LAWRENCE: Veterans, civilians share thoughts at library event

Lawrence public library hosted New Jersey’s first-ever Veteran-Civilian Dialogue on July 3. Veterans and civilians came together to share their experiences and world views in what Manager

By Payal Marathe, Packet Media Group
   Lawrence public library hosted New Jersey’s first-ever Veteran-Civilian Dialogue on July 3.
   Veterans and civilians came together to share their experiences and world views in what Manager Rebecca Summers called a “safe, sacred space.”
   The purpose of the dialogue, Ms. Summers added, is to foster a comfortable environment so veterans and civilians can discover the commonalities that exist between their two groups.
   Intersections International developed the Veteran-Civilian Dialogue in 2008 in New York City, and the discussion series has since spread to other communities.Facilitator Kathy O’Leary, one of the people responsible for bringing the dialogue to the Lawrence area, said participating in the program over the past two years has showed her how valuable these conversations can be for veterans and civilians alike.
   She explained that the discussion series is beneficial to veterans who struggle with their identity and with making people understand what it is like to serve in the Army.
   At a meeting she attended a few months ago, Ms. O’Leary heard from a veteran who had recently returned from Afghanistan. She said she was “touched” when he said he wished he had come directly from the airport to a VC Dialogue.
   Civilians also get a lot out of participating in a dialogue, namely that they develop a “better appreciation for how people’s lives are affected by war,” Ms. O’Leary added.
   Ms. Summers agreed that the VC Dialogue has a significant impact on participants.
   Though each event is slightly different, she said the discussion always facilitates terrific interaction between veterans and civilians.
   Perhaps even more importantly, the effect of the VC Dialogue is lasting, and it sparks the process of building a community based on commonalities, Ms. Summers added.
   ”The conversations don’t stop at the end of the meeting – by that point, people have gone to some really deep places,” she said.
   According to Ms. O’Leary, the structure of the VC Dialogue helps people open up so everyone can walk away both more knowledgeable and more sensitive.Maintaining a safe environment is crucial for a successful event, she said, since only in an atmosphere free of judgment are people truly able to express themselves.
   ”We really want people to have the experience of being heard, because I believe that being listened to and heard by someone else can be a very powerful and healing experience,” Ms. O’Leary said.
   To create an environment conducive to dialogue, the event began with a few ice breakers.
   In one exercise, a vertical pole was positioned in the center of the circle. Participants were asked to stand close to or far away from the pole depending on how connected they feel to veterans.
   One woman, who stood close to the pole without touching it, said she is well aware of veterans living in this community, but feels there is a lack of communication between civilians and those who have been in combat.
   A man who stood far away from the pole said he had been active in anti-war demonstrations, and only joined the Army during the Vietnam War to avoid going to prison. He said he had trouble reconciling his feelings about being a veteran.
   Poet Alicia Ostriker also performed a spoken word piece as a part of the ice breakers.
   ”We incorporate artistic expression into the VC Dialogue because sometimes people communicate better through an art form,” Ms. Summers said.
   Following these activities, attendees separated into five small groups for what Ms. O’Leary called the “heart” of the meeting. Breaking down into smaller circles allows everyone to speak and be heard, Ms. O’Leary said.
   VC Dialogues typically last between two and three hours.
   Given that this event is a “great opportunity” for people to talk, listen, learn and grow, Ms. O’Leary said she hopes to organize more local dialogues in the future, depending on interest from veterans and civilians in the area.