Guest editorial: Reaching veterans through Homer's Odyssey03/08/2021 11:12AM ● By Richard Gaw
This article originally published in the Chester County Press in October 2019
By Shanyn Fiske
The residential combat PTSD unit at the Coatesville VA Hospital is located on the second floor of Building 8, which is itself tucked into the network of over 100 structures that make up the VA campus. There are 35 beds on the unit, and the course of treatment varies for each individual, lasting anywhere from four to eight weeks. It is the only inpatient PTSD treatment program for veterans in Pennsylvania, and it is reputed to be the best of its kind in the country, so the men and women on the unit come from up and down the east coast.
What the residents on the unit share is a diagnosis whose symptoms range from depression to anxiety to patterns of addiction (though veterans cannot be active in their addictions when they are admitted to 8B).
In February, I started reading and discussing Homer’s Odyssey with a group of veterans in 8B. I am not a veteran. I have never fought in a war, but what brought me to 8B was Homer, whose epics I have been teaching in my college classes for almost two decades, and over the years, my pedagogy has evolved.
I remember in particular one student in my World Masterpieces class three years ago who had just returned home from a Middle East deployment and who looked like he was asleep for most of our class meetings. When we started reading the Odyssey, however, he became more alert. One day, we were discussing Odysseus’s struggle to reintegrate into his family in Ithaca, and this student raised his hand for the first time that semester. He proceeded to explain why soldiers returning from deployment sometimes feel they need to create conflict in order to feel that they are truly home.
It became clear to me that reading the Odyssey had helped him to articulate something that he had not – up until that moment - been able to fit into a logical narrative of his own experience of homecoming.
Inspired by this experience, I began planning a reading group for veterans at the Kennett Library, but on the day of the first class, nobody showed up. I was ready to lay the idea to rest when I received an email from Roberta Stewart, a classics professor at Dartmouth College who had been reading the Odyssey with veterans in New England for several years. Stewart was putting together a conference for scholars, clinicians, and veterans who might be interested in starting their own reading groups. In June 2018, I drove to Dartmouth and spent five days immersed in conversations that impressed on me the validity of an idea that I had been ready to abandon.
While I have taught in a variety of classrooms from middle school to graduate school, from multi-national corporate headquarters to factory floors, I had never taught inside an inpatient mental health unit until February of this year.
Preparing for my first session, I recalled a conversation I had with a psychiatrist at Dartmouth who specializes in combat trauma. I told him I was worried I had no clinical training and would not know how to respond if a veteran became emotionally distraught.
I’ll never forget what he said to me: “Respond as a human being,” he told me. “This does not have to be a clinical encounter. It is a human encounter. How would you respond as a human being recognizing the pain in another human being?”
It is now October, and the “Homer Sessions,” as I like to call them, have been going strong for nine months. We have moved from the Odyssey to the Iliad, and we have talked about many things. I didn’t think it was possible for me to reach new insights about a text that I have read so many times, but the veterans help me peel back new layers of meaning in every session, and in every session, the text offers us new opportunities to engage one another's humanity – sometimes joyfully, often painfully.
I have looked around the room as we read the text aloud and seen tears. Sometimes a veteran will need to leave the room. Sometimes, when it is my turn to read, I do it with a lump in my throat because there are still passages that make me emotional. I am not a veteran. I have never fought in a war, but I know what it is to be a warrior, and on Friday mornings, sitting in a circle in the “hard chair room” in 8B, Homer brings us together to share our stories, expose our vulnerabilities, and reflect on our common humanity.
Shanyn Fiske is an associate professor of English and director of the graduate program in English and Media Studies at Rutgers University (Camden). She lives in Kennett Square.