Traditional Students and Veterans: Using Drama to Bridge a Difficult Gap

By Gaby Bedetti

“Fantastic show, that’s what education should look like!” said Travis Martin’s generous e-mail in response to our class’s attempt to capture the experience of war and its aftermath in a play. “A wonderful, often moving piece of theatre,” wrote a professor about “From Shiloh to Afghanistan.” Neither suggested a disconnect between war and the students’ representation. Yet Daniel Buckman’s “Swords to Pencils: Thoughts on the Veteran Experience in Academics” articulates a troubling question: Did any of us develop a real understanding of the veterans’ experience?

Comprised of traditional students, our Eastern Kentucky University class spent spring 2015 armchair traveling from the American Civil War to the modern-day battlefields of the Middle East. Neither my co-teacher, Mason Smith, nor I have fought in a war, so, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we focused on its bloodiest battle. To convey what they had learned from reading history and fiction, the students wrote, directed, and performed six one-act plays on May 7 in the Black Box Theatre of the EKU Center for the Arts. A jug band from the seminar performed brief interludes of Appalachian songs. The production concluded with “A Litany for Our Veterans,” constructed from lines of poetry about all the wars in which Americans have fought. The litany’s elegiac tone projected an earnestness its fifteen reciters may not have earned.


The students dramatized their generation’s stories in various ways. For example, in “An Ignorant Soldier” a time-traveling student journeyed back to the Battle of Shiloh, where he accidentally killed Gen. U.S. Grant and started a chain of events that altered the course of history. “Row Your Boat” depicted a straggler and a general at the Battle of Shiloh trapped as one struggled to row toward safety, and the other toward battle. Martin coached the writers to tweak the dialogue and behaviors to make them more realistic. He challenged the writer of “Homecoming,” whose brother is in the military, to aim for a more nuanced portrayal of a veteran with PTS in this excerpt:


(approaches him with a clip board in attempt to sell cookies)

Excuse me sir?



Get away from me.


What, no? I just have a question for you.



What are you hiding behind that clipboard?

(rips it out form her hands and she accidently falls back out of shock and cries)

What do you want? Get away!


(Libby hears the shouting and runs over)

Hey, hey, hey! Calm down she’s just selling cookies. What’s going on?


She wouldn’t listen. I told her to get away and she wouldn’t. She needs to get away from me.


The writer modified the violence by having only the clipboard fall, not the little girl. A deeper understanding of those who have experienced war calls for a more authentic learning experience.

In order to respond to what Buckman aptly characterizes as the narcissism of the traditional student, academics could collaborate with the veteran community. In her article, “Veterans Studies: Expanding Notions of ‘Vet Friendly’ to Include the Curriculum,” Penny Coleman endorses Martin’s call to bring both veterans and non-veterans together. The course could be cross-listed in EKU’s Veterans Studies Program. Veterans would educate instructors about their needs and learning styles, as Sarah Gann suggests. Voices of Student Veterans and Verbatim Theatre could teach the kinesthetic learning style emphasized in military training and favored by traditional students today. While the class could never approximate the cohesiveness and camaraderie that Buckman describes in his all-veterans composition class, integrating drama may help bridge the gap.

Along with collaborating with veterans, instructors might focus the reading strategically. With so much excellent war literature available, we could pair works from JME with Civil War readings. We could showcase the experience of women involved in war, as Martin advised, by juxtaposing a female hospital nurse’s experience during the Civil War and Erin Byers’ “Dear America.” Another approach to making the course more genuine would be to have the class focus on a particular image the way Lund focuses on images of hands as a writing prompt and shortcut to agency. An alternative is to focus on a specific moment, such as the night before battle, a motif memorialized in Book VIII of Homer’s Iliad, and captured in the EKU student play, “Shootin’ the Breeze.”

Finally, instructors could more overtly use the course to bridge the gap between veteran and traditional students. To promote points of empathy, we could use a public blog to engage soldiers and veterans in virtual interactions. We could bring veterans into the course through JME and veterans on campus. A veteran could serve as a visiting instructor. Students in the course could help promote the field of Veterans Studies by presenting at the Veterans in Society Conference. A course titled “Battle of Shiloh: Drama for the 21st Century” would be enriched by the coming together of veterans with traditional students.

Our hope is that by improving the course design, the military will exist beyond the university enclaves Buckman describes. Rather than carrying what Gann calls the “burden of seclusion,” veterans will help educate traditional students. As brothers, friends, and fiancés of people in the military, many traditional students have a degree of exposure to the moral and literal injuries of war. Gann presents the academy with an opportunity it cannot waste. The million current VA Education beneficiaries provide the academy with what Gann describes as “an occasion in which it can rise to greatness, to serve those who have greatly given in selfless service.” Bringing soldier and student together in the classroom to write and produce plays about the experience of war is a step toward healing and reconciliation.


