Healing Through Words

November 17, 2011
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Last Thursday, award-winning author and Vietnam War veteran Tim O’Brien addressed students, staff, veterans and other guests in a Bunker Hill Community College lecture hall in honor of Veterans Day and the college’s student veterans. In his 45-minute address, O’Brien, 65, talked about his writing and wartime experiences, and how both were invariably linked.

The event was hosted by the college’s veterans’ center and held at its Charlestown campus. Wearing a baseball cap, striped tie and jacket, O’Brien seemed at home with his audience and deliberate in his speech.

Of his invitation to speak on campus, O’Brien said, “I had to say yes because I fell in love with your school.” He commended the college’s diversity and its students’ experiences beyond the classroom before talking about what he said he was really there to address: “soldiery things.”

An author of short fiction as well as eight books, O’Brien is perhaps best known for his book “The Things They Carried,” a 1991 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The book, which is a collection of fictional stories about American soldiers serving in the Vietnam War, is based on some of O’Brien’s own experiences with war, which he recounted to a silent audience.

“My desire to become a writer collided with Vietnam,” he said. “Somewhere at the bottom of a stinky irrigation ditch, I became a writer. I had a desire to testify, to talk about what happened to me.”

Veterans often come back mute, unable to talk about their experiences and what they’re feeling, O’Brien said. He recalled a particularly poignant story about a young woman who had written a letter to him after he had published “The Things They Carried.” The young woman was from Minnesota, O’Brien’s home state, and her father was a Vietnam veteran who was unable to speak or relate to his family after returning from war. O’Brien’s book was assigned to her A.P. English class, and after reading it, she brought it home for her father to read. Then her mother read it. Little by little, her father began talking again.

“My parents aren’t perfect,” the young woman wrote in her letter to O’Brien, “But they’re together, and they’re happy.” O’Brien fought back tears as he recounted her words.

Letters and stories like these seem to anchor and sustain O’Brien. He said he set out to tell stories beyond the abstract numbers and statistics commonly tossed around in news programs. It became his mission to create stories about relatable, real characters. He wanted to give layers of details so that readers could grasp the complexities of being a soldier at war, from chaos and confusion to uncertainty and fatigue.

And then he started writing for revenge. “My country had given me Vietnam, and I wanted to give it back,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien ended his talk with some of the things he has learned from war and come to believe – that “courage is not physical” and that “one man’s terrorist can be another man’s freedom fighter.” He said that if someone supports a war, he or she should go fight in it. And perhaps his most difficult piece of insight to process: “Wars do not end when you sign the peace treaties,” O’Brien said. Friends and family of fallen veterans are always left behind, he explained.

After the event, O’Brien took questions from the audience and stuck around for conversation before leaving for his flight out of Logan later in the afternoon.