Two years ago I had not heard of Brendan O’Byrne. Probably not many have, even though he’s appeared in an Academy Award-nominated documentary film. He’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan on the road to recovery from fighting and homecoming. Brendan spent six years in the army with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. His unit was stationed in the Korangal Valley, an area of fierce combat and the subject of Sebastian Junger’s documentary, Restrepo, in which Brendan plays a major role. He’s currently a student at UNH, but is planning to leave this spring for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. It’s hard to say goodbye to a man with a will as firm and reliable as a handshake and a palpable aura of bright creativity and common sense. It’s not possible to find words that fit the feeling of thanks we owe him for what he has done – not only for his country in this case, but for our state and for other veterans.
To us, Brendan has become famous for immersing himself in his role as book discussion facilitator in the veteran-centered group reading of Homer’s Odyssey. In phase one he co-facilitated a group in Portsmouth for 14 weeks. The veterans couldn’t stop. So the three facilitators, including classics professor Stephen Trzaskoma and Vietnam veteran Al Porsche, continued on, buying the books and facilitating for free so that the group could read The Iliad. Now Brendan and his team are leading a second group at the Portsmouth Public Library. But Brendan also has been a volunteer maximus. He has presented his powerful vision of "From Troy to Baghdad" on our capital campaign video; he was a panelist at the National Humanities Conference this fall in Boston. In Exeter he’s worked with social studies teacher and veteran Aaron Blais to prepare students for an oral history project interviewing veterans. He’s presented at New Hampshire donor cultivation parties, spoken at lyceums, been on at least three radio shows, and he never says no when we ask.
It’s fitting to end with Brendan’s own words, so in some way you will come to know why we will miss him so much:
"The learning between each other is unreal. For example, last night we talked about what a "hero" was. People had strong but flexible opinions; they heard each other; learned a new meaning of the word… you wouldn’t believe the conversations. About god and his role in the world. About life. About death. About hate, love, sadness, happiness. About the appropriateness of crying. About fate compared to a random universe…about the physical and mental journey home. "What is "home"? This is like riding the mind of humanity as we explore the questions we all think about deep in our hearts. These are the conversations the world needs to have."
[Photo credits: Brendan O'Byrne, top right, by Jack Mallory; bottom left, by Deb Cram]