I currently work as a Prefect in Saint Benedict Hall. While Prefects are most known as the “rule enforcers” of campus, I would like to think that we are also known for constantly nagging our residents to attend our programs. We are required, as dictated by our contracts, to hold a specified number of meaningful programs for our residents each semester. And after three semesters, coming up with anything beyond ordering a pizza takes a special sort of effort. However, after four years of study, I understand how powerful a story can be in changing the world. And so, I made that my goal this semester; before I leave, I wanted my residents to hear a story that will change the way they see the world.
In 1998, the Archdiocese of Guatemala released a report on the human rights abuses that took place in Guatemala during its 30 year civil war. This report documented the stories of mass murders, mass graves, senseless killings and unthinkable poverty. The Bishop of Guatemala, Juan Gerardi, who worked to publish this opus, was assassinated a mere two days after the report was released. However, after its release, Guatemala has slowly begun to atone for its past. More and more aid groups are able to actively work there to alleviate the social evils of extreme poverty. And an increasing number of persons that have been linked to this genocide have been brought to justice. Ultimately, because someone took the time to gather narratives and stories from people all over Guatemala, the world was changed forever. Their words and stories had more power than the guns of their oppressors.
However, while I couldn’t drag my residents to Guatemala (as much as I wanted to go back), I decided to search for a more local story. Soon, I began to think of stories that I would be interested in hearing. And after a few weeks, it finally dawned on me that the current freshman class (the students who would be involved with this dinner) has rarely lived in a time without war. The attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 took place while they were in second grade—a school year that I can barely remember. But the war that we lived through while growing up was vastly different than the ones that we studied in school like the World Wars or even Vietnam. It was a war of drones, something distant but ever-present, something that some could easily forget by not watching the news.
In the end, I thought that it would be worthwhile to introduce my students to the veterans involved with the Saint Vincent College Center for Northern Appalachian Studies. The center has been operating through the work of Dr. Wissolik of the English department, who has served as its director for many years and has published four books of collected oral histories of veterans living in Western Pennsylvania. In addition to these publications, the center also holds a class called “Faces of Battle” every spring where students will read war literature such as the writings of Stephen Crane while also conversing with veterans from the local area and hearing lectures from military historians. By the end of the course, the hope is that students have a somewhat greater understanding as to what war really is, even as that definition continues to change.
On Tuesday, February 26, six residents from Saint Benedict Hall sat down with a number of veterans for dinner. They were randomly thrown together and told each other stories over a hearty meal. While I was sitting there, I kept thinking, “I hope that they hear a story that changes their lives.” But quickly enough this thought escaped me and was overtaken by stories of another time told by the veterans sitting at my table. I heard the story of veteran Jim Takitch who served on the Destroyer USS Kidd in the Navy during World War II. Surviving a war is a feat in itself. Surviving a war after your ship is bombed multiple times in the span of a day and having a bullet tearing through your jaw and arm is even more remarkable. But he told his story with a little laugh, showing me pictures of his full body cast and, in a droll fashion, stating that he did not really remember all the pain that he felt as he was airlifted from ship to hospital all over the Pacific, only saying something along the lines of “it hurt like hell.”
Ultimately, I walked away from the dinner repeating to myself a quote from Jim Takitch’s brother who served in the Korean Conflict: “After you have been through war, you never believe that war is the answer ever again.” In an age of almost endless war, it is necessary that we look toward the past in making our decisions. We must learn to settle our differences with diplomacy, not with rifles. We must change the way we think about war. We must remember everything that past generations gave up (including those who left no relatives behind) so that we could have this day and be thankful for it. But most of all, we must learn to listen rather than speak. We must look for the stories that surround us.