NEA's 'Homecoming' gives soldiers a voice

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When Army Capt. Ryan Kelly was flying Blackhawks at Camp Speicher in Iraq, he frequently wrote to his wife and mother. "It allowed me to keep my sanity, to convey my feelings through my words and talk about things that I was not able to (comfortably) discuss," he says.

Kelly was one of the participants in the National Endowment of the Arts project "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience," which was conceived to help U.S. military personnel who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and their families express themselves through writing as well as to document and preserve their stories and reflections. The project is proving to have growing human, historic and artistic impact.

Filmmaker Lawrence Bridges recently finished a documentary about the project, titled "Muse of Fire." The Los Angeles Area Veterans Artists Alliance in association with Bridges' postproduction company, Red Car, are presenting the docu Thursday night in Culver City for a veterans-only screening and then public screenings Friday and Saturday. Screenings begin at 8 p.m. and will be followed by a Q&A.

"I made a film about a specific group of people who were faced with the most challenging traumas and stress that any group of human beings can be put under ... where everybody is vulnerable and everybody comes back damaged," Bridges says. "The fact that those traumatic experiences turned into art for these people should be an example to all of us. ... Art is a way through (difficult) times. The lesson of the film is do it through creativity."

To kick-start the NEA project, such noted writers as Tobias Wolff, Tom Clancy, Marilyn Nelson, Jeff Shaara, Bobbie Ann Mason and Mark Bowden got involved, conducting workshops at domestic and overseas military installations.

As an extension of this workshop series, "Operation Homecoming" had an open call for writing submissions to troops who have served since Sept. 11, 2001, along with their spouses and families. That call resulted in more than 1,200 individual submissions, including stories, letters and e-mails.

The result was powerful writing that expresses a range of emotions from heartbreak to hope. Earlier this year, the NEA released a compilation of the writing in a book titled "Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families," published by Random House Publishing Group.

In translating the project to film, Bridges selected works from the book and features the actual writers, who read their passages and discuss their experiences. They were filmed one at a time in front of a black backdrop. Bridges likens the environment to a confessional. "This only relies on their words, spoken by them," Bridges says.

Kevin Costner narrates the film, which was funded by the NEA and the Boeing Co. Efforts are being made to find more ways to get the documentary in front of audiences.

The hope is that "Operation Homecoming" will assist in the healing process for the writers and also raise a larger awareness. Says Marilyn Nelson in the documentary, "I think it is very important for the American people to know and understand what our soldiers are going through."

Of the NEA project and film, Kelly says: "I think this is important for several reasons. The main one is it allows the soldiers and their families to talk about the war and allows for these voices to be heard. To be part of it, I'm profoundly honored."

The complete collection of NEA submissions will be preserved in the National Archives. "Never before have so many people written so soon during and right after a conflict," Bridges says. "That alone is of great historical importance."

He also notes the connection between war and literature, citing authors who have written about war, including Homer, Stendhal, Mailer and Hemingway. "A lot of writing is about war, and it always has been," he says. "It is so confrontational with your own existence. ... It is also incredibly dramatic."

Bridges notes that discovering talent was a component of the project. Kelly is among that talent.

Before going to Iraq, Kelly earned a Master of Fine Arts. In the time since he sent his letters to the NEA project, Kelly wrote a spec TV pilot, which resulted in Kelly landing an agent at UTA.

Today, he is working on new TV ideas as well as two screenplays on the subject of war.
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