What Work Is: Reading Philip Levine at the VA

What Work Is: Reading Philip Levine at the VA

The experience of war is hardly universal. Walking the halls of the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center, a sea of service t-shirts and decorated, black battle ball caps, embroidered with VIETNAM or KOREA, belies the diverse audience the hospital serves. The military has that effect – for the duration of service you’re no longer James, Joe, or Lisa – you’re Corporal, Sergeant, Lieutenant. Your own self is effectively erased, recolored in uniform camouflage. This visual trick is still in full effect at the VA.

Inside the Domiciliary, a residential care program for veterans with multiple challenges, illnesses, or rehabilitative care needs, morning meeting comes to order. Announcements are made, program requirements are explained. One by one, veterans graduating from the program stand up and thank those who have been meaningful in their success and pass on advice to those just starting.

The veterans in the Dom are, without question, struggling more than your average G.I. Joe. Haunted by war, or traumas of their own making, they’re all united in a shared purpose – getting better – but come from all walks of life. Some are white; some are black. Some joined the military voluntarily; others were drafted. Some are young, shaped by our post-9/11 wars; others, older, fought in Vietnam, Korea. Many were enlisted; others served in the officer corps. Here, there is no cookie cutter version of a veteran.

Reading Together

The morning meeting announcements wrap up. Today’s meeting will be slightly different. Today there’s a Big Read. In a Big Read, the entire Dom group comes together to share a reading and discuss it in small groups with Books@Work facilitators. Today we read Philip Levine’s “What Work Is.”

You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.

My group gathers, uncomfortable at first. The facilitator, a professor from Kent State, opens up with a question about whether or not we know what work is. I know what work is, one participant asserts. Two more agree. And they do – their work has taken them to the far sides of the earth, in some of the most difficult situations fathomable. All three have been to Vietnam. In what so many Americans only know from newsreels or Michael Herr’s Dispatches, these veterans have lived in real life. They bear the injuries of that work still today.

Yet work, clearly, is different from service. Where is the line, we wonder? What’s different between service – military service, specifically – and work? Not everyone talks. Those that do, though, explore the complexity of their military service in their work lives.

Common Language

…This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.

With its rahs and semper fis, the military has its own language, its own sayings. No matter how long it’s been since these men have served, the language remains, a thread that brings all of them together. Hurry up and wait!, two say in unison, recalling a commonly used military phrase. Even in Vietnam, amidst the treacherous fighting, these soldiers waited. And then we waited when we came home, one adds. We waited for work.

There’s Room for Everyone

A funny thing happens as we keep reading. Even the quietest veterans speak up: in the poem, there’s room for everyone.

…to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants.

Struggles with unemployment, part of the collateral damage of service from previous wars through today, ripple throughout the group. I went back to hustling, one admitted. I needed the money. Money he needed to survive, to feed his family.

And he’ll say no, for any reason he wants, another intoned. Because you’ve just come back from Vietnam, another agreed. Because you’re black, another said.

And here, in our circle of plastic, stacking chairs, we broach race. The facilitator adroitly asks about how race has affected his experience, how it’s affected his work. As he explains his personal history, struggling with the transition from military life, where his race didn’t affect his job, to being back in the states, where the color of his skin made finding employment that much harder. As he shares his experience, he opens the group up to a collective dialogue about a difficult issue at the heart of many diversity and inclusion initiatives.

A Shared Sense of Belonging

An older white man was the quietest in the group. He’d nodded and offered monosyllabic agreements so far, but not much more. Throughout the conversation of race, he shifted nervously. This wasn’t a history he shared, it wasn’t one he knew. But it was one he could listen to – and learn from. In the military, he says, you have a job forever. As long as you don’t screw up, you have a job.  

He doesn’t have a job now, a reality we all sit quietly with.

I offer a different perspective. My husband, who is still serving, came up through the military during a massive draw-down, a time rife with what the military eloquently calls separation boards. Every few months, the military would go methodically through its officer corps and say you might be good, but you’re not good enough. Feel free to find another job now.

Military life means professional insecurity for us, I explain. It’s the opposite of a secure job. Throughout the room, there are young veterans peppering other small groups, but I am the only one in this group who has experienced the reality of the modern war machine. It defines my family today as it has defined the veterans around me. I wonder if this is a new thing, the eloquently renamed firing boards, when the veteran who lead us into a conversation about race pipes up.

We had those too, he said. I had one of those, too. The older white veteran looked up, surprised. We share a moment of silence. We look back at the poem, these words that brought us to this point. When we sat down, we were strangers. But inside these words, through the conversation we were able to have because of them, we have something new: a shared sense of belonging.  We all know what work is, another veteran offered. Here, we all know what work is.

Image: Konstantin Korovin, Military Tent Mato, 1909. [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org

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Raleigh Duttweiler

Raleigh Duttweiler

Raleigh Smith Duttweiler is the Public Relationship Senior Manager for the National Military Family Association and former member of the Books@Work team.