By Stefanie Takacs
With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Touchstones Discussion Project launched a new program specifically for veterans in 2017. Completing the Odyssey: A Journey Home compared ancient perspectives on service, war, separation, and homecoming with modern perspectives from members of America’s modern armed forces. Touchstones is the recipient of a second grant from the NEH that allows us to expand programming and replicate the original program, in addition to converting our Touchstones Leader’s Guide and Participant Guide into a print-on-demand set. We look forward to making this program available to other organizations and groups that bring veterans together to share their experiences during service and in their transition back to civilian life.
In addition, this funding provides for the development and implementation of a new program that explores how dialogues on the experiences of service and war can bring veterans and non-veteran civilians together through deeper and shared understanding. One of the most compelling outcomes from the NEH-funded Completing the Odyssey programs in 2017-2018 was a realization among most participants that their experiences must be understood within a greater context. Their lives and histories as members of the U.S. military do not define them in their entirety, nor do those experiences necessarily create insurmountable barriers and disconnects between themselves and those who have not served. “We are all human,” said one veteran participant about whether any civilian can ever understand a veteran’s experience. “No one can know what is inside my head, what my personal experience was,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean they can’t understand me as a person.”
His statement was a watershed moment for the group. For us, as program staff, it shed light on an essential element within the process of coming home: returning to community necessarily requires civilians at the table, too— listening, speaking, and learning from and with their fellow citizens how to build this new home where everyone has a place. This new program, which will be co-led by both a Touchstones-trained veteran and a civilian, explores a contemporary work, Tribe, Homecoming and Belonging, by journalist Sebastian Junger. It pairs each chapter from Tribe with selections from The Odyssey, weaving together themes of cooperation over individualism, bonds of family and group or tribe, empathy and resilience, the draw of home, and homecoming and concepts of home and trust.