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With Dartmouth professor's push, NH veterans finding that 'Homer gets it. Homer knows'

New Hampshire Sunday News

August 20. 2016 9:22PM
Marine Corps veteran Tim McLaughlin will be one of the facilitators of a veterans book discussion group that will read Homer's “The Odyssey” and other books about the experience of homecoming after combat. The program will be offered at four locations, including Manchester's Currier Museum of Art. 
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Marine Corps veteran Timothy McLaughlin was stationed at the Pentagon when the plane hit on Sept. 11, 2001. He was a tank commander during the invasion of Baghdad two years later.

He knows well the cost of war.

And when McLaughlin recently sat down to read “The Odyssey,” Homer’s classic tale of a warrior’s struggles to return home, he recognized himself in the ancient text.

“The entire story is about a veteran’s return home to find a world that simply continued in his absence,” he said.

“There was so much content in there, translated from ancient Greek to English, that made me stop and pause and think, war hasn’t changed at all.”

McLaughlin, a Laconia native, will be one of the facilitators at an unusual book discussion group that begins next month at Manchester’s Currier Museum of Art. It’s called “From Troy to Baghdad: Dialogues on the Experience of War & Homecoming.”

For 14 weeks, small groups of veterans will read and discuss “The Odyssey,” along with contemporary literature about war and homecoming. Each session will have three facilitators: an academic expert, a veteran and a clinician who works with veterans.

Discussion groups also begin in September in Littleton and Portsmouth; a fourth group starts in Hanover in January.

Kathy Mathis is program director at New Hampshire Humanities, which is sponsoring the initiative with Dartmouth College.

There are universal truths within “The Odyssey” that can help today’s veterans make sense of their own experiences, she said. “It’s a way of using texts to map the way home,” she said.

Dartmouth College classics professor Roberta Stewart started the first Homer discussion group for veterans eight years ago in Hanover.

Stewart was on sabbatical in Rome when the Iraq invasion took place; she remembers watching news coverage daily. But when she got home, it was harder to find news about the war.

“I felt like I was in a bubble,” she recalled.

So she started following blogs written by troops who were serving overseas; when one sergeant wrote of the difficulties of returning home, she had what she calls a “light-bulb moment.”

“Read Homer,” she wrote to him. “Homer can help you.”

Another light-bulb moment quickly followed: She reached out to the V.A. Medical Center in nearby White River Junction, Vt., and offered to moderate a Homer reading group for combat veterans.

She’s been doing so ever since. Now she’s helping to expand the program statewide, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“It’s my own little revolution,” Stewart said.

She’s seen how “The Odyssey” can resonate with veterans: the hero’s struggles to come home and his struggles to reclaim his place once he does. She also brings in more modern works, such as Erich Remarque’s “The Road Back” and contemporary poetry.

Stewart held trainings on three weekends this summer for the facilitators of the upcoming discussion groups.

This is not group therapy, and it’s not a college lecture, she said; conversations are driven by the text and the veterans’ response to it.

Organizers said they know the most difficult part will be getting people in the room. They’re working with the V.A. Medical Centers in White River Junction and Manchester, Vet Centers, the National Guard and veterans service organizations to get out the word to veterans and service members.

Here’s what Stewart wants them to know: “Homer gets it. Homer knows.”

“And there’s a lot of comfort in somebody 2800 years ago getting it,” she said.

McLaughlin experienced that sense of familiarity when he read “The Odyssey” at the recent facilitator training workshop. It started right away, he said, with Homer’s depiction of how Odysseus’ son Telemachus has grown up without his father.

McLaughlin has his own son now, 2-year-old Roland, and it’s something he worries about sometimes, he admits.

“I’m not physically roaming the Aegean Sea, but I am still, in my head, trying to process my experiences in a way that makes me not be absent from my son as he grows up,” he said.

After he left the Marine Corps in 2006, McLaughlin went to law school and spent time in Bosnia serving on a war crimes tribunal. He returned home and worked for law firms in Boston.

But he said, “Just being a lawyer wasn’t enough to satisfy what I was looking to do in the world.”

He helped resurrect a legal services organization for homeless veterans in Boston, throwing himself into helping others who served.

But it was his then-fiancee, now his wife, who told him he needed help himself. “Because it was clear to her, as someone that was that close to me, that you can’t be exposed to the amount of combat I’ve seen and not have any problems.”

Now he’s hoping he can help other veterans through the “Dialogues” group.

McLaughlin doesn’t like the term “disorder” for the kind of post-traumatic stress he and other veterans have experienced. “It would be a disorder if I had had my experiences and was fine,” he said.

The way he sees it, “There are a million different ways to deal with what happens to people when they come back from war.”

“And I, as a Marine Corps combat veteran have, surprisingly and amazingly, found actual value in the similarity of my experiences coming home to that of this guy named Odysseus who came home 3,500 years ago.”

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