Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

The essence of the documentary Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience can be summed up by author, Tim O’Brien, who states in the first few moments of the film, “I think that there’s a false notion that we all ought to recover from…that we all ought to heal. I don’t believe in it. I believe the opposite: that there are some things you shouldn’t heal from, that are unhealable. And, if they are healable, that you oughtn’t do it anyway. There’s something to be said for remembering, and not healing.” (Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience) The testimonies from the participants of Operation Homecoming who wrote about their experiences, spanning from World War II to theMiddle East coincide with O’Brien; a common belief is felt by all that once we heal, we also begin to forget.

The documentary begins with Sgt. Brian Turner reciting his poem, entitled “Here, Bullet.” (Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience) While serving as an infantry team leader inIraq, he was focused on staying alive, not poetry, but over time he saw that his experience, “a year of complete boredom punctuated by these very intense moments” did lend itself to the “tautness of verse.” (Bumiller) Turner also points out that war and combat are equal opportunity killers; they take the lives of cooks, finance clerks, medical staff, and infantry soldiers. (Bumiller) Interestingly the military has also noticed that war and combat affect more people than first realized, as well as affecting them in many different ways; new studies have compiled data from research on how war is affecting our troops emotionally and mentally.

A new and never before done study conducted by Army experts and published in the Washington Post explores the invisible wounds that returning troops carry.  These psychological stigmas, not only affect the soldiers themselves, but also the lives of their families, friends, and coworkers. According to the Washington Post, approximately one third of soldiers who return from the wars inIraq,Afghanistanand other places have sought help for mental health problems. The comprehensive snapshot provided by the experts also mentions that where a soldier is deployed can also affect their psyche. Reportedly, those who have returned fromIraqare consistently more psychologically distressed than those who have returned fromAfghanistanand other conflicts, such as those inBosniaor Kosovo. Not to belittle the experiences of those who have served in other regions, but experts say, “Iraqveterans are far more likely to have witnessed people getting wounded or killed, to have experienced combat, and to have had aggressive or suicidal thoughts” (Vedantam).

In addition, about twice as many of those who have returned fromIraqhave reported developing a mental health problem or were hospitalized for a psychiatric disorder when compared to troops who have returned fromAfghanistan. A questionnaire filled out after deployment by more than half of all soldiers who have returned fromIraqreported that they had “felt in great danger of being killed” (Vedantam).

Earlier research has suggested that twelve to twenty percent of combat veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD. The disorder can produce flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts that disrupt work and home life; these can also make the transition of returning back to life in the States more stressful.

Experts cautioned that they do not have accurate ways to predict how many troops will need help over time. However, they have found that nearly two-thirds ofIraqveterans, who were screened and were diagnosed with PTSD or another psychiatric disorder, are not receiving treatment. However, more shockingly, questionnaires given in 2006 revealed that over 2,400 of our returned soldiers have had thoughts of killing themselves. Unfortunately, the experts did not have comparable data from earlier conflicts, as studies into the psychological state of a soldier are new, but will continue to be documented in the future (Vedantam).

Programs like Operation Homecoming and others that have explored the firsthand accounts of soldiers fighting the war inIraqhave encouraged a change in attitude toward the study of trauma. The war inIraqhas sparked a debate over “how to define trauma itself, and whether it is appropriate to distinguish those who see combat firsthand from those who do not.” Until now the definition of post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis developed during the years after Vietnam War, involved someone “directly experiencing or witnessing a horrifying event;” however, some experts are posing the question “whether the constant fear of being killed in places such as Iraq might create problems both for people restricted to bases, as well as for those who head outside”  (Vedantam).

Some professionals thought the number of soldiers cited in the study was too low. The head of theNationalGulfWarResourceCenter, Steve Robinson, argues that the military would have found many more troubled former soldiers, if it had done a better job of providing veterans with services after returning home. He goes on to say that upwards of eighty to eighty-five percent of people who have served in Iraq have witnessed firsthand or experienced part of a traumatic event; which includes engaging the enemy, killing people, or having friends or themselves being involved in improvised explosive devices also known as IED attacks. He also says, “InVietnam, there were safe areas where people could go to rest and recuperate. That doesn’t happen inIraq; every place is a war zone” (Vedantam).

