For the Confused

I have begun to get hate mail from people confused about my identity.

A news story from February 28, 2014 (here is one example) indicated that “Philip Napoli from Fordham University” participated in or contributed to a “Federal Communications Commission plan to have government contractors question journalists about editorial decisions and practices.”

I teach at Brooklyn College — not Fordham. I had no involvement with that study, and have no connection to Fordham.

I work on 20th Century US social and public history, not communications policy.

My most recent book is about New York City’s Vietnam veterans.

To see my CV, click here.

The Lobotomy Files

I’m sick to my stomach. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal today:

“The U.S. government lobotomized roughly 2,000 mentally ill veterans—and likely hundreds more—during and after World War II, according to a cache of forgotten memos, letters and government reports unearthed by The Wall Street Journal. Besieged by psychologically damaged troops returning from the battlefields of North Africa, Europe and the Pacific, the Veterans Administration performed the brain-altering operation on former servicemen it diagnosed as depressives, psychotics and schizophrenics, and occasionally on people identified as homosexuals.”


CONVERSION: A German-American Chogeography

Funded through the Doppelpass-Program by the German Federal Cultural Foundation 2013–2015

The Search

In the course of our research work in Heidelberg regarding the closing of all US military installations in the city, we are looking for German and US citizens, who have any kind of connection to the presence of the American troops in Heidelberg between 1945 and 2013.

This connection may have been established through service in the US Forces, private or professional contacts, family members, friends or other encounters. Also we would like to get in contact with American and German military personnel or veterans who have served in Afghanistan in order to conduct an interview in or around their home or workplace.

The Project

After nearly 70 years of continuous presence in Heidelberg nearly 8.000 US soldiers and their families are leaving the city. This process marks the end of an era and has been the initial point of a two-year collaboration between the Hamburg based costa compagnie and the Theater and Orchestra Heidelberg.

Under the title CONVERSION the time of the U.S. military presence will be resear-
ched, analyzed and transformed into interdisciplinary performances. These will be staged at the former military installations as well as at the theater of Heidelberg itself. The current spatial conversion process within the city has created the initiating conceptual impulse for the project. The objective is to lay open the traces of this era, look into the stories of „the occupation force“ and „the occupied“, of neighbors and colleagues, of friends and fellows and approach the past 70 years of German-American history and partnership.

In the first year, we will follow the leads from Heidelberg back into the world and visit former US soldiers and their families in their hometowns in the United States.

There, we will collect individual stories and memories in form of interviews, as well as video footage and digital audio. This material will be the base for the artistic en devour.

In the second year of the project, research will take place in Afghanistan. The phase will focus on the local troop reduction of the allied German and American forces in 2014. The aim is to analyze current forms of military presence abroad and to look into an example for the development of the German-American relationship within the past 70 years.

Relevant overall questions along the phases are: How do Americans relate to the city of Heidelberg and their former posts? How has the German-American relationship developed in the past 70 years? Which traces does a military presence leave behind on both sides? Where do world politics meet everyday stories?

In July 2014, the first premiere will take place at a former US military installation in Heidelberg. In May 2015 a second large work is shown at the two main stages of the theater. The basis of the project will be formed by the two research trips, which are being accompanied by laboratories and workshops in Heidelberg. The collected material is also displayed to the public in form of lecture performances, an audio-walk through the barracks and academic symposia.

Who we are

The costa compagnie was founded in Hamburg in 2009 and consists of members from the areas of directing, choreography, music, performance, visual arts, video and drama. The independent group focuses on global transformation processes as well as on the individual facing disaster. In their recent work

“Fukushima, my love,” the group researched in Japan, collected many personal interviews and transformed the results into a dance-performance in Hamburg with subsequent shows in other national theaters.

The Theater and Orchestra Heidelberg was founded in the mid-19th century and celebrated its re-opening after three years of renovation and construction in November 2012. The house includes autonomous sections of opera, drama, dance, children’s theater and an own philharmonic orchestra. It stands for high-class ensembles, continuous support for contemporary authors and a keen interest in modern theater and opera forms.

For further information please visit: and


Felix Meyer-Christian / Director
Phone: +49.152.5364.2837

Stawrula Panagiotaki / Literary Adviser
Phone: +49.177.972.2379

Stawrula Panagiotaki / Literary Adviser
Phone: +49.177.972.2379

Interview with Joseph Giannini

Phyllis Italiano conducts an interview with Vietnam veteran Joseph Giannini on her program “The Democratic View.” The shows air on local East Hampton NY cable access channel 20 on Mondays at 9 am, Wednesdays at 8pm, Fridays at 4pm, and Saturdays at 10pm.

I tell Joe’s story in chapter 4 of my book Brining It All Back Home.

