On October 3, 2009, more than 300 Taliban fighters overran Combat Outpost Keating, the outpost held by my reconnaissance troop of seventy-six cavalry scouts. During the eighteen-hour battle, the Taliban killed eight soldiers, wounded nineteen more, and burned our base to the ground. Describing my unit’s mission, President Obama asserted we had to “defend the indefensible.” This was the longest day of my life, but it only prefaced a struggle that has lasted for years.

As the company commander, I found my mission after the battle difficult: reconstitute my company in the midst of combat. I knew the Army systems to replace personnel and supplies, but I was unclear about how to help my soldiers grieve the loss of comrades or endure posttraumatic stress. I remember thinking to myself, in the face of seven more months of combat, “How do I repair a unit that seems more broken than whole?”

My soldiers and I searched for solace, but no one outside the troop could relate to our deep sense of pain. The healing came over time from discussions within the unit and, more surprisingly, from the experiences captured in literature. It wasn’t long before characters from the books I had read entered my conversations with soldiers to reveal deeper truths about how we felt and who we were. There was the lieutenant whose experiences during the battle reminded me of the ambush scene in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which caused a throat-clearing catharsis as I reread it aloud. There was the sergeant who seemed like Meursault, from Albert Camus’s The Stranger, because he felt it so absurd that his friends died in what he referred to as a “pointless war.” And then there was me, who was certain that war poetry captured our collective loss in ways that no eulogy ever could.

Over time, the process of talking, writing, and finding common experiences in literature helped me put my emotions into words. I shared our stories in the letters I wrote to the families of the fallen, in the two nominations for my soldiers who would go on to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, and during interviews with journalists and authors. It was through the process of storytelling that I started down a path to understand how the arts and humanities provide insights and reflect truths that may otherwise be out of reach.

My experiences in Afghanistan inspired me to pursue a life where I can better understand how literature gives voice to the human condition during times of trauma and then use that knowledge to enable others to do the same. While in combat, I applied for a position to return to West Point as an instructor in the department of English and philosophy. In each class, I integrated a pedagogical approach that used literature to clarify, and sometimes complicate, my students’ understanding of the world. I encouraged them to think critically about their own values and identities so they might better understand themselves and those around them. I knew that many of my students understandably lacked the critical experience that would make them the knowledgeable, mature, and compassionate leaders we all want them to become. But, I also knew from my own experiences after the battle at Combat Outpost Keating that reading widely and deeply could provide important insights to guide them during times of adversity and trauma.

In 2018, I was selected for a program to complete my Ph.D. and return to West Point as an assistant professor. As a graduate student at Duke, I may not wear my uniform very often, but every day I think about the circumstances that brought me here.

In a recent article, novelist Kate McQuade articulated the power and influence of literature when she wrote, “Literature is neither contagion of nor inoculation against trauma. Literature is practice. I want [my students] to practice seeing historical gaps—the oppressed silence of untold stories—and bridging them.” I agree with McQuade, but I also take it one step further: Literature questions, and illuminates, and heals. And had I not found it as a refuge more than ten years ago, I’m not sure I would have ever truly returned home from war.


Portis, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, is working toward his Ph.D. in English at Duke.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor