What Veterans Tell Us About Books@Work: Cleveland’s VA Domiciliary
October 18, 2018 | Maredith Sheridan
After residents at a treatment facility for homeless veterans recently participated in the discussion of a short story, one social worker expressed surprise at the group’s ease and openness with each other. “I’m amazed at some of the insights they share [with each other] as they’re reading,” he said. “They say, ‘Well, I’ve known you for six weeks and been in group therapy with you – and this is the most I’ve ever heard you talk.’”
The Veterans’ Domiciliary at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio serves veterans facing challenges including homelessness, mental illness, trauma and addiction. Male and female residents can often stay for months at a time as they work to improve their mental health, seek employment and get back on their feet.
For some residents at the Domiciliary, therapy appointments are accompanied by weekly sessions with Books@Work, a program that encourages personal reflection and deep social connection through literature discussion. In conversations facilitated by local college professors, veterans read and discuss short stories by authors like Chinua Achebe and Langston Hughes, using the text as a vehicle to explore, as one veteran said, “whatever’s going on in our minds.”
“I really love it because it always starts out with a story as our foundation, and then it evolves into what this story means to me,” said the social worker, who participates in bi-monthly “Big Reads” to entice new veteran participants to the program. “And that perception of the story has to do with a lot of my basic convictions and core beliefs as a person.”
The program has proven a unique and significant way to reinforce the skills resident veterans hone in everyday therapy at the Domiciliary. “This is a much healthier way for me to [escape] and vacate the premises, but at the same time, be able to practice all of my mindful tools,” said one veteran. “I really, really needed this.”
Veteran and former Domiciliary resident Kim Watkins on how Books@Work helped her navigate a successful transition back into civilian life.
Another shared that individual counseling, while enormously valuable, can be limiting. In Books@Work, veterans interact with fellow veterans – without staff members present. “It goes beyond one-on-one,” he said. “It’s so wonderful. It’s more private. It’s more relaxing. You learn best when you’re mind is relaxed.”
Other participants stress how Books@Work has improved their confidence. “A lot of the guys may have problems reading,” one veteran shared. “But they’ve really opened up through their involvement with Books@Work. They’re less self-conscious about it.”
Veterans at the Domiciliary find that discussing fictional events allows them to explore often painful experiences in a safe and inclusive environment. “Delving into and analyzing the perspective of the author, the characters, and our perspectives,” said one veteran. “I really enjoy that.” Another said that the readings are a vehicle to process his emotions. “Part of the problem with me being an addict is you’re just lost,” he shared. “It’s nice to sit with this book that’s got all this creativity [and] it gets in your head. Sometimes you cry, which is wonderful. It’s cathartic. It’s been really enjoyable for me. Hopefully it stays around. I really do. It’s good stuff.”
Veterans also find an audience eager to discuss issues specific to the military experience. One participant who received a Purple Heart felt isolated by how his service differed from that of other veterans – until he could explore this isolation through discussion. “Books@Work has allowed me to get to know some of my fellow vets better. And understand what they’re all about. Some of us had been through combat. Some hadn’t,” he said. “They don’t have to sympathize with me, empathize with me or anything like that, but understand, yes. It’s difficult even for service members who haven’t actually been in direct combat, let alone civilians, to understand. Through discussions like Books@Work, I’ve been able to find out that others can identify with different parts of my service.”
Week after week, veterans find that Ray Bradbury stories or Flannery O’Connor stories allow them to explore essential questions, see each other in new ways and reflect on their personal experiences. After facilitating a multi-week Books@Work program, one professor was effusive. “I was often moved by how much the participants identified with the stories, how much the stories touched them,” she noted. “I appreciate the power of short stories now in a way I never have before.”
Image: Craig L. Stewart, Firebase Rendezvous, 1969-70, Vietnam Combat Artist Program, U.S. Army Center for Military History, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons