The National Endowment for the Humanities’ (NEH) Dialogues on the Experience of War program brings together veterans and civilians to reflect upon powerful literature and art. Over the past year, we have partnered with several recent grantees to document the impact of these programs in order to demonstrate the value of the humanities and the NEH for veterans and their communities. While data collection continues, preliminary results from our pre- and post-program surveys illustrate how these programs equip veterans with humanities resources to process their experiences, share their stories, connect with fellow veterans, and reintegrate into their communities.
Our initial sample of 32 veterans was gathered from two different programs, one at Ohio University involving veterans from the surrounding communities and another for student veterans at Jefferson Community College. This multi-generational group reflects a wide range of educational backgrounds—from high school graduates to PhDs—and military experiences ranging from the Korean War to peacetime duty to more recent deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Across the board, respondents described how novels, memoirs, poetry, art, music, and films provided fresh insight into their experiences inside and outside the military. Ninety-seven percent reported that they “found the readings and discussions engaging and thought-provoking.” Ninety-four percent agreed that the materials they engaged with both “raised issues that were relevant to my experience” and “invited me to think about issues related to military service I had not considered.” Data also illustrate that these programs aren’t simply serving veterans already immersed in the humanities, but introducing them to participants with minimal prior engagement. More than one-third of respondents reported that they rarely read at all and more than half said they had not discussed literature in a group setting before. Eighty-one percent agreed the program motivated them to read more widely.
Respondents testified that the Dialogues programs provided invaluable opportunities to share and process challenging experiences. “It was a truly amazing experience,” reflected one participant. “It helped me open up more about things I usually don’t like to talk about.” Ninety-seven percent said the program “invited me to consider and share experiences from my life,” while 79 percent agreed that it helped them make sense of some of their more challenging experiences. Participants also described how these opportunities to reflect are not only intrinsically valuable but propel them forward. “I’d like to do more to help myself and others,” resolved one participant. Fifty-nine percent agreed the program “helped me clarify my priorities and goals for my life going forward.”
Veteran respondents also reported forging meaningful connections with fellow veterans. Participants unanimously described their group as a “safe and supportive place for discussion” and indicated that they would like to keep in touch with people they met through the program. These opportunities to connect are especially crucial for veterans, who report higher levels of social isolation, lower perceived social support, and suffer elevated rates of mental health challenges and suicide compared to the general population. Eighty-four percent reported that the program motivated them to seek other opportunities to connect with others through group activities, and 68 percent agreed that the program “made [them] more likely to ask for help if [they] need it.”
Together, these preliminary results illustrate how the NEH is leveraging the power of the humanities to help veterans reflect upon their experiences productively and connect with their communities.
Thumbnail image: Participants in the Clemente Course in the Humanities' Dialogues program discuss one of the readings engaged. Many Dialogues programs invite participants to write about their experiences. Image courtesy of the Clemente Course in the Humanities.
A Vietnam veterans' journal of his experiences during the war. Image courtesy of Gonzaga University's Telling War, another Dialogues program.