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Talking Service is a national outreach program of the Great Books Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization based in Chicago. The program assists veterans of the Armed Forces to successfully make the transition back into civilian life by providing opportunities to reflect on past experiences, current concerns, and aspirations for the future. Talking Service is also for others—family members, friends, caretakers, and concerned civilians—who want to have a better understanding of the challenges veterans face. In small groups led by skilled facilitators, Talking Service participants read and discuss short, powerful writings concerning military service and war by some of the world’s best authors. The writings used in Talking Service are from the anthology, Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, published by the Great Books Foundation and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Anyone who is interested in discussing issues regarding the experience of military service in light of outstanding literature is welcome to join a Talking Service group. Some groups are primarily made up of men and women who have served in the Armed Forces. On the other hand, many Talking Service groups include both veterans and civilians, providing valuable opportunities for sharing a range of different perspectives on military service.
Each participant in a Talking Service group will have her or his own reasons for being there. For veterans and active duty personnel, it may be the desire to explore what writers through the years have had to say about experiences similar to their own and to do so with peers who will immediately understand these experiences because they, too, have been there. Working together and helping each other grapple with questions and issues that arise in the group discussions is a powerful way for veterans to re-experience some of the strongest bonds of their lives—those with their fellow soldiers and Marines. In addition, the authors of the literature used in Talking Service—many of whom had personal experience of military service—have the ability to put into words what many struggle to express. By hearing what these writers have to say and thinking about what they mean, veterans can find their own voices to tell their stories to family, friends, and all those they interact with when reclaiming their place in the civilian world.
Family members, friends, and caretakers of veterans will find that Talking Service discussions provide them with opportunities to reflect together on many of the issues faced by the veterans in their lives. And all civilians, whether or not they have close personal connections to veterans, will find in Talking Service discussions a stimulating way to think deeply about the values behind how we deploy our fellow citizens in defense of the common good.
A Talking Service discussion group consists of about 12 to 15 members along with a trained discussion leader. Groups typically meet for four to six sessions over a couple of months, according to a schedule that the host site thinks will work for those interested in participating. Each session is about 90 minutes long and focuses on a selection from Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian. The selection could be a short story, essay, newspaper/magazine article, poetry, or memoir. It could have been written hundreds of years ago or by a serviceman or woman involved in the recent OEF and OIF conflicts. The selections, regardless of when they were written, deal with perennial issues that will prompt lively discussion today.
At the beginning of each session, the discussion leader poses a question to the group about the selection. This could be about why the young veteran of the Marines in Ernest Hemingway’s story, “Soldier’s Home,” cannot find a way to talk with his family and friends about his combat experiences when he returns to his small Midwestern home after World War I. Or it could be about the difficulty of readjusting to married life after returning from deployment, as depicted in Siobhan Fallon’s story, “The Last Stand.” As the conversation proceeds, the leader asks further follow-up questions and encourages group members to build on each other’s insights and ideas. Some of the conversation will be focused closely on what the author says; some of it will draw on personal experiences to evaluate how what the author says relates to the participants’ own lives. The discussion leader’s job is to keep the conversation moving but focused and to make sure everyone who wants to contribute has the opportunity to do so. Unlike an academic class, the discussion leader’s role is not that of an instructor who has all the answers. He or she is there to help the group work together, have a rewarding experience, and come to deeper insights.
The Great Books Foundation and the New York Council for the Humanities nationally administer Talking Service, including maintaining the Talking Service website, administering grants that support the program, and compiling program evaluation reports. Together they assist state humanities councils and other organizations interested in sponsoring the program. These councils and organizations in turn find local host sites that are responsible for scheduling the discussions, identifying discussion leaders, and making certain the program runs smoothly at the community level. Inquiries about any aspect of Talking Service should be directed to the Great Books Foundation via email.
Currently, state humanities councils sponsor many of the Talking Service discussion groups. On this website, under the “Partners” tab, check the list of participating states on the “Humanities Councils” page. Also, please contact the Great Books Foundation directly for information about Talking Service activities in your region.
There should be no cost to participate in Talking Service discussions. Generally, copies of Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, the anthology used in all Talking Service discussion groups, are made available to participants free of charge by the sponsoring organizations.
Talking Service is readily adaptable as a classroom program. For example it would be a good fit for bridge programs such as Veterans Upward Bound, for veterans needing to enhance their academic skills as they make the transition into college. In addition, the selections in the anthology, Standing Down: From Warrior to Civilian, make it particularly suitable as the primary text for a class on military experience and war, especially if many of the students are veterans.
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