Tag Archive for: Veterans

An Invitation to Veterans

By Leith Daghistani

Over the Summer, Touchstones revitalized its efforts to expand access to Completing the Odyssey: A Journey Home, a discussion program for veterans on the transition to civilian life. Program development was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and before the onset of the pandemic it had been piloted with several groups of veterans from the greater Baltimore-Annapolis-Washington area and implemented in Baltimore at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training. The program stands to empower veterans from all service eras to navigate the transition to civilian life through explorations of selections from Homer’s Odyssey and readings on the challenges of service and homecoming from modern conflicts.

Now, Touchstones is planning to broaden the impact of the program by introducing discussion groups into new communities. In August, Touchstones staff and volunteers, including myself, met with veterans who had previously completed the program and who now seek to lead new discussion groups with veterans in their own communities. The group discussed partnership opportunities with the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Service Organizations, nonprofits, and local communities to find veterans struggling with the transition to civilian life or who feel disconnected from their community after service and invite them into the dialogue. The group also discussed additional opportunities to include active-duty service members in Touchstones discussions to help prepare them for combat leadership and operating in uncertain environments. We also discussed the Touchstones program, Together, which brings civilians and veterans into dialogues about bridging the social divide between veterans and non-veterans.

The group then transitioned into a Touchstones discussion from Completing the Odyssey on a text from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Our discussion focused on preparation for leadership roles and strategies for success, while exploring how we might carry combat experience, tactical uncertainty, and martial courage home with us in ways that affect our daily lives.
In that discussion, I saw how Completing the Odyssey provides a space for veterans to reflect collaboratively on their service to our nation, while supporting fundamental skills necessary to deepen their understanding of themselves and how to speak, listen, and connect with others more authentically. These skills have always been crucial for a successful reintegration, and they are especially urgent for post 9/11 veterans who have often deployed and seen combat at higher rates over the past 20 years than those who served before them. As Touchstones expands this program and increases participation among newer veterans, it offers the chance for veterans across service eras to share their experiences with peers, so they can better navigate their own journeys while helping others to do the same.

Reinventing Home with Veterans

An Interview With Howard Zeiderman

I understand you’re getting ready to release the newest Touchstones program volume. Tell me a little about it.
This program, called Completing the Odyssey, helps returning veterans in their transition home after service. The title is a reference to Homer’s Odyssey, in which the main character struggles for 10 years after battle to return home. In the story, Odysseus is told by a prophet that even once he returns to his kingdom of Ithaca, he will have to leave again. He will have to make yet one more journey before he can claim Ithaca as his home. I understand this second journey to be figurative—and it’s one that distinguishes between returning to a physical place versus a home. Part of what this program offers veterans is a dedicated time and structure in which to reflect on where they are on their own journeys home. By entering this exploration with other veterans, there’s the added benefit of hearing different experiences and perspectives.

That’s so interesting. How did you start this project? What initiated your focus on veterans in this way?
We’ve worked with veterans for decades in our programs in Maryland’s prisons, but what spurred this project was an invitation from Bill Rice, the former director of the Education Division at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Bill knew our work in discussion-based and leadership programs and felt our particular approach to building listening and collaboration skills would be essential tools for veterans in returning home. Through the NEH’s Dialogues on the Experience of War grant opportunity, he thought there was a special place for a new Touchstones program—one in which veterans run discussions about homecoming with fellow veterans. Two rounds of NEH funding later, we have developed, implemented, and refined that program and are now bringing it to the public in the form of a Leader’s Guide and a Participant’s Guide. As in all Touchstones programs, the Guides are developed to be used by people with varying experience running and participating in inclusive discussions.

What sort of help did you receive along the way? Surely, you had a lot to learn about veterans’ experiences in coming home and what a successful program needed to offer.
We’ve been enormously fortunate to have enthusiastic input and support from a team of advisors, including veterans and social service and mental health care providers who are also veterans or have expertise in veteran-related concerns. This project couldn’t have happened without their partnership and that of their family members. We found that creating a home is a shared process of discovery for both the veteran and those in their lives who remained behind during service. For veterans who didn’t return home to families, friends and colleagues became all the more important.

Each of us who worked on this project has learned a tremendous amount. As a civilian, I gained a deep appreciation for how much more active in their effort civilians must be to welcome and assist veterans in the complex and challenging process of coming home—whatever that means for each service member. And we need to do this in a way that acknowledges veterans’ sacrifices and values the skills they bring back with them to our communities and country.

Learning & Teaching with Veterans

By Howard Zeiderman

Sometimes a name is uncanny. Such is the case with the Touchstones-National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) veterans’ program: Completing the Odyssey: A Journey Home. As Odysseus himself discovered, homecoming is not merely finding a geographical place but is a creative act of building a new emotional place for himself with those whom he loves. It is not a static situation but a fluid and evolving reality. Likewise, our work developing this program has been a journey. As experts in discussion programs, our path in program development has entailed learning from veterans who are expert with knowledge of barriers to homecoming. They know first-hand the trials associated with a return to civilian roles after life in the service. In true Touchstones fashion, this program has been as much a reciprocal learning process as it has been a reciprocal teaching one.

