“Always Coming Home” Project Gives Female Veterans a Voice

In honor of Veteran’s Day we are highlighting films from the Always Coming Home project collection, a series of oral history interviews with female veterans. Cathy Brookshire, creator of the project and the documentary Soldier Girl, tells us a bit about how the project got started.

In 2010 the USC Classics in Contemporary Perspectives, a multi-disciplinary group of faculty and graduate students of which I was a member, was looking at Homer’s The Odyssey, and discussing the eerie similarities between the emotional and mental issues soldiers returning to the US were facing and those of Homer’s Odysseus.  Out of that discussion was born the idea of the 4 day Nostos Conference, an international conference held at USC in March, 2011.

Interviewee Susan Cusson

Hunter Gardner of the English Dept. and I offered to put together a “theatrical experience” for the Conference. I spent hours researching the subject of returning soldiers; listening to interviews, reading articles, and watching news stories.  One day, as I was listening to a lengthy interview with a male veteran, it suddenly occurred to me that out of all those voices, all those stories, all those articles, not one mentioned women veterans. Out of that peculiar silence was born the idea of giving women veterans a chance to talk about their experiences, to tell their stories.

We were profoundly lucky early on when James Henderson of the Media Arts program agreed to be our cameraman.  He has spent countless hours of near invisibility behind his camera as he and I interviewed one female veteran after another in Columbia, Charleston, and Beaufort, SC.

Interviewee Mary Rock

With the help of Lee Ann Kornegay, our film editor, Hunter and I created Soldier Girl, a 29 minute documentary structured to suggest the diverse motives of women entering the service, the experiences that these women have while deployed, and the opportunities and setbacks they face upon return to civilian life. Short interviews are interspersed with archival photos and film.  The film débuted at the Nostos Conference, and has since been screened by veterans groups, military mental health organizations, at numerous conferences, and was chosen for several screenings during the 2012 Indie Grits Film Festival.  Soldier Girl is available for viewing through MIRC.

 Always Coming Home: The American Female Veteran Experience was created shortly after the Conference as more and more women veterans contacted us asking to be interviewed.  What was once meant to be a short film is now a long term documentary project designed to acknowledge and give a public voice to women veterans whose return to civilian life has been affected by diverse combat and service situations but who have had little opportunity to share their experiences with the public.

In 2010 our project won a major grant from the Humanities Council SC and a University of South Carolina Promising Investigators Award, and, in 2012, a grant from the University of South Carolina Center for Digital Humanities. 

Interviewee Myra Reichert

Always Coming Home continues to videotape interviews with women veterans from all over the United States, all branches of service, who have served from WWII through today. Interviews generally run about 30 minutes, although some run longer than two hours. The interviews offer women veterans a time and place to reflect on their reasons for entering service, what life was like for them while serving, and how things have gone for them as veterans. Participating veterans share their experiences with the knowledge that their stories will be archived, preserved, and made available to the general public, filmmakers, researchers, historians, and mental and physical health personnel.  We have already collected close to 50 hours of interviews with female veterans, their families, and military mental health personnel. Interview transcripts are available for free at our website.

 In collaboration with the Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) at the University of South Carolina, we are digitally preserving the project’s full length interviews as well as related private and professional footage donated to the archive by the public.

“In hindsight I probably should have spoken out long, long ago. In my day, I was a pioneer simply because I was female…Today’s military woman is fully integrated into every aspect of the military, no longer unusual and serving combat roles. Yet, they are as much pioneers as we were since they are the first to transition [to] combat experiences that men have always dealt with. And their peer group to draw support from is much, much more restricted. I am genuinely pleased your project gives them a voice and proud to have contributed in some way.” Susan Jarvie, US Air Force 1976-1982 (March 26, 2010)

Currently, MIRC has made several of these interviews available for online viewing at our Digital Video Repository. We at MIRC would like to thank all the female vets who shared their stories, and Cathy Brookshire for all her hard work on the project and for contributing to this blog. For more information or to view other interviews in the collection, contact us at mirc@sc.edu.

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