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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane initiative aims to connect veterans with the humanities

From left, Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton of the Spokane Arts Commission, Gonzaga University communication professor Lisa Silvestri and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Joe Gilliand walk through Gonzaga’s College Hall on Thursday, May 11, 2017, in Spokane, Washington. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Joe Gilliland could tell you a war story, but it wouldn’t be complete without the happy moments.

He gives some examples: A row of Marines seated along a wall, “dog tired” and baking in their fatigues, joking with one another between segments of an arduous mission in Iraq or Afghanistan. A buddy calling out for another Rip It, the energy drink of choice for countless American soldiers.

Or that time Gilliland, a 23-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, found solace in a piece of candy. He remembers stopping to rest and thinking, “This sucks, but at least now I can say, ‘You know what, I had a great Jolly Rancher today, and it was the best damn Jolly Rancher I ever had in my life. I’m sitting here enjoying this Jolly Rancher and breathing right now.’”

After retiring as a master sergeant two years ago, Gilliland started pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Gonzaga University. Now he’s participating in a community-oriented project called “Telling War,” which aims to help veterans communicate their war experiences and reconnect with civilians at home.

“You get all the horror and the war stories on the media and the TV, but there is a whole other side to this,” Gilliland said. “There’s a lot of things going on, a lot of really bad things … but in reality, the happiness is probably what gets you through it.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities recently allocated $100,000 for the project, which will begin in the fall. It’s part of a broader NEH initiative that aims to involve veterans in the humanities. NEH Chairman William Adams spoke at Gonzaga last year about his experience in the Vietnam War and how studying humanities helped him make sense of it all.

The local project is being led by Gonzaga communication professor Lisa Silvestri and Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton of the Spokane Arts Commission. Veterans and others can subscribe to a mailing list at

Silvestri and Gilliland will teach a class at Gonzaga and host a series of free workshops at various locations in Spokane, where veterans will reflect on how they stayed in touch with friends and family during their deployments. They’ll examine letters, emails, photos, videos, postcards and social media, and consider how each medium shaped their messages.

The goal, Silvestri said, is to see what veterans have to say about their service when they aren’t facing “the pressure to help the civilian audience understand what war is like.”

“The war story, as we’ve been telling it since the Iliad and Odyssey, is the same tropes that we’ve been seeing over and over and over again,” she said. “We owe it, as political friends to the veterans, to stop it.”

Wilkins-Pepiton said one goal of the project is to “add a little shading and dimension” to the public’s perception of fighting men and women. She said the workshops will be hands-on and engaging, so that veterans might enjoy using new forms of expression, like music and art.

They’ll review all kinds of “user-generated content,” including the “Six Word War,” a book and online compilation of six-word poems written by veterans about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some entries carry a humorous tone: “Stryker’s on fire? I’ll need Rip Its!” Others are grim: “Don’t look at nametags of dead.”

Gilliland, a father of three who lives in Spokane with his wife, wrote about the stress of preparing for and recovering from tours of duty: “Work up. Deployment. Dwell. Do it again.”

Silvestri has worked on research involving soldiers for about a decade, inspired by her father, who was drafted into the Vietnam War, and her brother, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, she published a book titled “Friended at the Front: Social Media in the American War Zone,” which explores how platforms such as Facebook have transformed soldiers’ experiences overseas.

“Right now there’s a reverence for veterans without listening among the civilian public,” she said. “The statues that we erect in their honor and in their image, they’re seen and not heard. And this is why a lot of veterans hate that line, ‘Thank you for your service.’ It is a verbal marker of the space between civilian and veteran.”

Silvestri hopes the “Telling War” initiative will help bridge that divide.

“The reason people are so fascinated by war is because it compresses everything that usually takes a lifetime to get,” she said, noting she has met many young soldiers who are wise beyond their years.

“It’s because they have gone and had this experience on the fringe of humanity,” she said. “They know what living is about. They know what it’s like to have a great Jolly Rancher.”