Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, Part 2 (Lovington, NM)

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People line up to get their books signed, the shot is from slightly above the scene.  To the left the line of people and to the right the seated authors

Contributors to the Operation Homecoming anthology sign copies of the book at the Operation Homecoming book launch celebration on September 12, 2006.
Photo by Kevin Allen

Christy De'on Miller, a retired U.S. Army mission specialist, enlisted in the military at age 33, serving during the U.S. invasion of Panama. Fifteen years later, Miller's son, Lance Corporal Aaron C. Austin, enlisted in the Marines. On April 26, 2004, during his second tour of duty in Iraq, Corporal Austin was killed in action in Fallujah. "Timeless," Miller's contribution to the Operation Homecoming anthology, is a personal narrative in which she grapples to make sense of her son's death.

NEA: What made you decide to submit work for the Operation Homecoming anthology?

Christy De'on Miller: Laurie Klein, a writer I met at a writing workshop in Colorado, encouraged me to submit. At the workshop Laurie read a poem she'd written: Baghdad: A Long Ache, Throat to Breastbone; I started crying during her reading. On the last day of the workshop, Laurie came to me, genuinely concerned that she'd upset me. I told her that it was okay, that the poem was just so painfully beautiful. Long story short: I discovered she'd suffered a loss of someone important to her. He too, had given his life in Iraq to save other lives. Although it didn't take us long to figure out that we didn't agree on the war in Iraq, that we were indeed very much on opposite sides of the political spectrum, our respect for each other as survivors, as writers, and as believers was the catalyst of our relationship and communication.

When I learned that all the manuscripts [submitted to the anthology] would go into the national archives, I knew this was for me. I felt it was extremely important for preservation purposes. I encouraged the eligible writers, Marines, to submit. The material I submitted was so raw and emotional; it comforted me that it had been accepted in the anthology. Raw and emotional was acceptable. Wow, I thought.

NEA: Did you have any experience as a writer before submitting to the anthology?

Miller: I majored in English, with a specialization in creative writing, and minored in history as an undergraduate at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. I graduated four months prior to Aaron's death. In school, I studied fiction. Later, after Aaron was killed, I studied creative nonfiction under the tutelage of Kathleen Tarr, a professor at the University of Alaska. Though we've never met in person, Kathy was able to guide me (and yes, console me) in writing nonfiction by way of a course that is offered through the literary journal, Creative Nonfiction.

God Answers Prayers--Military Edition published "The Walk" in 2005. And of course, I've written throughout these last two, nearly three years. I've submitted to a contest once, but nothing else.

NEA: Is writing part of your life now?

Miller: It is. Now. Again. From March 31st through the [anthology launch celebration] on September 12th, I not only stopped writing; I quit reading. Everything hurt too much. I didn't even read my piece again for many months, except to look at what had been edited. It was only the night before the gala that I picked it up and read it again.

NEA: How have you been affected by the experience of participating in Operation Homecoming?

Miller: As a writer, it surprises me how much it's changed me. Right after I returned from [the launch celebration in] D.C., Steve Ramos, a reporter/journalist/editor, someone who'd never known Aaron while he was alive, called me about us working together on a book that he'd given much thought to after Aaron was killed. Steve was in Sunray, Texas, working on another story the day Aaron was killed. He covered Aaron's memorial in Sunray and became intrigued with who Aaron was as a person. We became acquainted through the Fallen Heroes message board. Steve told me via email that he wanted to do a book about Aaron. The week before my husband and I left for D.C., Steve spent three days with us; he slept in Aaron's room, with Aaron's pit bull next to him. Steve combed through our pictures and letters. We talked and talked and talked

The book will be both of our voices. Steve's and mine. I know they'll blend well. We are very serious about this. I'm not sure I would have been so serious without the experience of Operation Homecoming behind me.

NEA: What do you hope readers will gain from experiencing the Operation Homecoming anthology?

Miller: Passion.  Compassion.

NEA: NEA Chairman Dana Gioia has said "If Operation Homecoming does anything, it creates a vehicle for conversations between the troops and their families and society." What conversation would you like to have with those in society who aren't part of the military, either as a serviceman/woman or as a family member? Is there one thing you'd like civilians to know?

Miller: I'd want civilians to know that this world not only comprises, but needs the peacemaker and the warrior. It takes the diplomat, but it also takes the warrior to keep us free.  We don't have to fully understand each other, but I do so wish we (Americans) could quit fighting each other. We, together, collectively and uniquely have far too much at stake.

I'd like civilians to understand, and I know it sounds lame, but I'd like for them to recognize that those who serve or have served under arms are still people. They dream and hope and pray and write and dance. They cry and hurt and bleed. Most are tolerant of differing views, and they want to support their families, build a better place, and seek upward mobility.

Those in desert gray are not so different from civilians, but they do have a very different job. Not all, but without question, some civilians have the attitude that they are more worldly and knowledgeable than the men or women who serve in our armed forces.  This simply is not true. From the very first day in uniform, the troop is immersed into more cultures, more politics, more languages, and more disciplined knowledge than most of us will be in a lifetime. If they serve in a war such as ours, they have more knowledge than you or I will ever want to possess. And better yet, they will grow to love another troop from a different city, a different culture, perhaps even a different country. It won't be a passive love, either. It won't be taught. It will be earned. 

In a nutshell, I'd ask the civilian to seek out the opportunity of knowing, really knowing, someone who serves or has served under arms.

NEA: How have your family and friends reacted to the Operation Homecoming anthology?

Miller: The response from family and friends has been what I expected. Of course, they all think I'm the greatest writer in the world. But seriously, this anthology means a lot to them. My sister reads one story per day. She said she wants to think about that writer's story, what they had to say, for that entire day.

NEA: Have you had a chance to read the anthology yet? Is there any piece in particular that stands out for you?

Miller: I haven't finished the anthology. I'm only able to read a little at a time. I will finish it, not only because it's important, but because the writing is so eloquent. The short story, “Get Some” by First Lieutenant Paul A. Stieglitz stands out to me the most thus far. His style and voice remind me of Tim O'Brien's. The story, of Aaron.