Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #074. First published in the St. Cloud Times Sep. 24, 2013

On Sept. 11, I attended an event in St. Paul that marked the day of remembrance in a unique way.

With its “25 Veterans Voices Award” ceremony, the Minnesota Humanities Center (I serve on its board of directors) celebrated Minnesota veterans, ages 40 and younger, who have not only returned to civilian life but made exceptional contributions to their communities.

The center is aware of the formidable challenges facing many returning veterans and salutes all in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors who are providing the necessary and deserved aid and resources. At the ceremony, I sat next to people committed to encouraging veterans in the creation and sustaining of businesses.

But the center’s particular engagement with veterans is not direct service. Rather, in line with its stated mission to build a thoughtful, literate and engaged society through dialogue, education, and partnerships across the state, the center has chosen to honor Minnesota veterans and their experiences by bringing their knowledge, skills and values back to Minnesota, our communities and public life.

The Sept. 11 ceremony signaled the center is taking an unprecedented role in an effort that extends way beyond Minnesota.

In June, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences released a report, “The Heart of the Matter,” that had been requested by Congress.

It identifies three overarching goals: 1) to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills and understanding they will need to thrive in a 21st-century democracy; 2) to foster a society that is innovative, competitive and strong; and 3) to equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

You may be wondering: What do the humanities have to do with any of these goals?

To use terms in the Academy of Arts & Sciences report, the humanities educate, foster and equip, and in this increasingly diverse society, they do so primarily by encouraging us to become caretakers of one another’s stories.

What the humanities do cannot be distilled into bullet points.

The paradigm for the humanities is Socrates engaging in conversation — listening, probing, clarifying, revising, forestalling premature closure — in short, the examined and examining life.

This model impels us to find ways to help veterans tell their stories.

Central Minnesota ties

I was especially pleased to hear stories of two of the honorees at the ceremony who have ties to this area: Marine Sgt. Ryan Ross and Army SPC Phiengtavanh Savatdy.

Ross is a graduate of St. Cloud State University who lives in St. Joseph and volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Minnesota.

Savatdy is an officer of the St. Cloud National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. As Nancy Davis-Ortiz, Veterans’ Voices project officer, said in a Sept. 8 Times news report about Ross’s award, “Our hope is that these young veterans who are giving back will be role models and mentors for not just other military but people in general.”

The event, at which Gov. Mark Dayton presented the awards to Ross, Savatdy and 23 others, was set in the context of large numbers. Minnesota has deployed 60,000 men and women since Sept. 11, 2001, and more than 381,000 veterans live in Minnesota.

Veterans’ voices must be heard. When the Minnesota Humanities Center first presented its idea to veterans, the response was immediate.

They wanted to share their stories — not to elicit pity or even gratitude, but because what they know and how they know it can enrich life for everyone. And they don’t just know about battles and strategy. Their lives in the military are as varied and full as anybody’s life in any setting.

I suspect that for the 25 honorees, the emotion of receiving the award was surpassed when the emcee asked 99-year-old Joseph Medina, who served in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s 8th Army Corps in World War II, to stand — a veteran’s voice sounding, silently but eloquently, across 70 years.