EAST GREENWICH—Junior english students from the Rocky Hill Country Day School opened an exhibit at the Varnum Armory last week as the culmination of an intensive research project aimed at recording the experiences of combat and non-combat military veterans. The project, titled “What They Still Carry: Experiences of War,” was carried out with the aim of encouraging dialogue between civil and military society by creating a better understanding of the effects that war can have on myriad aspects of the human experience.
“This project started with us reading the book ‘The Things We Carried’ by Tim O’Brien, and from there we went out of the class and we found interviews with veterans. We interviewed them at different locations, some at Rocky Hill, some at CCRI. From there we discussed with veterans their stories and their careers,” said Rocky Hill student Dylan Lehouiller. “It was really interesting to see from a veteran’s perspective, what they went through and how they coped with getting back into society. We see military stories through films and books and all that, but to actually sit down with a veteran and talk about all of their different experiences was eye-opening for us.”
Lehouiller and his classmate Dante Garcia interviewed Cranston veteran Denny Cosmo, who had his mother sign his paperwork to join the army when he was a high school junior, and went on to be among the first deployed to Iraq in 2003 and earned the much-coveted Ranger tab. Lehouiller and Garcia then converted photos of Cosmo in Iraq to high-contrast black and white images, and superimposed quotes from their interview over the visual elements to highlight key experiences.
Another pair of students, Alex Greim and George Gabro, interviewed Norman James. James served in Okinawa following the Korean War where he assisted with anti-aircraft guns and radio controllers. Like so many veterans, he did not come back to the United States the same as he was when he deployed.
“As a result of the war he became partially deaf, and while we were interviewing him we realized how hard that would be for any person. For me, it hit close to home because I am also deaf,” said Gabro. “We wanted to present how war is messy, and no one comes out as a real victor. One side wins and one side loses, but there are these tremendous losses.”
Not all war is invasions and artillery pieces, however, and other students explored the experience of veterans behind the scenes. Students Stefania Andreev and Valentina Sian interviewed Dottie DiLullo, who joined the Air Force in 1959 after developing a loving fascination with aircraft in her youth. Andreev and Sian made use of DiLullo’s extensive photographs and memories to create a semi-fictionalized scrapbook to tell her story.
“We decided to make a scrapbook because we were given a lot of images and pictures that we wanted to show the audience, and we wrote four short stories about the experience of war that we added,” Sian said. “It was something that I really didn’t know a lot about until I was able to have this connection.”
“It’s a collection of memories,” Andreev added. “That’s how we saw this. And each story is a kind of memory that Dottie shared with us.”
Other interviewees were marked by the sheer length of their service and the variety of their experiences and post-military careers. Students Parker Mason and Chase Schulte interviewed Kenneth Wilkinson, who is now an assistant professor of mathematics at the Community College of Rhode Island. Before teaching students the finer points of arithmetic, however, Wilkinson served for 38 years in the Marines, serving in numerous capacities and locations. Mason and Schulte built a miniature aircraft and decorated it with Wilkinson’s call number and MOS in honor of Wilkinson’s favorite training pastime: parachuting.
“He spent 38 years in the Marines. Over that time he was an artillery instructor, he trained off the coast of South Carolina and he was deployed in Iraq from 2003 to 2005,” said Schulte. “He went into buildings that Saddam Hussein used to live in. It was just fascinating to see the deterioration and what it was like after the invasion.”
The pair discussed how Wilkinson helped them to identify landmarks in Baghdad using Google Maps that he remembered from when he trained Iraqi police forces. They were struck by the dichotomous life of an active duty soldier, split between the experiences of waking up to daily mortar attacks and ennui filled by sending new recruits off on snipe hunts. Above all, though, they noted the importance of the military on Wilkinson’s development and family life.
“He has a lot of family ties to the military. His father served around the time of the Korean War and he met his wife while at the Navy base in Newport,” said Mason. “He told us so much that we did not know before. He’s a really great guy. He’s just a normal person who has this amazing story.”
What They Still Carry: Experiences of War, will be on display at the Varnum Armory through Jan. 30. The exhibition was inspired by two key texts: Tim O’Brien’s classic novel on the experience of war and its persistence in memory, “The Things They Carried,” and a New York Times piece written by Phil Klay, titled “After War, A Failure of the Imagination.” In their different ways, both texts advocate for a deepened effort to listen to and learn from the experiences of the soldiers who represent America in fraught situations the world over.
Founded in 1934, Rocky Hill Country Day School is an independent day school for grades preschool through 12. Located on 84 acres overlooking Narragansett Bay, the school focuses on innovative teaching and an interactive educational experience that prepares students to become leaders and life-long learners.