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Towson library’s Veterans Book Group keeps service members connected during crisis

Towson University librarian Jenn Woda is in many book clubs, but none quite like the Veterans Book Group.

She’s discussed science fiction and women’s stories with various groups, but after her eight years of active duty with the U.S. Navy and three years in the reserves just out of high school, the former aircraft engineer wanted to reconnect with others who had been in the service.

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“It’s almost like I’m from another planet when I talk about my military experience to individuals who weren’t in the military,” said Woda, who requested to use an abbreviated version of her last name.

When a Baltimore County Public Library system librarian suggested the Veterans Book Group at the Towson library branch, Woda found the camaraderie she had missed since serving overseas years before.

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“It’s kind of like a book group therapy,” she said, “because the things that we uncover are not only in ourselves, but in each other.”

Now in its sixth year, the free program was started by the nonprofit Maryland Humanities as a way to engage more with Maryland veterans, of which there are roughly 362,000, including 42,000 in Baltimore County, according to the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

The group began in Baltimore, St. Mary’s and Harford counties, and has since expanded to Howard and Prince George’s counties.

“This gives program participants an opportunity to reflect on their military service,” said Andrea Lewis, program officer at Maryland Humanities, which funds and creates educational programs in the humanities through grants and partnerships with local community organizations.

It’s also meant to provide a space for connection between those veterans who otherwise may not feel comfortable talking about their military service to loved ones who are civilians, said Karen Arnold, program facilitator and a former visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and numerous other institutions.

Arnold curates the reading syllabus and leads discussions at the Towson library, the Bel Air branch of the Harford County Public Library and the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel.

“The goal is to create a safe place and to build a sense of community so that people can talk out their experiences in terms of the text — or they don’t really have to talk about their experience,” the Columbia resident said.

In a year marked by social distancing edicts and a public health crisis, it was uncertain whether the Veterans Book Group would continue this year. But like many other social, in-person programs, the book group adapted to a virtual setting.

In normal years, the Towson library book group would meet once a month for five months to discuss five books, including memoirs (some from local authors), novels, poetry, news articles, short stories and essays, all military-themed.

Arnold likes to choose an array of books from diverse perspectives, like “Code Talker” by Chester Nez, one of the Navajo code talkers who during World War II devised coded language for U.S. Marine telecommunications never broken by the Axis powers.

She also looks for books not only looking “at war from the military perspective," she said, like “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” by Maryland author and journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, which tells the story of a young woman working in Kabul under Taliban rule, when women’s movements were highly restricted.

“I try to find a book that hits the human cost of war,” she said.

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For Eugene Ott, a Catonsville resident who was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam, some of the books that have stuck with him the most remind him of his father and grandfather, a World War II veteran and a Union soldier during the Civil War, respectively.

Reading the 1943 semi-autobiography “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith — one of the most popular books among American soldiers during World War II — Ott found the story was based in the same Brooklyn neighborhood from which his grandfather hailed.

The 72-year-old, who retired as a colonel in 2000 and served in the Military Police with the 9th Infantry Division, said sometimes the discussion takes the tone of a book review, “sometimes you reflect upon what you did in the service ... But other times you listen to the people tell their stories.”

His eyes were opened, for instance, to the experiences of women military members, like a group member who discussed her experience in the U.S. Navy in the 1990s.

“For me, that’s an entirely different perspective,” he said.

He and Woda miss the in-person discussion, though, catching up with group members and chatting about their families. The book group is mostly made up of returning members, they said — both Woda and Ott have been involved for years.

Still, amid the pandemic, the social interaction has been good, despite “Zoom fatigue,” Woda said.

The Towson book group wrapped up in August, but Arnold said she is asked routinely why the program can’t be longer. The answer is funding, she said.

“We need programs like this, and we need money for programs like this,” she said. “There is a definite aching need for this — I would underline the [words] ‘aching need.’”

The program is funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities, and complements some of the other work the county library is doing to serve veterans, said Julie Brophy, manager of adult and community engagement for the library.

Before coronavirus, all 19 library branches held a Veterans Comfort Item Drive, collecting personal care items for veterans at the Loch Raven VA Medical Center.

“We hope to do that again next year,” Brophy said in an email.

The library is also “currently working on scheduling some veterans-specific workforce programs with the Department of Labor,” she said.

Arnold is compiling a new reading list for when the Towson Veterans Book Group returns in the spring, although those who are interested in reading the current syllabus can view it online at www.mdhumanities.org/programs/veterans-book-group.

Those who wish to join the Towson book group next year should contact the library branch.

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