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Their War In Words

Written by CBSNews.com's Christine Lagorio



Despite two decades of military service, a deployment order never stung Maj. Zoltan Krompecher like the one that hit his desk last winter.

"I'd always deployed as a single guy before, when I was in the Special Forces, or even when I was an intelligence officer. Well, now I had children," Krompecher said during an interview with CBSNews.com's Christine Lagorio at his West Point office.

The 38-year-old English professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point has seen Korea, Egypt, Eastern Europe and three deployments to Kuwait.

Krompecher was dedicated to his job. If a light was on late at night in Lincoln Hall, the hulking Humanities building that looms over the Hudson from West Point, it was bound to be coming from Krompecher's office. Despite having three young children, he worked early mornings, nights and weekends – until being deployed to Iraq changed his outlook.

"It made me realize I had really fallen short as a father," Krompecher said.

The former poetry and literature student who has "never written a word except for papers for graduate school," sat down and wrote his 3-year-old daughter a poem.

The poem, "No Time For Snowmen," is being considered for publication in the National Endowment for the Arts anthology of military writings. Due out next spring, the anthology is the product of a joint NEA-Defense Department venture called Operation Homecoming, which has enlisted a host of well-known authors to teach writing workshops for troops who have served abroad since 9/11.

According to NEA chairman Dana Gioia, about 40 renowned fiction writers, poets and journalists who have served the military or whose writing is heavily influenced by war – from Tom Clancy to Bobbie Ann Mason to Mark Bowden, author of "Blackhawk Down" – are meeting with U.S. troops at more than a dozen bases all over the world.

Designed to nurture writing by soldiers and their families, the workshops also encourage young veterans to consider themselves part of a rich American tradition of writers of the war experience, including Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer.

Much of the writing that isn't used in the anthology submitted to the NEA will be archived for historians' use. Submissions are being accepted through March 31, and workshops are being held through summer 2005.

The NEA has received more than 750 submissions of poetry, prose, letters, blog entries and e-mails, which Gioia said relay a vast array of experiences from, and emotions spurred by, service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"What I felt, and what everyone else has felt who has read them is surprise at how much we're learning about this experience that we didn't know," Gioia told Lagorio. "We didn't know what it's like to have a member of your company killed. Or what it's like to rebuild a city, what it's like to adopt a stray cat in a combat zone. This writing humanizes the wartime experience."

And for many veterans, writing is the primary means of releasing images or emotions captured in training or on the battlefield. For Krompecher, writing became cathartic.

"When I came back I did have to see a counselor, and the counselor had never been in that kind of situation, so couldn't relate. I might as well have called a 1-800 number and talked to a psychic," Krompecher said. "I couldn't tell my wife; she couldn't relate."

Thousands of service members write letters, post online journals or jot notes in toilet stalls as small forms of release. For Krompecher, the release was writing to his children. Upon returning home from Iraq, he added to the poem for his daughter by writing one for his 6-month-old son, Jack.

"It was written as a personal thing," Krompecher said. "There's a lot of emotion you have to unpack, and you don't realize how surreal things are until you actually return home and sit down and think, 'Wow.'"

The poem, "My Son's Hands," is a reflection of a moment Krompecher said is solidly etched in his memory: the first time that his convoy in Iraq came in contact with suspected insurgents. As a an intelligence officer, Krompecher can't detail his specific missions due to security reasons. But he was outside of Baghdad late last spring, driving past an ambush site where a U.S. Humvee was attacked hours earlier.

"We went on this mission knowing that these people died just a few hours before, and we drove right past the ambush site," Krompecher said. "My job is very specific. It's to react when trouble arises, and this was one of those moments when I had to do that."

In the poem, Krompecher writes that he hopes his son "never has to wrap his hands around the receiver of a gun as he hoists it up," in "a moment when time is squeezed like a coil."

"Hesitate and he might never see tomorrow; squeeze and the doubts will stay with him for eternity."

The NEA's submissions range from reflections on being a military wife to graphic battle descriptions.

Although Gioia says the program is about "recognizing the troops' voice," some in the arts community are suspicious of the program, due to the Department of Defense's ability to read and censor the submissions of current servicemembers. Also, the NEA has heard much skepticism over the role Boeing Co., the military contractor, has played in sponsoring the program.

Gioia insists Boeing gave $452,000, and now has its hands off the program.
"Operation Homecoming is not about politics. It's about giving a voice to Americans. We want to make sure that what we are creating is a good, free exchange of ideas," Gioia said.

The program is the NEA's first that specifically targets the country's four million military personnel and family members, and is part of a slate of new arts endowment programs with a populist feel. The idea for Operation Homecoming came to Gioia from a friend who is the daughter of a West Point man. Two years ago, during the war in Afghanistan, Gioia said, they were talking about how "during such a straining experience is when people need the arts the most."

Poet and short story writer Richard Bausch, who spoke to troops at the first Operation Homecoming seminar at Fort Drum, N.Y., said he saw the invitation to speak to troops as a way to bridge the divide between their foreign service and coming home. Bausch served during the Vietnam War and saw firsthand the stigma service members of his generation faced at home.

"I know what they've been through, and I'd do anything for these guys," Bausch said.

He also said a new body of war literature will be valuable to this generation, because news cameras and dispatches only chronicle a sliver of the war experience soldiers endure.

"I'm just real glad it's going on, I think that things are coming from it," Bausch said. "I just hope it's all over soon. Bring these people home, and let them write."

By Christine Lagorio

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