- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2004

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (AP) — At first, Jeff Jennings’ e-mails home from Afghanistan were short, matter-of-fact accounts just to let his wife know he was safe. Soon, however, Maj. Jennings, with the 10th Mountain Division, began sending more descriptive e-mails, packed with his feelings on the war, death, hardship in the desert and survival.

“The experience here has changed me as it has all of us in one way or another,” he wrote in April. “To see the beauty of a land so scarred by war, to see young men who look so old, to be part of an important endeavor will remain with us all from now on.”

His musings are what the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) had in mind when it launched “Operation Homecoming,” a series of writing workshops this summer at military posts involving 16 prominent writers, including Tom Clancy, Tobias Wolff and Mark Bowden.

The NEA staff says many military personnel have the talent — and the experiences as the result of the war — to become writers. Even if it doesn’t produce a new generation of literary giants, the program will help establish a rich historical record, NEA spokeswoman Felicia Knight said.

“Really, I started writing to capture events for myself and as sort of therapy to deal with all I was feeling,” said Maj. Jennings, 44, of Yuma, Ariz. “I was dumbstruck that anyone else would find it interesting or care.”

The first NEA workshop earlier this month at Fort Drum, the Northern New York home of the 10th Mountain Division, featured novelists Richard Bausch and McKay Jenkins. Maj. Jennings was among 45 soldiers who attended one or both of the two-hour classes presented by the authors.

Mr. Bausch talked about the hard work required to write fiction.

“Writing is not an indulgence,” Mr. Bausch said. “Indulgences are what you give up to write.”

Mr. Jenkins discussed the art of nonfiction, explaining how he wrote his own war chronicle, “The Last Ridge” about the 10th Mountain Division’s exploits in World War II, when it won distinction defeating the Nazis at Riva Ridge, Italy.

Mr. Jenkins said although the press has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq extensively, where the 10th Mountain has seen combat, there are “a lot of empty spaces” that only the personal accounts of soldiers can fill.

“I wish we had something like this,” said 80-year-old Bob Wilson, an Army pilot who flew 55 missions in a B-25 in the Pacific theater during World War II.

“Fifty years later, I really can’t talk about my war experiences, and now I don’t even remember the names of many of the men I flew with,” said Mr. Wilson, who became an airline pilot after he left the Army and has written for several technical journals over the years. “Maybe, if I had written about my experiences back then it would be different now.”

After 12 years in the Army, including stints in Somalia and Afghanistan, Sgt. George Siegler is using his military experiences to write a book on operational planning and leadership.

“My struggle is getting the thoughts and ideas from my head to paper,” said Sgt. Siegler, 30, of Queens, N.Y., who has completed outlines for all the chapters in his book. “It was valuable to hear from professional writers that it’s not an easy job, that it’s something you have to work at every day.”

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