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Friday, November 18, 2011

Families Affected By Wartime: Part III

This is the third post in a series that will explore the Rosenbach’s newest initiative, Families Affected by Wartime. This ground-breaking initiative, which is still in the planning stages, will serve the military community, a population largely ignored by museums. The project aims to connect families from the past with those from the present, demonstrating the relevance of historical documents to our contemporary wartime experience.

Guest Post by Gala True (Philadelphia VA Medical Center)

As a folklorist who conducts research at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, I spend a fair amount of time listening to the stories of combat Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The work calls for an ability to establish rapport and create a ‘safe space’ for sharing sensitive information. Above all, it means being a ‘compassionate witness’ to the lives of people from varied backgrounds who have one thing in common: they chose military service, many of them enlisting in a time of war and knowing it was likely they would be deployed far from home and loved ones.

There is something fundamental about the nature of sharing ones story; it affects both teller and audience alike. The impulse after a traumatic event is to create a cohesive narrative that will impose order onto chaos and to share our stories with others in order to lessen our burden and not feel so alone. When we get stuck, as many combat veterans do, when we don’t know what parts of our story are safe to share or what audiences are safe to share with, it creates a barrier between us and the rest of the world. The result is that our story can get stuck in a particular moment, a negative moment, resulting in deep feelings of isolation, alienation, and hopelessness.

When we break through this barrier and share our story with a listener who makes us feel safe and respected by withholding judgment, accepting our story at face value, and showing compassion for our experiences—this leads to a kind of communalizing of the experience which can result in healing not just for the storyteller, but for the listener as well. In this way, narrative can play a key role in helping combat veterans reconnect—with their loved ones, with civilian society, and, most importantly, with themselves.

Many times, I have been present in the moment when a veteran realizes that he or she is not alone; that his or her story contains universal themes of service and sacrifice, pride and suffering, dislocation and a deep desire to ‘come home.’ It is a powerful moment, and for many it is the beginning of breaking their silence and finding relief in sharing their burden. These moments can be triggered for veterans in a number of ways; through writing or telling their stories, through creating visual images to convey their experiences and inner dialogue, through reading about someone else’s experiences, or experiencing visual or narrative arts created by others with similar stories.

The Rosenbach Museum and Library’s new initiative, Families Affected by Wartime, has great potential to connect combat veterans and their loved ones with materials that convey the universal themes of military service, the experience of war, and the challenges of transitioning from military to civilian life through historical documents. I eagerly await the connections that are made through this innovative project; connections across history, connections between service members and their families, and connections within the minds of those affected by war. I imagine there will be many moments of realization and discovery, and most importantly, an understanding that no one is truly alone in their story.

Gala True is a folklorist and health services researcher at the Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion of the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. Her work focuses on the role of narrative in healing and reintegration for combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is currently conducting a participatory action research project that engages combat veterans in communicating their health care needs and preferences through narrative and visual images.

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