The Power of Story

The NEA's Operation Homecoming Initiative

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Judith Cofer standing by the lecturn

Judith Ortiz Cofer led an Operation Homecoming workshop at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Photo: The Boeing Company.

Now widely viewed as a success, Operation Homecoming had many opportunities to falter. Would prominent writers really join the National Endowment for the Arts's effort to teach workshops on military bases during a war? Would any troops attend? Would they feel free to express themselves while still in uniform? Would they do so before strangers? Would their family members do the same? Would they find value in the program? Would the public? The media? Would the writing be any good? Would lives truly be changed? The answer, to one and all, has proven to be yes.

In retrospect, the answer is not surprising. Across the millennia, from Homer to our day, art and literature have always had the power to transform lives.

The success of Operation Homecoming is quantified publicly in the total number of bases reached, troops and family members involved, educational materials requested,wartime writings submitted, copies of the anthology sold. Each of these measures matters. But after spending three years directing the project, I value highest the quiet private moments with the young men and women just back from the war, ones who took copious notes in the workshops and others who pointedly did not, ones who may or may not have submitted their writing to us, but were changed for the better nonetheless. They are legion. I include among those changed our workshop teachers, some of whom had not yet completed within themselves the story of their own wartime service. I include among those changed many of us at the agency and in the arts world.

That's the nature of Operation Homecoming: individual story joined with individual story to create an epic volume of who we are as human beings and what we fear, honor, love, abhor, and uphold in the hardest moments of our lives.

Jon Parrish Peede
Director, Operation Homecoming