USF Sarasota-Manatee instructor helps win NEH grant to set up institute

Dr. Eric Hodges.

Dr. Eric Hodges.

SARASOTA, Fla. (Aug. 19, 2015) – Doctors and therapists have written volumes about post-traumatic stress disorder, and countless TV commercials implore viewers daily to support veterans’ causes, but USF Sarasota-Manatee Instructor Dr. Eric Hodges says society and soldiers coming home can benefit from a healthy dose of the humanities as well.

Writers have captured the complex relationships and moral dilemmas aroused by war since Homer’s “Iliad,” and Dr. Hodges, a political science teacher, says it’s time to tap into that wealth of literature, art and philosophy over the centuries to broaden our understanding of soldiers’ experiences.

Apparently, the National Endowment for the Humanities thinks Dr. Hodges and two former colleagues from Virginia Tech University – Dr. Jim Dubinsky and Bruce Pencek – are onto something. The NEH recently awarded Virginia Tech professors Dubinsky and Pencek a $150,000 grant to develop a summer teaching institute around veterans’ issues. Dr. Hodges helped write the grant application and will serve as a master teacher for the institute.

The three-week institute, aimed at college and university professors who teach the humanities and liberal arts, will tackle veterans’ issues as seen by writers, artists, historians and philosophers throughout the ages, seeking to explore how literary and other works have informed, and in some cases misinformed, our understanding of veterans’ experiences.

Set for next July, the institute comes amid rapid growth in the number of Gulf War-era veterans. By 2030, half of all vets will be from the Gulf War-era, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Dr. Hodges, a Marine veteran, said the institute could be seen as contributing to the broader discussion about veterans’ issues, particularly following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said he wants teachers who take the course to come away with a better understanding of “the disconnect” between civilian and military life. For example, he said, there is a moral code in soldiers rarely observed in civilians and that soldiers can suffer “moral injuries” based on that code. Generations or art, literature and philosophy have sought to convey such themes.

Author Jonathan Shay, who uses classical works to counsel veterans, noted several examples of moral injury in his book “Achilles in Vietnam,” which compares soldiers of the “Iliad” with Vietnam vets suffering PTSD.

“The act of engaging in war itself can morally injure someone,” said Dr. Hodges, echoing one of Shay’s ideas.

The institute will include two weeks at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and a week in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress, among other places. Drs. Dubinsky and Pencek were Dr. Hodges’ dissertation advisors. The three started developing the idea for the institute a couple of years ago.

“We looked around and saw plenty of books about PTSD but not much with the humanities,” Dr. Hodges said.

In the long run, he said, he would like to see a field of study devoted to veterans’ issues, much the same way universities include African-American studies and women’s studies.

Todd Hughes, USFSM’s veterans’ services administrator, said that a course blending humanities and veterans’ issues could help those re-entering civilian life.

“A direct study like this is an amazing opportunity,” said Hughes, an Army veteran who fought in Iraq. “We are a separate community in a way, with a set of commonalities that unites us in a way only a fellow veteran can understand. If this was implemented, maybe it could help others understand us and help combat veterans transition home in a way never seen before.”