Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

Operation Homecoming, an Academy Award nominated documentary, explores the firsthand accounts of American troops through their written words, and offers a profound window into the human side of the war that was being fought in Iraq.

The film evolved out of a National Endowment for the Arts project that gathered the writing of soldiers and their families who have participated in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Interviews and dramatic readings by such actors as Robert Duvall, Josh Lucas, Beau Bridges, Blair Underwood, Justin Kirk, Aaron Eckhart, Chris Gorham and John Krasinski, transform selections from this collection of writing into a deep examination of the experiences of the men and women who are serving in America’s armed forces. At the same time the film provides depth and context to these experiences through a broader look at the universal themes of war literature.


The writing in Operation Homecoming covers the full spectrum – poetry, fiction, memoir, letters, journals, and essays. The stories recounted here are sad, funny, violent, and up-lifting. Yet each one displays an honesty and intensity that is rarely seen in explorations of war. Operation Homecoming aired on PBS, and a feature length version was released theatrically.

The television version of Operation Homecoming was first broadcast nationally as part of PBS’s America at a Crossroads series on April 16, 2007. A theatrical version has been screened at festivals and in theaters across the country.


The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary in 2007, and received the 2007 Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Music and Sound, as well as the Innovative Documentary Association's Special Jury Award. 

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The NEA’s Operation Homecoming initiative has collected more than sixteen hundred pieces of writing from service members and their families. The film takes a handful of this writing and brings the soldiers’ words to the screen using a variety of innovative filmmaking techniques that push the boundaries of traditional documentary. Some stories are told through archival news images of the war. Several use striking visual collages to accompany the words of a poem. A few move even farther a field using illustration or animated still photographs. In all cases the storytelling remains rooted in a reading of the writer’s original words.

Beyond these written words, the film finds a deeper understanding the experiences through interviews with the writers, now returned from the war zone but struggling to find meaning in the incredible extremes they lived through, as well as veterans of other conflicts who have become valuable contributors to the literature of war. Through conversations with established writers like Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, or James Salter, the film reveals that these are universal experiences for men and women in combat.


At the core of the writing in Operation Homecoming is an intense desire by all those who have served in war to come to terms with the experience. Throughout the film the soldiers, young and old, express a profound hope that people will listen to their stories and try to understand what the soldiers have witnessed. As with all of the great war writers, stretching back to The Iliad, the soldier-writers of Operation Homecoming are trying to find meaning in the chaos and brutality. The film is a deeply humanizing look at those who suffer the de-humanization of war.


The film was made possible through the generous support of The Boeing Company, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Independent Television Service. The published anthology of writing from the NEA’s Operation Homecoming was edited by historian Andrew Carroll and published by Random House. The film was made possible through the generous support of The Boeing Company, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Independent Television Service.