Masthead for the Veterans in Society Summer Institute website
Masthead for the Veterans in Society Summer Institute

For months, co-directors Jim Dubinsky of the English Department and Bruce Pencek of the Library, along with Heidi Nobles have been working to plan and seeking to provide for every detail necessary to make this three-week long NEH-supported Summer Institute for College and University Teachers a reality. This past Monday (the 11th) was the first day in a schedule that will have the 25 extraordinarily accomplished participants from all over the country in Blacksburg this week and in D.C. next week before returning to Blacksburg for the third and final week of the program.

The official name of the Institute is “Veterans in Society: Ambiguities and Representations.” The impressive list of faculty include Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Among his other accomplishments, Shay has served as the Chair of Ethics, Leadership, and Personnel Policy in the office of the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel and, in 2007, received a MacArthur fellowship for his work on trauma and the moral injuries of war. Jim Marten is past president of the Society of Civil War Historians, author many books, including Sing Not War: Civil War Veterans in Gilded Age America and the award-winning The Children’s Civil War. Donna Musil is a documentary filmmaker, writer and activist, whose film, Brats: Our Journey Home will be shown as part of a three-show film series that is open to the public. More about that in a moment. Actually, these are just three of the stellar faculty that are participating in the Institute along with Tech’s own Paul Quigley, Director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies and James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War History; Edward Fox, Professor of Computer Science; and David Cline, also from the History Dept. and who specializes in 20th century U.S. social movements, oral history, and public history. You get the idea . . . and I’ve left all kinds of folks out. For a complete list, see the Institute’s terrific website.

So, what is it that all these fine folks have come to Virginia Tech to discuss and study? Broadly speaking, they are defining the dynamic that may be leading to the emergence of a new interdisciplinary field, that of Veterans Studies. More specifically, the topics range widely, from the ways in which classical literature may play a part in understanding and assisting veterans to the role commemoration and monument building play in cultural memory and the process of reconciliation following war; from the ways in which stories of military service can be captured in oral history to a consideration of the unique perspectives offered by women veterans; from asking, “Who is a veteran?” and considering the social status of veterans to the effects of war on military children and the ways the voices of veterans emerge in music and literature . . . and everything in between and beyond. The reality is that the fact and aftermath of military service define threads that run through every culture, across the generations, and have an impact on the most significant aspects of life and society. Through the seminars, presentations, and activities listed on the Institute’s syllabus, the participants will seek to investigate these and other questions, while defining the beginnings of individual research projects.

Display of materials related to veterans at Special Collections for the Summer Institute
Display of materials related to veterans at Special Collections for the Summer Institute

On their second full day in Blacksburg, the members of the Institute had an opportunity to hear about collections of primary sources that may be of interest to them at Special Collections. We set up a display of a few documents and other items and, after a brief introduction, made that exhibit available to them, and to the library community for much of the week. While some of the materials have been displayed before, there were several items that have not been exhibited in recent memory.

Theophilus Cocke Letter, 1907, Ms2008-057
Theophilus Cocke Letter, 1907, Ms2008-057

For example, to the right is a scan of a letter written in 1907 by Theophilus Cocke of Carroll County, Virginia. Mr. Cocke was a veteran of the Mexican War (!) writing about the provisions of a new pension bill that would raise his allotment from $12 per month to $20.

In a letter written from Kansas in June 1865, H. E. Norton complained that veteran members of his Michigan Brigade were due to be mustered out following the end of the Civil War, but were instead sent west. He writes, “[I]t is Generally Believed that the Michigan Brigade was Basely sold by the Governor of the State of Michigan for we could never have been transfered to this Dept. if he had not consented to it.” Norton ended up in Nebraska Territory. Extended tours are, apparently, nothing new.

From the Conan W. Vaughan Papers, Ms1991-050: photographs from the European theater, 1945; a copy of Stars and Stripes; a French 10 franc note; and a piece of a German Ju-88 shot down over Iceland
From the Conan W. Vaughan Papers, Ms1991-050: photographs from the European theater, 1945; a copy of Stars and Stripes; a French 10 franc note; and a piece of a German Ju-88 shot down over Iceland

Once in Washington, the Summer Institute participants will spend a day at the Library of Congress and visit Arlington National Cemetery. They’ll talk about the LC’s Veterans History Project and stop at the Confederate memorial, Arlington House, and the U.S. Colored Troops graves. On the way back to Blacksburg, they’ll stop at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford.

Back in town, there will be more seminars, more opportunity to explore topics of interest, and to discuss ideas with the other participants. More time to check out primary sources.

Veterans In Society Summer Institute Presents Film Night
Veterans In Society Summer Institute Presents Film Night

There is also a public component to all of this. The Institute is sponsoring a Free Movie Night. The showing of Coriolanus has already gone, but on July 21st they will be showing The Best Years of Their Lives, a terrific, Oscar-winning movie about returning World War II vets, and on July 25th will be a showing of Brats: Our Journey Home, the documentary mentioned above, with writer and director Donna Musil on hand. These shows begin at 7PM in the MultiPurpose Room on the first floor of Newman Library. Again, the public is invited and admission is free!

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