Whether it’s Iraqor Viet Namthe one thing that has not changed over the years is the fact that war and combat changes the soldier who experiences it. In Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience Sgt. Sharon D. Allen of the Ohio Army National Guard says, “I would be more concerned about myself if I came home and had no issues…it should affect you, and it did affect us.” (Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience) Which lends itself to the meaning behind the title of Tim O’Brien’s book, “The Things They Carried.” The title proposes the question: “Did the carrying of experiences as an additional weight on top of all their gear change the person profoundly?”.  A particular memory is revisited by O’Brien throughout the book, the passage describes the experience of watching his comrade die suddenly due to stepping on a land mine. Surely, the weight of his death is something that O’Brien must still carry himself to this day. (O’Brien)

However, O’Brien’s title, “The Things They Carried,” alludes to the idea that what each soldier carries is different, because their experience and perspective is equally different.  The documentary Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience does an excellent job of demonstrating this visually by offering a different style for each of its segmented re-enactments. The unique perspective of each chapter demonstrates the wide variety of soldiers who participated in Operation Homecoming as well as their polished work. In addition, having poignant interviews with the authors of the creative writing pieces adds a layer of intimacy to the stories, giving the audience a dose of reality; reminding them these are the accounts of actual events.

The documentary seamlessly fits together a quote, interview with the author of the particular story, re-enactment, and a follow up interview. The consistent rhythm keeps the audience engaged; even though, the style of the re-enactment changes, the structure stays the same, giving the audience an understanding of what to expect, but anticipation of not knowing what they will see at the same time. The documentary as a whole is a beautiful expression of creativity; produced out of grief, fear, and courage by those who love and serve our country.

One particular segment of the film entitled, “Taking Chance” is the account of Michael Strobl, who accompanied the body of Chance Phelps home for burial. The remarkable and unique aspect of this segment is that it is entirely first person. The camera takes you on the same journey Michael and Chance took on their way to Clifton, Colorado. (Strobl) This clever technique allows the audience to connect with the story and put themselves in the place of Michael as they hear it narrated by Josh Lucas.

Another segment that creates a strong emotional reaction by the audience is a slideshow of sorts. Images of fallen soldiers are displayed on the screen one after another at a slow rhythm at first, but as the cadence of the narrator intensifies the images begin to cycle through faster and faster, until the images meld together into an almost unperceivable face, challenging the eyes of the audience to not blink, to not miss a single one.

Combat and war have changed the lives of so many people.  This makes programs like “Operation Homecoming” and others like it are so valuable, because they provide a creative outlet which allows soldiers to process their experiences in a healthy way. In addition, it also offers a sobering thought to the American public, who often take for granted the freedom our men and women in uniform fight for every day.  The belief that Tim O’Brien states at the beginning of the documentary rings true for all, “There’s something to be said for remembering.” Perhaps we are meant to see and experience what we do, in order to be a witness and carry that experience for as long as we live. We are supposed to let it change us, and when we share it with someone, we don’t heal from it, but it just makes it the weight we carry a little more bearable.


Bumiller, Elisabeth. “A Well-Written War, Told in the First Person.” New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia 7 Feb 2010. Web. 28 Apr 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/us/08military.html&gt;.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: a Work of Fiction. New York: Broadway, 1998. Print.

Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience . Dir. Richard Robbins.” Perf. Robert, Duvall. The Documentary Group: 2007, Film.

Strobl, Michael R. “A Marine’s Journey Home.” SFGate.com. San Francisco Chronicle, 2 May 2004. Web. 28 Apr 2011. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2004/05/02/INGBS6CGK61.DTL&gt;.

Vedantam, Shankar. “Veterans Report Mental Distress.” Washington Post: National, World & D.C. Area News and Headlines – The Washington Post 1 Mar 2006: n. pag. Web. 28 Apr 2011. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/28/AR2006022801712.html&gt;.

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