What does it mean to be a military-service veteran in the United States?

Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and University Libraries will join the National Endowment for the Humanities in hosting a summer institute to explore that question and, ideally, build a foundation for veterans studies as an academic field of inquiry.

“Societal perceptions of veterans are incomplete, reflecting a general lack of understanding about the small minority of citizens who serve on active duty,” said James Dubinsky, an associate professor of rhetoric and writing in the Department of English. “To help categorize veterans, people often use such labels as ‘hero’ or ‘wounded warrior.’ While there are veterans who fall into each category, such stereotypes leave out the nuanced stories, affect veterans’ self-views, and fail to capture the richness and depth of what soldiers and their families endure.”

Dubinsky, a retired U.S. Army officer, will co-direct the institute from July 10 to 29, along with Bruce Pencek, Virginia Tech’s librarian for social sciences and history. They both lead Veterans in Society at Virginia Tech, an initiative that has sponsored three national conferences as well as the upcoming institute.

The Summer Institute on Veterans in Society: Ambiguities and Representations will be held principally on the Blacksburg campus, with visits to several Civil War sites, the Library of Congress, Arlington National Cemetery, and the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia.

“There have been veterans for as long as there have been wars, and in as many places,” Pencek said. “We want to bring historically rich, culturally informed scholarship into the conversations about veterans — and not just limited to American veterans of recent wars. Insights about veterans of other eras and other societies should have lessons here and now about how civilians and veterans can understand one another. Insights about recent, U.S. veterans can reveal new meanings in those older or ‘foreign’ narratives.”

The organizers hope the institute will serve as a catalyst for building a national, interdisciplinary network of scholars.

“We see students who have served several tours in combat environments, and they’re wrestling with questions of identity, with fitting in, with finding answers to issues that concern them and their families,” Dubinsky said. “We thought, what better university than Virginia Tech, with its strong devotion to the military and its service-oriented motto, to gather people together to tackle these challenges?”

The university’s motto, Ut Prosim, translates to That I May Serve.

“Veterans represent a category of diversity at Virginia Tech, and even at such an enlightened university, questions of identity exist, often because of a lack of understanding,” Dubinsky added. “Our goal is to focus a range of disciplinary lenses on the issues that veterans face. We want to humanize the discussion, to demonstrate how the arts and humanities can play a role not only in documenting veterans’ stories, but also in helping to provide solutions to the issues at the heart of those stories.”

A dozen experts will present at the institute, including Jonathan Shay, a celebrated psychotherapist who has used Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to help traumatized combat veterans and to explain their needs and experiences to the public; Benjamin Busch, a combat veteran, actor, director, poet, and author of Dust to Dust: A Memoir; and Carlton Kent, the first African American to serve as the Sergeant Major of the U.S. Marine Corps, which is the highest non-commissioned officer in the Marines.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is underwriting the institute as part of its prestigious lineup of summer programs for school and college educators who are drawn from a nationally competitive pool.

Written by Paula Byron