South Carolina war veterans use poetry for healing in new reading group
It’s a story as old as human conflict. Odysseus returns from war and senses that a gulf has opened between him and the people he loves.
“Strange woman!” he says when he first sees his wife in Book 23 of Homer’s ancient Greek epic poem The Odyssey.
“Strange man,” Penelope replies.
A new reading group for Charleston-area veterans and their families is skimming through thousands of years’ worth of war poetry hoping to find connections with each other and with soldiers across history.
The Bridging Between program launched March 15 with participants reading sections of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. It will conclude April 26 with a discussion of Iraq War veteran Brian Turner’s poetry. The group is free to attend.
Bryan Ganaway, a College of Charleston historian and academic adviser, created the program with associate professor of English Bill Russell to help veterans process their experiences together. They hope to inspire the next generation of veteran literati.
“People have these amazing stories but they don’t know that they can tell them and they don’t know how to tell them,” Ganaway said.
Ten people met at the College of Charleston’s North Campus last Wednesday, including some recently returned veterans. They started with a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid, and the conversation quickly turned from academic to personal.
“How do we continue moving forward after trauma, after loss? It’s not a new idea,” said Todd Harwood, who served in the Army before becoming a peer support specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Goose Creek.
Nicole Martin, who served four years in the Marines, attended with her young daughter, who sat patiently and ate orange slices in the corner. Martin heard about the group in Ganaway’s European History class, where she got a sense that many of the younger students were “not on the same path” as her, to put it mildly.
Stephen Dowty felt a similar culture shock. He joined the National Guard straight out of high school in 2004 and ended up on active duty in a remote part of Afghanistan. He never saw combat but the constant danger left its mark.
He came home to Goose Creek in 2012 with post-traumatic stress disorder. He still struggles to explain himself to his now-wife Tiffani. She sat in the group circle Wednesday night and mostly listened.
Dowty enrolled at the College of Charleston and earned an Artium Baccalaureatus in accounting, a traditional liberal-arts degree that’s heavy on the classics. Now, when he’s not working as an accountant, he’s up all night with his nose in ancient texts like the Aeneid, which he recently translated in its entirety from Latin to English. He said he hoped Bridging Between would be a good way to connect and explain himself.
“Nobody’s ever going to completely understand anybody else,” Dowty said. “But you do what you can.”
Bridging Between is in a trial run this year. Russell and Ganaway split the cost of coffee, pastries and fruit for the group, and Russell picked out the poetry selections for a spiral-bound course book. In the long run, they’re hoping the program will qualify for a $150,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities — assuming that money remains available in future federal budgets. For now, it’s do-it-yourself.
“We’re perplexed, sort of, at the attack on the humanities over the last eight or 10 years — that it doesn’t have societal value,” Ganaway said. “The humanities are about identity, where did we come from and how did it get to this and what do we do about it? So they’re very powerful tools for coming to grips with these things.”