He mentions the Brooklyn Historical Society show I co-curated in 2007-2011.

Ed Blanco’s 1966 Birthday

Vietnam veteran Ed Blanco has placed a short video of his 1966 birthday party on YouTube. It is a wonderful visual reminder of the fashions of the mid-1960s.

In 1967, when Blanco was 19, he volunteered to be drafted.  He served with the 3rd 506 battalion of the 101st Airborne, and arrived in Vietnam in October 1967. Wounded by a grenade in March of 1968, he went back to duty after 40 days and volunteered to work with MACV.

I tell a portion of Ed’s story on pages 14-18 of my book Bringing It All Back Home.

Missing Airman Accounted For

Airman Missing from Vietnam War Accounted For

Published December 09, 2013 (by the US Air Force)

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO, announced today that the remains of an Airman, missing from the Vietnam War, have been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors.

Col. Francis J. McGouldrick Jr. of New Haven, Conn., will be buried Dec. 13, at Arlington National Cemetery. On Dec. 13, 1968, McGouldrick was on a night strike mission when his B-57E Canberra aircraft collided with another aircraft over Savannakhet Province, Laos.  McGouldrick was never seen again and was listed as missing in action.

Today there are 1,644 American service members that are still unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War.

Oral History in Museums Under Attack

Rob Perks, Oral History Curator/Director of National Life Stories at the British Museum in London has written a commentary for the British publication Museums Journal, entitled “Oral history in museums is under attack.”

In it he notes that the Museum of London has eliminated the post of oral history curator, at the same time that other institutions throughout Great Britain are doing similar things. Now, he asserts, no museum in the UK currently has an oral history curator. He attributes this to tightened museum budgets eliminating “extraneous” posts and reducing outreach efforts. “Or worse,” he says, to the idea that “that all modern curators are oral historians (they are not). Or that oral history has been subsumed within the new field of “digital” curation (it has not).”

It is certainly true that digital technologies have made sharing oral histories easier than ever before. Presently there is a lively discussion on H-OralHist about best practices for online distribution of oral histories. The ubiquity and ease of use of YouTube as an audio distribution platform makes posting oral history clips a breeze. I have done this here, on this site.

But surely it is shortsighted to believe, as museums throughout the UK seem to hold, that anyone can do oral history, whether or not they have training. Interviewing is a skill. It can be taught, but it cannot be assumed. Indeed, this lies at the root of my personal distrust of some of the interviews collected for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress and StoryCorps. Put baldly, many of those oral histories are poorly done. Interviewers, however well-intentioned, commonly squander the opportunities they are presented with. and they don’t necessarily see the challenges inherent in the work.

To give but one example, presently I am interviewing a nurse who served in Vietnam. (For the time being I will withhold her name until the interview is complete.) Now, in my personal opinion, Vietnam nurses, and probably all trauma nurses, have exceptionally difficult jobs. The evidence gathered in this interview to date would tend to justify this claim.  I’ve heard stories about treating civilian casualties, about grief, suffering, and more.

In this instance, the interviewee and I have taken pains to try to mitigate some of the emotional difficulty caused by revisiting wounds – – physical and emotional – – that are 40+ years old. We have tended to keep our interviews about an hour long, consciously taking breaks, and working to decompress when the interview was complete. This is because oral history, when done in depth with the intention of producing a public document of historic value, moves beyond the superficial “life script.” It tries to access subjective truths about the past. This is hard, hard work, for both the interviewee and the interviewer. Someone pointed out to me long ago that oral history done at this depth begins to resemble a quasi-therapeutic relationship. The result, we both hope, will be the production of a document that will have value to researchers in a range of different fields with different research agendas, in years to come.

In order to produce a document of this kind you have to have a willing interviewee, along with a historically informed, well-prepared interviewer.

Interview preparation requires reading in secondary sources, and interpersonal skills training. Oral history as practiced in museums, in the Veterans History Project, and in StoryCorps should take these requirements seriously. Perks is right, not all curators are oral historians.

Military families bear invisible burdens

Their communities are often fractured, their concerns invisible, their lives misunderstood.

With the advent of the all volunteer military in 1974, the general American public is no longer forced to deal with the realities of military service. Today, less than .5% of the United States population serves in the armed forces. Writing in the New York Times Karl Eikenberry and David Kennedy today’s Armed Forces as  described as “a maximally powerful force operating with a minimum of citizen engagement and comprehension.”[1]

Since large numbers of American troops have begun cycling home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public has become increasingly aware of the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, along with the other injuries which wartime military service can bring, including burns and traumatic amputations and more.

