'War Comes Home' with countywide read program
By Lou Fancher
At a public library near you, splendid victories, everyday mundanities and epic tragedies of life are on full display.
Contra Costa County Library's countywide read program chose this year to spotlight the most dynamic of those extremes with visits from two New York Times bestselling military veteran authors and screenings of "Chosin." The award-winning documentary film features Korean War veterans who fought in the Chosin Reservoir Campaign, one of the most brutal battles in American history.
The events are part of a statewide "War Comes Home" library campaign aimed at honoring and raising awareness of the sacrifices made by multiple generations of U.S. military veterans.
Vietnam veteran and Rhodes scholar Karl Marlantes spoke at Hayward's Chabot College in October about his "What it is Like to go to War." A Publishers Weekly review says about the book that "Marlantes presents a riveting, powerfully written account of how, after being taught to kill, he learned to deal with the aftermath."
Beth Girsham, senior community library manager at the Orinda Library, said the book reflects the unfortunate circumstances common to all military veterans. She and Lafayette Library Manager Vickie Sciacca partner to present "Lamorinda Reads," an annual program coinciding in 2014 with "War Comes Home."
Tapping into the veteran awareness activities, they will soon host Luis Carlos Montalván, the program's second featured veteran and author of "Until Tuesday." The Iraq War veteran and his service dog Tuesday will make appearances in Brentwood, Lafayette and Danville in early December.
"We selected "Until Tuesday" because we thought it was a compelling story with broad appeal," Girsham says. "We had a Vietnam vet in Marlantes and wanted to bring a recent perspective. We were looking for an Iraq or Afghanistan memoir."
"Until Tuesday" is the story of Montalván's life as a 17-year veteran and U.S. Army captain whose two tours of duty in Iraq left him with two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart and a broken mind and body.
The 288-page memoir is also an introduction to Tuesday, Montalván's expressive golden retriever service dog, and describes how the two comrades, man and dog, have toiled to find peace.
Opening with a biography of his dog's early days (both imagined and actual), early chapters follow Tuesday's journey through East Coast Assistance Dogs' two-year, $25,000 training program, including time spent with "Puppies Behind Bars," a nonprofit providing service dogs to wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Tuesday emerged from the program with imperfections -- a wounded canine warrior, not a model of discipline and control.
In Part II, Montalván plunges the reader into Al-Alweed, 300 miles from Baghdad on the Syrian-Iraqi border. It was a place where the strong, 6-foot-2 Cuban/Puerto Rican American learned he was not invincible. Injured more than once, suffering what he says are permanently crushed vertebrae and a brain injury, he travels through a series of missteps -- excessive drinking, a broken marriage, addiction to painkillers and more. His life was an internal riot; his exterior, an angry, aloof mask.
Gloriously, a rare outing and an email from the Wounded Warriors Project, a veterans service organization, implanted the "thought of dogs" in Montalván's damaged mind. He writes that a person with post-traumatic stress disorder is like an alcoholic and is never healed: Tuesday became his 12-step salvation.
The hypervigilance that had made his life intolerable was kept in check by stroking Tuesday's too-soft fur. Their companionship gave him the strength to complete a master's of science from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and become an advocate for the rights of disabled veterans.
Despite some media reports criticizing aspects of his book -- A 2011 Huffington Post article by Hillel Italie and AP reporter Allan Breed's published email attempt to clarify discrepancies -- Girsham says "Montalván's compelling message overrides the fact that memoirs in general are subject to scrutiny."
The more important aspect, she says, is encouraging change in societal attitudes about PTSD and its treatment. How are we recognizing PTSD? How may we best serve those who have served to protect us? These are the questions Girsham and "Until Tuesday" ask -- and enlist a community of readers to help find the answers.