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Travis Bickford and students at “The Things They Carried” exhibit
Travis Bickford and students at “The Things They Carried” exhibit, National Veterans Art Museum, Chicago, IL, 2013. Image courtesy of Travis Bickford.

Carrying On

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The following is a guest blog by Travis Bickford, supervisory liaison specialist for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP).

Travis Bickford reading to students
Travis Bickford reading to students, Chicago, IL, 2013. Image courtesy of Travis Bickford.

Ten years ago, I read Tim O’Brien’s, “The Things They Carried.” Not for any burning desire; I had assigned it to a group of teenagers I was teaching from the south and west sides of Chicago for educational purposes. Can you keep a secret? I don’t find war literature as a genre appealing. This is probably not something I should broadcast considering my job title, but as O’Brien eloquently demonstrated throughout his novel, veterans are not a monolith. Plus, I’m allowed to have interests outside my work.

“The Things They Carried” exhibit
“The Things They Carried” exhibit, National Veterans Art Museum, Chicago, IL, 2013. Image courtesy of Travis Bickford.

Anyhow, the assignment was one of many educational activities linked to a grant that sought to support 11th and 12th grade high school students to participate with VHP. Each activity was interactive and designed to scaffold their historical, cultural and contextual knowledge about veterans and the wars they fought. In essence, this would enable the students to conduct more meaningful interviews by gaining a better understanding of their interviewees’ experiences. My plan was to read small sections from different parts of the book and identify a few relevant, teachable segments. The National Veterans Art Museum, located in Chicago, had a “The Things They Carried” exhibit – the ideal location to stage our book discussion.

Replica of the contents of a ruck sack
Replica of the contents of a ruck sack on display at the National Veterans Art Museum, 2013. Image courtesy of Travis Bickford.

Truth is, I read that first section and didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Like countless other veterans, there were elements of O’Brien’s story that spoke to my heart. And some that didn’t relate, either. However, he struck a perfect balance. Like O’Brien, I didn’t join the Army for any honorable or brave reasons. My enlistment stemmed from two ignoble facts—I needed to board a plane, and I couldn’t afford the ticket. I treated high school as if I had the privilege to blow off those four years.

Even before reading O’Brien’s novel, a common response when people asked why I joined was, “It’s not like Harvard was my other option.” Therefore, the irony that O’Brien got drafted a week after being accepted into a Ph.D. program at Harvard was not lost on me. And the undercurrent of fighting a war that violated both his ideological and philosophical values reverberated. My excitement to share all this was palpable. However, it was also tempered by the reality that asking a teenager to dropkick an anvil might’ve been an easier task than asking them to read a book outside of school.

Travis Bickford’s students reading
Travis Bickford’s students reading, “The Things They Carried,” Chicago, IL, 2013. Image courtesy of Travis Bickford.

I was wrong. Most of them had not only read the book, but showed up with dogeared pages and highlighted sections, rearing to discuss. That’s when I realized how special this novel was. It not only spoke to most veterans, but O’Brien’s prose and stories managed to connect with high school students and almost everybody who took it on. We sat in a circle encapsulated by an exhibit designed to bring the book alive and discussed. The students expressed how the book humanized veterans and war for them. How it changed their perspective of veterans and broadened their understanding that veterans—like with race, gender and other groups of people we classify—can’t be placed into a box. The best part was that I barely spoke. Notwithstanding all the excitement I came with that day, the students shut-me-up and initiated the conversation independent of their teacher. For anyone who’s ever taught, you know it doesn’t get any better.

Film poster for “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien,” 2021.

It’s 10 years later and I’m introducing one of O’Brien’s works to a group of people again. The stage has changed. Now I work directly for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, and it’s not a book we’re discussing, but rather his new documentary, “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien.” The film’s director, Aaron Matthews, will be on site with O’Brien to conduct a Q&A. The building is fancy, though I suspect the content won’t be. Let’s hope anyways.

Travis Bickford in uniform on a smoke break from training exercise
Travis Bickford in uniform on a smoke break from training exercise in Vermont, 2005. Image courtesy of Travis Bickford.

And now a message for Tim O’Brien:

Tim, as one 11B [infantryman] to another, there’s something I wish to say, but am hampered by this platform, which saddens me a little. Here’s a hint – it relates to a certain frowned upon habit we both share and get hounded for. You know, one of the things we carried and obviously still do. In reality, despite our greatest efforts, I’m not sure we’ll ever get civilians to understand why veterans do what we do after fighting our respective wars. An old Iroquois proverb says, “to never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.” Yet, it feels to me like we’re still being judged by so many who’ve never donned a pair of combat boots, let alone for a mile through a combat zone. This is why supporting each other and the vehicles that amplify our voices and let us control our narrative are so important, whether by writing novels, producing films or through programs like the Veterans History Project. I suppose all we can do is try and keep carrying on, brother.

Go here to read a previous blog post about the upcoming film screening of “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien” to be held at the Library of Congress on Thursday, May 11th from 5pm-8pm. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required, and there may be special restrictions. Click here to secure your ticket. Prior to the film, enjoy live music from Gold Star sister, Barbara Martin, and view a Vietnam-era exhibit in the Library’s Great Hall.

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