about their unique experiences with homecoming. The event, supported by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, is a unique opportunity for both the veterans and audience to engage with literature, film, and historical writings as a way to situate and relate their own experiences. The event opens with an introduction from Prof. Widell of the History Department. He talked about the importance of humanities texts in interrogating the language of homecoming and stressed that what people often forget in history is that it is not only about telling stories, but about listening. The panel of veterans was asked to read and watch several different texts selected by the event organizers. For this particular panel, focusing on texts dealing with World War I, Prof. Widell selected works from WEB du Bois, Allen Berube, Ira Katznelson, and Donnie Williams. Tom Conroy from Film and Media asked the panelists to watch The Best Years of Our Lives and read a companion piece to the film. Molly Hall from English chose works by Mary Borden, James Europe, and JD Salinger.
After a brief introduction from each member of the committee outlining the specific works they chose for the panel, Prof. Widell opened the floor to the panelists, asking them to first identify themselves and give a short biography. Chad McFarlane spent five years in the Army as a tanker, eventually earning the rank of Sargeant. He is currently a senior at URI. Michael Steiner, also a senior at URI, joined the Navy and worked as a Radar Tech, serving through three deployments in the Persian Gulf and one in the western Pacific. Denny Cosmo was already in infantry school when the twin towers were hit in NYC. He served with the 325th Infantry Airborne division as an intelligence collector in Iraq. He is currently attending CCRI. Finally, Ashley Aldarondo-Martinez spent four years in the Army as a Human Resource Specialist and currently works for the Department of Veteran Affairs.
After their introductions, the panelists were asked to respond generally to the materials they had read and seen. “Blind,” a selection from Mary Borden, seemed to touch many of the panelists for the ways in which Borden deployed blindness as a metaphor. In the excerpt, the panelists noticed that soldiers seemed blind to the other men lying on cots right next to them, the nurses had to in many ways be blind to the suffering they saw, and those that welcomed the soldiers back seemed blind to their experience. Du Bois was also popular for the ways in which he encouraged black soldiers to dedicate themselves to the war effort in order to gain more rights back home in America. Building on this reading, Chad recalled a moment when, after returning from basic training he entered a dry cleaning store. Initially, he received a less than warm welcome, but when he pulled his uniform out the clerk’s eyes lit up and his whole demeanor changed. It seems that the uniform acted as an equalizer. Each panelist agreed that The Best Years of Our Lives captured the ambivalence of homecoming. While none believed that their time in the service were “the best years of their lives,” they identified with the strong sense ofcomradery the men felt in the film that was in some ways lacking upon their return.
The question and answer session was also very lively with a lot of audience participation. One of the best questions of the afternoon concerned what each of the panelists would recommend as “improvements” or modifications to the current process of discharge and reintegration. Panelists mentioned a greater focus on entrepreneurship and putting veterans’ unique skills to use in starting their own businesses, a better explanation and guidance in maximizing the GI Bill and specific skills to succeed in college, and a focus on asking veterans where they wanted to fit into society and what they wanted to be doing instead of attempting to take skills learned in the service and translate them directly into a job.
The session was brought to a close when a gentleman in the audience, a veteran himself, thanked all of the panelists for not only their service but their willingness to partici
pate in this forum. His sincerity was echoed by, I think, everyone in the audience and underscored the importance of opening up spaces in which people have the chance to truly listen to others’ experiences. The next session focuses on texts centered on the Vietnam War and is being hosted by the Providence Public Library on Oct. 16 at 2pm. More information, as well as links to the works the veteran panel will be reading can be found here: http://rivetsspeak.weebly.com/