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Veterans Education Project celebrates 30 years of deglorifying war

  • Rob Wilson, executive director of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst, plans to step down at the end of this year.<br/><br/>

    Rob Wilson, executive director of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst, plans to step down at the end of this year.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst.<br/><br/>

    Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst.<br/><br/>

    Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst.<br/><br/>

    Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rob Wilson, executive director of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst, plans to step down at the end of this year.<br/><br/>
  • Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst.<br/><br/>
  • Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst.<br/><br/>
  • Rob Wilson, executive director and Susan Leary program director sit in the office of the Veterans Education Project in Amherst.<br/><br/>

The veterans who volunteer their time get something valuable in return, said program director Susan Leary.

“Many vets find a level of healing in sharing their stories,” she said. “When the storytelling process works, certain experiences may change from fear or shame to a teaching moment that’s valuable to our whole society.”

The project is celebrating its 30th anniversary Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Ginger Garden restaurant on Route 9 in Amherst, with Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan serving as master of ceremonies. Veterans will speak, as will teachers who have welcomed them into their classrooms. The event is open to the public, and those seeking reservations should call 253-4947.

Robert Wilson of Hatfield, who has been with the project for 20 years and executive director for the past 12, will be stepping down at the end of the year, but will continue to help with grant writing. Leary, a resident of Amherst, will succeed him.

“We’ve been helping veterans find their stories,” Wilson said. “Some of the most affecting stories don’t have to do with combat and killing, but with coming home and integrating back into society and living with the baggage of having been through a war.”

The project began in 1982, when Vietnam veteran Rob Stenson heard the sound of an Army helicopter overhead and followed it to a high school, where it landed on a football field, Wilson said. Stenson found a military recruitment drive taking place, complete with weapons and soldiers, and thought the students should hear from someone who’d been to Vietnam, he said.

A group of educators and activists came together and created a system of training veterans to tell their personal stories in schools without triggering trauma. The project currently works with about 30 veterans who do about 100 presentations a year.

The project tries hard to be apolitical and encourages veterans to speak from their hearts and not give lectures, Leary said.

“Many of the vets are antiwar but not all,” she said. “Most vets speak honestly, and it’s often the only time people have a chance to hear firsthand what their experiences are.”

The project tries to bridge the gap between the civilian and the military, said Barbara Tiner of Leverett, president of the board.

“We have a responsibility to understand what we’re asking young men and women to do when we send them to war,” she said. “We have a responsibility to them while they’re fighting and when they come home. I don’t think we as a nation truly understand what happens when we ask them to go to war, physically, emotionally and mentally.”

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks sparked wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the project grew and was doing as many as 160 presentations a year in 2004 to 2006. It started a support group for families of veterans and began giving presentations to groups of clergy, social workers, physicians and therapists. It is currently working with Sullivan in the Veterans Justice Partnership, which helps vets who have gotten in trouble with the law.

When veterans enter a classroom, typically at the request of a teacher, students who wouldn’t think of joining the military benefit from forging an emotional connection with someone who has, Leary said. Students who are considering enlistment get to hear from someone who has been to war and to think more deeply about their choice, she said. And students who know they’ll join the military learn about things they wouldn’t hear about from a recruiter, such as head injuries and post-traumatic stress, she said.

Many of the vets start out thinking their stories aren’t worth telling, and wind up getting thank-you notes from the students, she said.

“I’ve seen people completely change their lives through the effect of public validation that their story is part of our history,” she said. “They are welcoming the vets back into the community on a much deeper level than a parade does.”

One veteran who introduces himself to students as “a poet, a farmer and a murderer” spoke about the impact of war on a panel, sponsored by the project, that included the head of the Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Massachusetts four years ago, Leary said. They got to know each other, and the ROTC head invited the pacifist vet to speak to a class of cadets, she said.

On another occasion, a progressive teacher at a school in Springfield asked the project to send two veterans to his class. The conservative principal wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but was encouraged to sit in on the event and wound up thanking the project for arranging it, she said.

Last year, veterans from the project spoke at assemblies at Holyoke High School that covered every senior, she said.

The project, which doesn’t charge public schools for its work, has an annual budget of about $100,000. It has about 500 donors and gets funding from foundations, Wilson said.

“We want vets to use their stories to help young people understand the consequences and realities of violence,” he said. “We want them to understand the human costs of war, not just the soldiers who get killed but the civilians in the war zone who are affected. They talk about war’s impact on the family and the ways it can change you. We don’t want anyone to glorify war and make it sound like it’s fun.”

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