When Conner McCarthy returned home from the Navy after serving in war zones overseas, he planned to finish college.
But it was jolting at times.
“For me, it was kind of difficult not having a routine and not having buddies close by to talk to whenever you needed,” McCarthy said. “You are thrown back into an individualist life rather than having that community and companionship of the military.”
McCarthy, a graduate of Broken Arrow High School, completed his service in February 2017 as a petty officer 2nd class. He is paying his way for the first two years at Tulsa Community College then using the GI Bill to finish his bachelor’s degree with plans to be a firefighter.
As part of his TCC honors composition class, McCarthy has been involved in the Common Book Program, also known as the Public Good Reads. It encourages all TCC students to read the same book and take part in public lectures, discussions and other events around the book’s themes.
Organizers chose “Redeployment” by Iraq War veteran Phil Klay. It has received numerous honors including the 2014 National Book Award. The New Yorker called it the “best literary” work by a veteran of American’s modern wars.
The book contains 12 short stories from the frontlines of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, exploring themes of brutality, helplessness, faith, guilt, survival, trauma and adjustment. The war writing style is in stark language, heralded for its realism.
McCarthy wasn’t sure he could handle it.
“I warned both teachers assigning the book that it might be pretty difficult to read. If I get up and leave the classroom, it’s not anything to do with you. I would just be leaving so I won’t say or do anything I’d regret,” McCarthy said.
Even the book cover gave him pause: a soldier in battle fatigues waiting with his luggage in what appears to be an airport.
“It gave me this butterfly feeling in my gut that you sometimes get when rehashing memories,” he said. “I couldn’t even watch war movies when I got back.”
The first sentence hooked him: “We shot dogs.”
It’s a jarring opening line but rooted in war’s reality; dogs were feasting on human remains. Soldiers tasked to deal with that never forget.
Those are the normal things in combat zones that are hard to reconcile once home.
“When civilians read that, they are taken aback,” McCarthy said. “This book depicts war exactly how it is rather than sugarcoating it for readers. It gives it to you right in your face.”
Reading the book as a campus-wide initiative, McCarthy found himself able to talk about his combat experiences to civilians also participating in the program.
“After reading it, I’m seeing less ignorance and more questions,” McCarthy said. “Other students are coming up and asking about this chapter or story. I enjoy this book rather than people walking around blind. It gives us a base from which to look at war.”
TCC’s Public Good Reads program was created this year after an $81,000 grant was awarded from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Last month, Klay gave a free public lecture, and a film series is ongoing.
English professor Kara M. Ryan-Johnson is one of the co-directors (with liberal arts associate dean Cindy Shanks) who secured the funding. She said the book was chosen because it is politically neutral, aesthetically strong and shows a commitment to veteran students.
“We saw this as a courageous choice, relevant and needed,” Ryan-Johnson said. “It has riveted students. They have been more engaged, particularly male students. … Students want real-world content. This is a contemporary book about a contemporary issue. It’s relevant, and they have a hunger for that.”
TCC student and veteran Charles Moore, who fought in Operation Enduring Freedom, wrote a letter to Ryan-Johnson praising the choice.
“We read Shakespeare to have a better understanding of love and loss; we read fiction to stretch and challenge what the mind can imagine, and we read about war,” Moore wrote. “We read about war to try and understand the undefinable. An environment so wrapped in pain, fear and suffering that it sickens people even reading about it.
“A place where good men and women die in unimaginable numbers for reasons that could never justify the cost. It is the most primitive, savage and destructive environment man can summon into existence.”
Because war has historically been romanticized or normalized in today’s American culture, students who are veterans embrace the book’s authenticity.
“We must understand war as we understand ourselves, as knowledge is our only hope of avoiding future tragedies,” Moore wrote. “We stand to gain nothing by shielding young minds from reality, but we stand to lose everything. Ignorance of darkness doesn’t make it go away. It’s out there waiting regardless.”
More than 3,000 students are participating in the program, and McCarthy sees the difference.
“It has definitely helped with discussions in classes, and people are not afraid to ask questions. It’s given people a broader view on what’s really going on,” McCarthy said. “Whenever you don’t know things, you don’t know what to ask. This helps form that discussion.”
As a veteran, the book has a personal reassurance.
“It’s nice to know I’m not the only one experiencing these things,” McCarthy said. “For veterans, it’s a sigh of relief. People will know a little bit of what went on. I can now talk to new friends I’ve recently made about this, and they will actually respond rather than say something like, ‘I can’t ever imagine.’
“It has given me substance to speak to.”
McCarthy has a concern about the post-traumatic stress and high suicide rate among veterans. He hopes this book can bridge the divide between veterans and civilians.
“I’ve always thought if a veteran had just one person to talk to, listen and have a good conversation, that can help stop suicides,” McCarthy said. “A lot of veterans would like to have someone to talk to but don’t know how. If you know someone who is a veteran, whether in class or a workplace, sit down and have a conversation with them. Try and see how they are doing.”
TCC plans to continue the Public Good Reads program next year, with a consideration of titles related to the Tulsa Race Massacre.
“It is about sustaining a democracy and enriching the community,” Ryan-Johnson said. “We gave students through this program an opportunity to see the potential richness and value of a liberal arts education, which is at the core of American higher education.
“Employers want graduates who can think critically and communicate effectively. Our students came out of this with a deeper appreciation for what fiction can do for them in terms of personal and intellectual growth.”