Recent news stories have emphasized also the pain of returning soldiers dealing with wartime events, as manifest in the tragic suicide rate among American service personnel. Recently, David Finkel’s book Thank You For Your Service brought novelistic skill and reportorial accuracy to this story, as he chronicled the struggles of Adam Schumann and his wife dealing with what it means to return from war. Despite good books like this, military families have received much less attention from writers and journalists than they should.

However, they are beginning to attract the attention of clinicians, social workers and others in the helping professions.

Yesterday, at the Red Cross headquarters in midtown Manhattan, the Mental Health Association of New York City’s Veterans Mental Health Coalition held a panel discussion for clinicians and the general public about the realities faced by America’s military families. Presenters included a representative from the James J. Peters Veterans Administration Medical Center in the Bronx, the Military Family Clinic at the New York University Langone Medical Center, therapist Judith Kellner, and individuals representing military families living in the New York city region.

The most powerful segment of the presentation came from individual stories presented by military family members. Katie explained what it was like to be seven months pregnant and learn that her deployed husband had TBI and had been medically evacuated to Germany. This brought about changes in him, their relationship, and each parent’s relationship to their children. Katie is a veteran also.

Elizabeth, representing the Bronx Veterans Administration family services program, described local Veterans Administration services available to members of military families. Family referrals at the Bronx VA peaked in 2010, with 174 families engaged in therapeutic work there. Between 2007 and 2013 some 740 families have moved in and out of Bronx VA family services programs. Often, Elizabeth indicated, individuals will come for family counseling, and stay connected to other programs within the institution.

The New York University Military Family Clinic’s motto is “healing happens in communities.” They provide comprehensive family assistance, including legal, financial, discharge upgrade, and other kinds of aid. The clinic has adopted a flexible approach, adding services when needed and directing individuals to other service providers and community partnerships when necessary. The principal thrust of the military family clinic is psychoeducational, an effort to persuade veterans and their families to be mindful of themselves and their own needs. They provide this service pro bono, and have striven to limit necessary paperwork they will assist any veteran from any service, discharge status doesn’t matter and will even try to help with the cost of transportation, if necessary.

Therapist Judith Kellner modeled her emotionally focused therapy program with one veteran and they described the process and its benefits. Emotionally focused therapy is an effort to do the opposite things soldiers of been trained to do in order to survive. In the military they need to remain cool, distanced, and focused on the mission. In intimate relationships in civilian life they must make strong bonds and connections.
The punchline to the panel presentation is that when soldiers deploy, change happens inside of families, and often they need support, too.

[1] Karl W. Eikenberry and David M. Kennedy, “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” New York Times, 26 May, 2013 (, accessed Dec. 5, 2013).

New York Veteran History Series: Women Warriors

Saturday, December 7, 2013, 4 – 6 p.m.
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (42nd and 5th Ave.)
South Court Auditorium


Women veterans tell their own stories.

In January 2013 Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the longstanding official ban on women serving in combat roles would be lifted.  Dating back to the American Revolutionary War women have served in the military in various capacities – officially in auxiliary roles, but many de facto direct combat roles as well.

Join us for a panel of NYC women veterans who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as they discuss their own experiences of American military service.

This event is produced in collaboration with Women Veterans and Families Network.  The panel will be moderated by Meg McLagan, director of the film Lioness.

The following women will be panelists for this discussion:
Nicole Goodwin enlisted in the US Army in 2001-2004. She was deployed to Iraq in July 2003 for 5 1/2 months.  When Nicole returned to the Bronx, she was one of the first homeless veterans of the Iraq War and was featured in the documentary When I Came Home, as well as many news programs. She lives in New York City where she is raising her daughter and writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction. She also graduated college in 2011 with a BA in English (Creative Writing) and Anthropology.
Teresa Fazio grew up in White Plains, New York.  She served as a Marine Corps communications officer from 2002 – 2006, deploying once to Iraq.  She is writing a memoir about a deployment relationship and its aftermath.  Teresa has published her work in the New York Times’ At War Blog and read her writing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.  She lives and works in New York City.
Rebekah Havrilla is a former Army Sergeant and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) Technician serving on active duty from 2004 – 2008 and in the Army Reserves from 2008 – 2010.  She was deployed to Afghanistan in 2006-2007.  Rebekah is currently working towards a Master’s Degree in International Affairs with a concentration in Media and Culture from The New School in New York City.
RaeAnne Pae recently transitioned from the U.S. Army as a Captain, having served seven years on Active Duty.  She is currently working as the Board Event Manager in the Marketing Division at NYSE Euronext.  RaeAnne deployed to Talil, Iraq in 2007 as a company Executive Officer with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team.  While there she managed logistics and operations for her unit to conduct intelligence operations across southern Iraq.  In 2010 she deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan as the unit intelligence officer for 2/17 Air Cavalry Squadron of the 101st Airborne Division.