Symposium spotlights differences between narrative, real-life experiences of returning war veterans

Discussion series aims to help public understand challenges faced by vets

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KINGSTON, R.I. – September 7, 2016 — An 18-year-old student sitting in his first day of classes at the University of Rhode Island will have a much different set of life experiences from the 23-year-old U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan sitting next to him.

And that Afghan war veteran may have different needs to make his educational career at URI a successful campaign. That’s why Tom Conroy, a volunteer at the URI Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, helped organize a statewide symposium titled, “Memory v. Representation: Soldiers’ Homecoming in History, Literature and Testimony.” Rob Widell, an associate professor of history and project director for the symposium, and Molly Hall, a doctoral student of literature and assistant director, were also integral to the creation and organization of the events.

Hosted by the University of Rhode Island and funded by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, the symposium will feature an introduction by humanities scholars highlighting how the homecoming of American soldiers has been described in history, literature and the media. The panel of war veterans will then compare and contrast those narratives with their personal experiences.

Panelists include Chad McFarlane, an applied economics student at URI and an Iraq War veteran; Michael Steiner, a second-generation Navy veteran who graduated from the Warrior Scholar program at Yale University is now a student of applied economics at URI; Holly Witherell, a former Navy Seabee who is now a student at Salve Regina University training to help veterans with vocational rehabilitation; Ashley Aldarondo-Martinez, a combat veteran in Afghanistan, who is now completing her bachelor’s degree in communication at Rhode Island College; Dennis Cosmo, an honors student of Business at the Community College of Rhode Island who mastered Arabic at the prestigious Defense Language Institute at Monterey, Calif., and served in the infantry as a U.S. Army Ranger; Michael Manoog Kaprielian, a Vietnam War veteran and a charter member of Chapter 273 of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA).

The three-part event begins Sept. 11, at 2 p.m. in Swan Hall, 60 Upper College Road, on URI’s Kingston campus. Additional talks will include “Perspectives on the Vietnam War,” which will be held Oct. 16 at 2 p.m. at the Providence Public Library, 150 Empire Street in Providence, and “Wars in the Middle East and Contemporary Narratives of Return,” which will be held Nov. 13 at 2 p.m. at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Knight Campus, 400 East Avenue in Warwick.

“We’re hoping to increase understanding among faculty and the public at large to the experience of students who are returning veterans,” said Conroy, who is himself a veteran of the Vietnam War. “Academia is not always veteran friendly. They have a vastly different set of life experiences than most people in the collegiate setting and a unique set of needs. They truly are non-traditional students.”

The symposium is designed to encourage dialogues with the audience about the experience of war. The project hit home personally for Conroy, who said his experience coming home from Vietnam was quite different than what has been reported.

“I came back somewhat radicalized and ready to talk about my experiences at war,” Conroy said. “But my friends, most of whom were not drafted and had gone on to receive their college degrees didn’t want to talk about it. It wasn’t all anti-war protestors spitting on returning veterans. I think that was the experience of relatively few people. For me, it was people who were pro-war who didn’t want to hear about the experience of war and what it is really like. That silence was difficult.”

For Conroy, attending Rhode Island College was a salvation. It allowed him to reintegrate into civilian life and feel normal again. He went on to earn his doctorate and become a professor of humanities at Vermont State College before retiring and returning to Rhode Island.

This symposium, he said, is a way to attract veterans to higher education where they can transition back to civilian life.

“Every returning veteran has stories and I hope this symposium will help them to better articulate those stories,” he said. “The humanities have the power to help the public understand where these veterans are coming from and the challenges they face, while making the veterans feel welcome in an academic setting. We are hoping to build a bridge of empathy that can bring both sides together and help these veterans succeed.”

For more information, visit www.RIVetsSpeak.weebly.com.