Tim Byrne, a veteran of the Vietnam War, spends much of his time taking photos in Portland. He said his Navy experience gave him all the education he needed. “Three of the four years were amazingly wonderful experiences. One flat-out stunk. That year in Nam, in 1968, that was not pleasurable – and I am being nice.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Tim Byrne wasn’t a very good student growing up in Plattsburgh, New York, and left college “for having too good a time.” He enlisted in the Navy in 1967 and served four years, including one year in Vietnam.

That gave him all the education he would need.

Tim Byrne of Portland is a veteran of the Vietnam War. His experiences provide the basis for discussions he has with members of a veterans book group facilitated by the Maine Humanities Council. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“As the old saying goes, join the Navy and see the world, and I sure did,” said Byrne, now 72 and a 30-year resident of Maine. “Three of the four years were amazingly wonderful experiences. One flat-out stunk. That year in Nam, in 1968, that was not pleasurable – and I am being nice.”

Byrne uses his wartime experiences to inform his discussions in one of several veterans book groups facilitated by the Maine Humanities Council. Byrne meets with other veterans to read and talk about books that often have a military theme or perspective. Byrne, who lives in downtown Portland and spends long hours on the streets taking photographs as a hobby, isn’t a group facilitator or leader, but he’s an active participant and encourages other veterans to get involved.

His current group has about a dozen veterans of Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Afghanistan and Iraq. They meet weekly, and usually spend between five and eight weeks on a book.

The book group provides a space to connect with other veterans that is not social or clinical. It’s academic and stimulating, he said. “We all bring different things to the table. It’s a unique class in that we are all veterans, but we are approaching this as students of life, and a big chunk of our lives is some kind of military experience.”

They talk about belonging, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, suicide and other issues that impact veterans and their families, as well as self-resilience, self-determination and other broader themes. The conversations can shift from expressions of patriotism and pride to anger and frustration about politics and war, to grief and loss, said Alley Smith-Morrissey, a veteran of the Marine Corps and Navy Reserve and co-facilitator of a veterans book group that meets at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. “The conversation always starts and circles back to seeking an authentic identity after military service and our depth of character,” she said.

Byrne said the groups are not a therapy session in design or function. “We are probably like most groups of people who meet on a common book. These books have probably been the center of focus for many other types of groups. A commonality of our book themes is that generally they cover conflict, and look at how various people deal with the before, during and after, in relating to self, family, cohorts. By the nature of our group’s makeup, we can really dig into what has happened from our common background, and as a result, have great conversations” he said.

The veterans read contemporary fiction, non-fiction and poetry, books like “Tribe: On Home Coming and Belonging” by Sebastian Junger and “Roughhouse Friday,” by Jaed Coffin.

They also tackle classics like Homer’s “Odyssey,” the story about the Greek hero Odysseus and his long journey home after the 10-year Trojan War. He was gone so long, people assumed he was dead. Life moved on without him.

“My perception of the ‘Odyssey’ is entirely different now than in the ninth grade, when I first read it,” Byrne said. “If you throw in a veteran or combat veteran’s experience, it’s entirely different. You can understand why Odysseus came home the way he did and the manner in which he did.”

Byrne uses the Woodstock concert of 1969 as an example of how he can relate, in a way, to Odysseus. Byrne didn’t know the concert happened until his girlfriend sent him a special edition Life magazine with Woodstock coverage.

“For some reason, Uncle Sam had not told us about that,” Byrne said. “I just flipped through it and showed it to friends and we were dumbstruck – not for it or against it, but just dumbstruck. What is this? It was totally out of the blue.”

They had no cultural connection to the event, and it felt like a world away. The same was true of the moon landing, also in 1969, and other generational events, like the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968. The America he left in 1967 looked entirely different than the one he returned home to four years later.

He still has the Woodstock magazine. “I don’t have the girlfriend, but I have the magazine. It means a lot of to me because it fills in some of the holes in the context of the American social history of the late ’60s. That was a helluva time in this country, and I missed some of it, and I still don’t understand it, for better or worse.”

The book group helps fill in some of what he calls that missing “social memory” and puts him in conversation with other veterans similarly lacking. “Our social memory of that time is much like a jaw with a lot of missing teeth,” he said. “There are a lot of things that happened that we don’t know about or don’t have the context” to fully understand.

Smith-Morrissey said the groups are valuable because they are “intellectual, emotional, memorable, and they possess the powerful art of conversation. There’s nothing better than the gift of introspection and sharing ideas – learning from each other, debating, lamenting, and digging your heels into a good discussion.”

Veterans speak the truth at the book groups, and everyone comes to the table with an open mind and without judgment. “Everyone listens. Everyone speaks. Everyone is heard,” Smith-Morrissey said. “And-quite frankly, there’s nothing more validating than being seen and heard.”

 

 


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