It’s a Saturday morning and a small group meets at the downtown Charleston County Library, their thick books cracked open to the same page of “The Illiad”, an epic poem recounting the final weeks of the Trojan War. It’s intense reading for 10 a.m. But the ancient story resonates with the young soldiers at the long table. It’s part of their book club for veterans.
“He was going to leave town without going to hunt her down and say goodbye,” said the group’s facilitator Kate Hudson. “Why would he do that?” There’s silence. Then, former Marine Lee Gonzalez weighs in.
“It possessed him. He wanted to get back out there,” he explained. "Again, that love for the men trumped the love for his wife. He wanted to concentrate on what he knew he was the best at. They needed him.”
Gonzalez was just 17 years-old when he joined the military, after a high school teacher was killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He’s now a reservist with the South Carolina National Guard. He’s also about to get married and knows all too well the internal struggle to do more for his country, yet maintain a peaceful life at home.
“Sometimes I have kind of that survivor’s guilt like; gosh I didn’t see anything, thank goodness. But at the same time how much can I really relate?” The 33 year-old looks beside him to another man close in age. Matt Hancock nods his head. Colorful tattoos flow from beneath his short sleeved shirt. He too, wishes he could do more, even though he was wounded in Afghanistan and sent home
“I didn’t feel right being in the military and not deploying, not doing my fair share of the work and not suffering my share of the hardships,” Hancock said. He volunteered for the Army mission that left him wounded by a gun shot. A long, jagged scar runs along the middle of his left forearm. He suffered nerve damage. He used to play guitar. His wife Emilie says he came home a different man.
“He felt guilty about not being able to help me with stuff, you know like stupid stuff like not being able to open the mayonnaise jar. He couldn’t do it because his hand doesn’t work.” She says her young husband suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about his feelings or experiences.
That’s when she got the idea for the book club. She was majoring in English while he was away. “ I realized how powerful stories could really be.” She reached out to the Charleston County library and Kate Hudson immediately volunteered.
“I believe in the power of literature to help us empathize,” Hudson said. It’s a vicarious experience. Either you’ve had it and you haven’t been able to find a way to talk about it, or you’re afraid that nobody else had had it and couldn’t possibly understand. Maybe it’s something you’ve never been through. “
Together, the two women found the Great Books Foundation’s nationwide reading and discussion program for veterans, “Talking Service”. It focuses on selections from an anthology called, “Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian”. In addition to “The Illiad”, there is the Gettysburg Address and personal memoirs like, “The Hardest Letter to Write.”
The book club at the Charleston County library is fairly new. But already they’ve had World War II veterans join them and a Vietnam War vet who’s become a regular. “Sarge” as he’s called, could not make it this particular Saturday.
But there’s no loss for words as the Hancocks, Gonzalez and Hudson dissect the reading selections. The men have so much in common, even though their experiences are different. Both express guilty, feel a pull to do more, and in some ways miss the routine of the military. The topics flow like chapters in a book; fate, fear, family, duty and brotherhood. Matt Hancock says it’s helped him heal.
“You know the scars aren’t only on the outside,” he said. “They go deeper than that. You have to be willing to talk about it, you have to be able to open up and share the things that you’ve gone through.”
“There were parts of his experience that he would not share because it would seem out of place in conversation,” said Emilie. “But, the stories are the way to enter into those conversations.”
She hopes the book club will continue to bring veterans together, giving them the company and the comfort of characters to share their stories, as they try to make sense of their lives. For more on the “Talking Service” program at Charleston County’s downtown library, got to: https://www.ccpl.org/events/talking-service-book-discussion-1