Dr. Eric Hodges received a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2021 to study the combat and homecoming experiences of Black military veterans. His research project had three themes: patriotism, racism in the military and homecoming.

He organized a series of discussion groups with 35 Vietnam-era veterans from Prince Edward County—many of whom had been locked out of the county’s public schools in the 1960s. One of his most striking findings was that these veterans did not view their military service as the most influential experience of their lives.

“For these guys, actually going through the school closings and the civil rights movement turned out to be more formative for them than their military experience,” Hodges said. “One guy told me that he had post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], but from what had happened in Prince Edward County—not what happened in Vietnam.”

Many of the participants in Hodges’ study spoke positively about their military experience and were proud of their service. They also said they experienced more racism outside the military than they did while serving. Many of the Vietnam veterans from Prince Edward did not return to the county once they were back in the U.S. “They went somewhere else because they didn’t feel welcome to come back,” Hodges said, adding that most of the participants still felt they had not been welcomed home. One veteran remarked that “a true homecoming would look like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

Hodges presented his findings at the Veterans in Society Conference at the University of South Carolina in March. He also hopes to write a book to honor the service of these veterans.

His focus on veterans’ reintegration is very personal. He served in the military and was in graduate school at the time the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were winding down. Veteran suicide rates skyrocketed, and he saw service members struggling with homelessness and mental health issues. Hodges noted the broader importance of the humanities in studying the veteran population, many of whom feel isolated and alienated. “It helps them understand they’re part of something bigger than themselves,” he said. “It gives them a framework of understanding and helps them to process and make meaning out of their experiences.”

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