May 14, 2008 — Elliott D. Woods appreciates his opportunities.
He has survived a year of military service in Iraq, transferred to the University of Virginia, started two documentary film projects and now is graduating Phi Beta Kappa with an English degree.
"I try to never lose sight of my good fortune," he said.
The Gaithersburg, Md., native transferred as a second-year student to U.Va. following a military leave that included serving in Iraq with the Virginia National Guard.
"When I came home I decided it was time to get serious about school," said Woods, 27. "I wanted to go to the best school possible and was thrilled to have the opportunity to transfer to U.Va. I felt like I'd been given a new lease on life."
Woods is not leaving the military far behind, though. He is preparing "A Few Unforeseen Things," a documentary film about returning veterans. He felt compelled by his own good fortune to tell "our story" — that of 21st-century war veterans.
"Homecoming for me has been relatively painless in comparison to some of the guys I've interviewed and many of the people I've read about," he said. "I do not suffer from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and I do not have any lasting physical injuries. But I'm still stuck in between worlds. I'm still trying to reconcile the experience of mobilizing and becoming a full-time soldier at war with the experience of being a regular guy amongst other regular people.
"I don't think I'll ever successfully complete that reconciliation, and I'm not sure I want to."
Woods joined the National Guard in July 2001 in Richmond, where he was living at the time, to get assistance paying for college. His life changed when the al-Qaeda attacks came on Sept 11, 2001; he was in basic training by October and was told he would be deployed almost immediately upon completing training.
However, he was not mobilized until March 2004, when he was sent to Iraq as part of the 276th Engineering Battalion. His experience there included minesweeping, convoy escort and security fence construction. In his down time, he read the great books, including John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street," the works of Shakespeare, and Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha," among others, as well as books on history, religious history and any copy of the Atlantic Monthly he could find.
Woods' Iraq experience gave him great insight into the lives of the returning veterans, which illuminates his film.
"It has been both harder and easier because I was immersed in the story I'm trying to tell," he said. "It's harder because their pain is my pain, too, but it's easier because they grant me access to their emotions and problems to a level inaccessible by some Joe off the street."
Initially, his project focused on veterans from a specific Richmond platoon that had taken casualties. As he worked on that film, a second film project emerged, dealing with surviving families. His subjects trusted him to share their stories and their pain with the outside world in a constructive way.
"The hardest job has been talking to the parents of dead soldiers and Marines," he said. "But I know it's a story that has to be told and that I'm uniquely situated to tell it."
The second film's working title is "Love Runs Deep in the Country," taken from a statement by a surviving parent.
"He has an uncanny combination of rigor and compassion, of analytical acuity and poetic empathy," said English professor Jennifer A. Wicke, Woods' academic adviser. "This carries over to his sense of his responsibility to bear witness, to uncover the truth and to lead people toward healing — including the healing that can only be provided by a terrible knowledge."
Woods, who was drawn to literature because it allowed him to "live multiple lives," is also examining war through 20th-century authors, writing his distinguished major honors thesis on the literary representation of trauma, particularly psychological trauma, in 20th-century American war literature. He is using the works of John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien and Philip Caputo, among others.
"I think it's fair to say that my experience in Iraq influenced at least that aspect of my education," he said.
In Iraq, he learned firsthand about duty and honor among ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances.
"I learned a great deal about this country and the people who populate it from the guys I served with," he said. "More than anything else, I became determined. I came home with the knowledge that I have a tremendous wealth of opportunity, and I can't afford to take it for granted."
Woods still must finish his films, but he is already planning his next several moves.
"I'm trying to get back to Iraq as a reporter and continue to do there, and here, what I can't do in the military anymore: help troops and tell true stories," he said, noting that he plans to study Arabic in Egypt before being a journalist.
"He's among those few students one encounters who will visibly change the world we share," Wicke said.
He is not ready yet to write his own war novel, in part because it is harder to describe invisible psychological wounds, compared to physical wounds.
"It requires a lot of craft," he said. "I also don't have a vision yet of what my own scars are."