Three veterans, Joe Smith, Stephanie Morgan, and Cole Caudle broke a cardinal military rule never to volunteer. They volunteered first. In 2017, when Touchstones first received a grant from the NEH to develop this program, Joe, Stephanie, and Cole started the process of preparing to lead other veterans because they know the importance and difficulties of reintegration after separation from service. Equally valuable to the program’s success, they knew that skills veterans acquire in service must be available to civilian society. Along the way, they discovered how Touchstones offers a rare and unique chance for them to explore ideas and experiences with peers on the road to forming a new understanding of community.

Joe, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War, helped us understand that too often vets keep their experiences to themselves. He clarified ways in which full participation in discussion is essential, which helped us understand better the need for accessible texts from The Odyssey and specific accounts by more contemporary veterans. While one offers historical distance from personal experience, the others help veterans connect more deeply and explore their own perspectives.

Cole, a Marine Corps veteran with two tours in Afghanistan, knew the importance of collaboration and thinking outside the box. He never lets us forget how small group work in Touchstones is invaluable in building trust and instilling listening skills and sharing power. Cole brought our attention to the risk, and therefore courage, required to listen to another person. This type of listening is the most important precondition for collaboration.

Stephanie, also a Marine Corps veteran, focused us on always attending to and assessing the present situation one faces. Her military training alerted her to the vital role that precise and explicit assessment of successes and problems in discussion dynamics play in group formation and increasingly collaborative leadership. She helped us recognize more fully how integral the self and group evaluation are to our processes at Touchstones. And she sensitized us through her own actions to see how one learns to tailor one’s evaluations to what others can absorb and understand.

As we start a new round of Completing the Odyssey on Sept. 11, we are thankful that these veterans took and continue taking the risk to share their thoughts and offer input that enables us to create a program that is a living, joint effort. Stay tuned for more updates from the field.


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.

Veterans: Moving Forward

Veteran and Discussion Leader Stephanie Morgan (USM) talks about the importance of reflecting on her return to civilian life after military service.

By Sean Hutzell

After a successful second round of the Touchstones Completing the Odyssey program with veterans, Touchstones looks forward to future work with the veteran community. In support of those new endeavors and expansion of our existing program, Touchstones held a well-received “Happy Hour” to raise funds for several projects. One is to refine the Leader’s Guide and Participant Workbook and to create print-on-demand editions to ensure interested veterans groups have ready access to the program.

Like all Touchstones works, the Guide and Workbook are designed to provide instructional materials, texts for discussion, and evaluation tools for the discussion leader while offering the participants access to the texts and related worksheets that tie personal experience to the themes of service, war, and homecoming found in the Odyssey and the contemporary selections with which those texts are paired.

The second project seeks revenue to support implementation of the Completing the Odyssey: A Journey Home program at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training (www.MCVET.org) in Baltimore. One of the trained discussion group leaders, Joe Smith, a Vietnam veteran, has been instrumental in exploring a partnership between Touchstones and MCVET. Based on his own experience becoming a trained Touchstones discussion leader and running two segments of the program, Joe strongly believes the program offers veterans valuable interpersonal and critical thinking skills.

Those skills complement the education and workforce readiness training taking place at MCVET, whose mission is to provide homeless veterans with the tools and capacity they need “to rejoin their communities as productive citizens.” With more veterans participating in the Touchstones program this spring and a growing interest in combined veteran-civilian groups, Touchstones anticipates that Completing the Odyssey will engage many new groups in the months and years ahead.

Continuing the Journey: Veterans Share Their Stories

Veteran Tyler Mazur looks at a collection of President Jefferson’s books on a private tour hosted by the Veterans’ History Project Director.

By Sean Hutzell

In mid-January, the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project (VHP) Director, Karen Lloyd, took some of us from the Touchstones- National Endowment for the Humanities veterans pilot program on a private tour. We were treated to visits in rooms not typically open to the public. Our group submitted five projects to the VHP: a diary, an oral interview, two collections of photographs, and a memoir. These individual stories reflect the journeys of three service members from the army and two from the navy and they record more than a century of conflicts—from World War I to current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We’re grateful to each who made the extra effort—a significant one—of time, focus, and a willingness to reflect back on and chronicle elements of their unique journeys. The veterans and staff entered their work into the Veterans History Project in an intimate and moving ceremony. We each then received reading cards for the Library, ensuring a continuing relationship with one of the world’s greatest libraries.

Touchstones is now moving forward with our second program group under our grant from the NEH. On February 7, 15 veterans launched round two of Completing the Odyssey: A Journey Home. Based on feedback from the first program group, we added two meetings: an initial Touchstones orientation and a final session to identify next steps to make the program available to more veterans around the country. As part of that outreach, our three Touchstones veterans leaders and program staff will present our work to the Veterans Administration in Orlando, Florida this week.