Letters Of War From Student Soldiers

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Elizabeth Samet teaches English at the United States Military Academy at West Point. In the March 25 issue of The New Republic magazine, she writes about the correspondence she maintains with some of her former students after they are deployed to war zones. She reads some of those letters for host Scott Simon.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

In our times, soldiers can send emails from hell, or Afghanistan and Iraq. They reach out to their families, old friends, old prom dates, and favorite teachers.

Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She teaches classes that use literature to help cadets explore human history and human feeling - from Dante's "Inferno" to "The Maltese Falcon." Often these conversations continue by email after her students become officers and are deployed to Mosul, Herat and Kandahar.

And then, she says, one day she realizes that her last email hasn't been answered. She fears the worst and looks for his or her name on the casualty lists and sometimes she learns the worst - that a young man or woman who she had helped sort through the challenges of life through literature have died in real life.

Elizabeth Samet, who wrote the prize-winning "Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature through Peace and War at West Point," joins us from our studios in New York.

Elizabeth, thanks for being back with us.

Professor ELIZABETH SAMET (West Point): Thank you.

SIMON: What do your students write to you about?

Prof. SAMET: Well, depending on the most recent event, sometimes they write simply to let off steam or reminisce. They're often concerned about what cadets are doing while they're off in Afghanistan or Iraq. Lately, unfortunately, some of my correspondence has been from friends and peers of a former student who died in Afghanistan.

SIMON: This is Captain Daniel P. Whitten.

Prof. SAMET: Yes.

SIMON: You wrote about your friendship with Captain Whitten in the New Republic in March. He was in the 82nd Airborne and died, along with First Class Zachary Lovejoy, who was one of his paratroopers.

Prof. SAMET: When I received that news, I immediately thought of one of the lieutenants who worked for Dan, who was also a former student. And I knew that Dan had taken great care with the lieutenant, as he did with all of the soldiers he commanded. And so I reached out to this lieutenant, wrote him a note.

And then also I, just by coincidence, happened to know some of the other soldiers who were serving with Dan in Afghanistan.

SIMON: Can you tell us what they've said?

Prof. SAMET: Well, the lieutenant wrote back soon after and displayed what I think is a soldier's necessary stoic response to desperate news while he was still serving, while he still had to carry on with his job.

And so he replied: Yeah, it's not good news. I really did like him. You're right. I think I maybe learned more about leadership during my brief few months serving under him than any other period of my life. It certainly was unexpected and we all took a big gulp when we heard it all happen on the radio. We gulped for him, the company, his family and the implications of his death upon on our own situation. I think the company is going to be all right. We are trying, he signed off, to keep busy.

SIMON: Elizabeth, can you talk about Captain Whitten?

Prof. SAMET: Sure. He was a remarkable student. Fearless intellectually, with a great sense of humor, so that when anyone ever received a correction from him or a challenge, it was always delivered in such a way that you could never take offense and you often stopped in your tracks and though, yeah, what about that. I haven't really considered that. And so I think he was a great favorite both with his teachers and with his peers.

SIMON: What did you guys write about, you and Dan Whitten?

Prof. SAMET: We used to write about all sorts of things. We used to write about maybe the book he was reading or about the last mission he had been on. Just sometimes the mundane, the everyday, and sometime the more profound. And I got the sense that it really didn't matter. It's the idea that the lines of communication are open that was really important.

SIMON: This really is a new age where soldiers go out on missions and deal with death among the people who are closest to them and come back and send an email home.

Prof. SAMET: It's a remarkable sort of almost real-time experience. And I have gotten several letters written by former students who have just suffered a loss or a near miss. And it's really quite remarkable what they know they're able to deal with at the time and what they know they'll have to deal with later.

I'd like to read you one...

SIMON: Yeah, please.

Prof. SAMET: ...that I received from a pilot in response to the loss of one of his fellow pilots.

And he wrote: Our troop lost one of our most experienced pilots, as well as my personal mentor and friend. He was shot in the leg - the round hit the femoral artery - while conducting a low level recon flight. The initial shock has worn off.

It's very difficult to describe the emotions that accompany that kind of loss. I suppose it's akin to losing a family member, but having experienced that as well, I think that the loss of a comrade - someone with whom you have faced danger and death only to laugh about it later - can be even more devastating.

Despite this loss, everyone seems to be holding up pretty well. We've really closed our ranks and developed a new resolve to accomplish this mission and bring everyone else home.

SIMON: In your conversations with some of your former students, of course have become officers and are deployed into war zones, do you find that you sometimes carry on conversations that you might've begun three or four years ago?

Prof. SAMET: Absolutely. And the remarkable thing that happens is that there can be long silences, even of months, sometimes of years, and because of email, because of that archive, you just hit reply and the conversation resumes once again, sometimes with a discussion of what's happened in the interim, sometimes just picking right up where it left off. And so that is an interesting kind of dynamic.

I think the conversations during deployments are more frequent, those exchanges. Even though everyone's busier, I think there is an interesting connection to home and to sort of getting that perspective.

SIMON: They feel more of a need to write, reach out?

Prof. SAMET: Perhaps. Perhaps it's the strangeness of the world in which they find themselves, and perhaps it's nice to have a kind of sounding board.

SIMON: It just occurred to me as the words escape my mouth, Elizabeth, when I said feel a need to write, I guess the implication was to write to you. But I wonder, do they feel also a need to write, to reflect within themselves in a way that writing sometimes is the best way to promote?

Prof. SAMET: I think they do. I had another email from a lieutenant who had just had a near miss with an IED a few days before, and he called the IED his muse. He said - he was talking about his understanding of humanity. And he said right now I only wish for words to describe it. Maybe some day I will have the time to sit and write something about it. My latest muse, though, was the IED a couple of days ago that almost killed me and maybe some of my soldiers. All is well, but that kind of thing sure makes you ponder.

SIMON: Elizabeth, thanks so much.

Prof. SAMET: Thank you for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Elizabeth Samet, professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and author of the book "Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point.

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