The trailer for the play is available at

A recording of the performance is available at

Veteran Artist Tif Holmes Featured in New Juried Exhibition

Tif Holmes, a contributor to the second Journal of Military Experience and the cover artist of the upcoming Blue Falcon: A Journal of Military Fiction, is making headlines again. She had this to say about the inclusion of her work in a new exhibition:

Illuminance is a competitive juried exhibition that is open to artists nationwide using photographic processes as their media. This year’s theme is Experiencing Place: 

 There are certain places for all of us that go beyond the mundane. Many are very personal – the home where we grew up or the backyard fort that was home base for many an imaginary adventure. Other places are collectively special – the monuments of our nation’s capital, or exotic places we travel to, seeking refuge or discovery. What does it feel like to be in this place? Can you create an image that is emotional, atmospheric, that conveys your feelings about this special place? What makes it magical? Extraordinary?

The image I submitted is entitled “Transcendence.” It was taken during a theatrical show celebrating Anglo-Celtic and African American dance in The New World. The cast and musicians are all students who are active in the Vernacular Music Center at Texas Tech University, and I know most of them personally. It was exciting for me to photograph the rehearsals and the shows and to watch these individuals step into the roles they played and transport everyone around them to another place and time–one filled with story-telling, dancing, singing, and community. I remember going through the images at the end of one particular show and this one really stood out. It was clear to me that Emily, the dancer in the photograph, was not thinking about anything else in the world at that moment when the photograph was taken. She was dancing, she was free, she was happy. She had transcended the limitations of the physical world, and the dance was her vehicle. This, to me, is the perfect illustration of experiencing a magical, extraordinary place and sharing it with others.

 “Transcendence,” by Tif Holmes


The exhibit runs from June 25 – August 10, 2013 at the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, Texas. 

Tif Holmes is a photographer, writer, musician, educator, and former Soldier, among other things. Her work can be found online at or on Facebook at

JME’s Micah Owen Featured in NYT’s “Warrior Voices”

Micah Owen’s harrowing tale of a convoy ambush in 2003 Fallujah appeared in the first Journal of Military Experience and was a recent addition to the New York Times “Warrior Voices” segment. Micah is twice a veteran of the Iraq War (2003 & 2005) and twice a contributor to the JME. Beginning his work in the first classroom of veteran authors that founded the JME, he now finds his work featured in national news outlets and is an inspiration to aspiring veteran authors.

Click on Micah’s picture below to read his story as well as those of other military authors:

Micah Owen served two tours in Iraq in the United States Army. Click on his image above to read his his JME 1 story, "Put the Truck in Gear and Drive" as part of the NYT's "Warrior Voices" segment.
Micah Owen served two tours in Iraq in the United States Army. Click on his image above to read his his JME 1 story, “Put the Truck in Gear and Drive” as part of the NYT’s “Warrior Voices” segment.

The Arts and the Military: Dominic Fredianelli, by Tara Leigh Tappert

The work to launch the Arts and the Military/Arts, Military + Healing (AMH) week in the Washington, DC area this past May is beginning to do what we all had hoped it would do — the event is inspiring new and exciting ventures throughout the country, as well as bringing tremendous press coverage to the work of Combat Paper Project.

On view this fall were two Combat Paper Project exhibitions in galleries at two different campuses of the University of Maryland:

Click here and here to view the gallaries.

Denise Merringolo, a public history professor who teaches at the Baltimore campus, attended the AMH event at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and School of Art + Design.  Moved by the Combat Paper exhibition on view at the Corcoran, shortly thereafter she began pursuing the possibility of a show on the UMBC campus for the fall, 2012 semester.  Her show then propelled Jason Hughes, a student curator and artist on the College Park campus, to request another Combat Paper show for the Stamp Gallery in the student union.  On December 5, 2012, an amazing critique of the UMBC exhibit, written by Bret Mccabe, was published in the Baltimore City Paper.

Mccabe began his review with a piece created by veteran/artist Dominic Fredanielli who participated in the Corcoran’s Combat Paper Project workshop this past May.  The genesis of Dom’s involvement in the  Arts and the Military/AMH event began nearly a year earlier when I attended the 2011 Silverdocs film festival and saw the Emmy award winning Where Soldiers Come From.

Set in a small town in Northern Michigan, and in the mountains of Afghanistan, the film follows the four-year journey of childhood friends, including Dom, who return as 23-year-old veterans dealing with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and PTSD.  While this documentary beautifully captures the coming of age of these young men, there is another story woven like a “red thread” through the film — the artwork of Dominic Fredianelli and how he uses art making to cope with his war experiences.  Care 4 Me . . . I’ll Remember You is the piece Dom made in the Corcoran’s Combat Paper Project workshop.  It is a memento mori to his friend Josh Wheeler who went to war but did not make his way through the trauma when he came back home.  Josh was killed in a car accident. He is acknowledged in the closing credits of Where Soldiers Come From, and also in Dom’s Care 4 Me . . . I’ll Remember You, an amazing image on Combat Paper that is now a part of the                         Combat Paper Project Exhibitions Collection.

Dominic is continuing to work as a practicing artist.  Since the Arts and the Military/AMH week he has created murals in Chicago and in Santa Barbara — the first for the National Veterans Art Museum and the second for the University of California at Santa Barbara.

We thank all our collaborators and sponsors who support the Arts and Military/AMH event, and whose mission is to help those service members and veterans dealing with both visible and invisible wounds of war.

Tara Leigh Tappert, JME Art Editor and Founder, The Arts and the Military.