When editor Andrew Carroll first read Ryan Alexander's "The Cat," the startling imagery of the former Marine's poem took his breath away. After all, troops aren't known for readily sharing their innermost feelings — certainly not with a wide audience.
Carroll compiled a collection called Operation Homecoming, writings from those who've been to Iraq or Afghanistan, and the families back home. The book is part of a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
"I never expected what Ryan wrote ...." Carroll tells Renee Montagne as part of a series of conversations on war and literature.
"You have this very stoic culture in the armed forces, where they're not encouraged to and there isn't a lot of expressing oneself," Carroll says. "You do what you're told, essentially, and there aren't a lot of opportunities to say, 'Here's how I feel about that.'"
For Alexander, "The Cat," about a pregnant feline that adopted him, came out of his experience while stationed in Mosul, Iraq, his barracks under frequent mortar fire.
"The thought of my own mortality was pretty heavy on my mind," he says.
Carroll says that for those who have been to war, writing can be a cathartic experience.
"I think for so many veterans — and I've gotten to talk to troops going back to World War II and to Korea and Vietnam — it takes them years, decades even, to go back and look at their old letters and to confront what they've been through because the memories are so painful for some of them.
"But I think that they realize the cathartic value of getting these emotions out, putting them on paper, sharing them with others. And that's what encouraged so many troops to share these materials."