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Book club a place for veterans to open up

A local book club has been gathering regularly at Montpelier Arts Center.

Surrounded by paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures in the Arts Center’s main gallery, the Veterans Book Group can focus on war stories in a comfortable place where they can talk without being judged.

According to Andrea Lewis, a program officer for Maryland Humanities, which funds the group, some Maryland vets have said participating in the book club is the first time they’ve ever felt comfortable talking about their military experiences.

The program is presented in partnership with the Montpelier Arts Center, owned by Prince George’s County Parks and Recreation. The discussions are led by Karen Arnold, a former visiting professor at the U.S. Naval Academy,

Arnold describes the experience as a casual, social and intellectual meeting of the minds.

A Columbia resident, Arnold has also been the discussion facilitator for the Veterans Book Group at the Belair and Towson libraries for several years. The Montpelier Arts Center, she said, is working on building a strong core group in the book club’s second year in Laurel.

“People are very appreciative of the time they get to spend with other vets,” Arnold said. “As we talk about the texts, some share insight from their stories and experiences.”

According to Arnold, the texts are “grounded in a world that veterans are familiar with.” Several starter books were chosen from a syllabus provided by the Maine Humanities Council, which expanded its Literature and Medicine program for veterans to form the Veterans Book Group in 2015.

Maine Humanities Council program officer Jan Bindas-Tenney said 11 states partnered with the Council at that time. And 97 percent of Maine veterans who’ve participated say they would recommend the book club to others.

“Coming together to read and discuss literature is healing, but it isn’t clinical. It’s social; but it isn’t merely social,” Bindas-Tenney wrote in an email. “For the veterans of Maine, this program is a unique and important opportunity to connect deeply with fellow veterans.”

Lewis said it was coincidence that funds were available to fund the Veterans Book Group in Maryland at the same time the Maine Humanities Council “built the structure and offered up the opportunity for a veteran’s book club sponsored by Humanities money.”

The Maryland Veterans Book Group currently meets in Harford, Baltimore, St. Mary’s and Prince George’s counties.

The group is intentionally kept intimate, she said, with registration limited to 15-20 participants.

“There is camaraderie and cohesiveness that is built up over time,” Lewis said.

As a discussion facilitator, Arnold said she reads and chooses the literature and presents her suggestions to Lewis and Eden Etzel, of Maryland Humanities, and to the venues that host the meetings; they select the reading material together as a committee.

The books selected for the current session at the Montpelier Arts Center, which started in February, are:

Feb. 5 — Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” published 2014, a novel set during the first and second Chechnya Wars.

March 12 — Philip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War,” published 1977, an autobiography about the author’s service in the Vietnam War that became a television miniseries.

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