In an auditorium filled with Park City High School students and community members, author Ryan Smithson spoke frankly as he recounted his experiences as an Army Reservist in the Iraq War. Smithson was selected by the Park City High School English Department to discuss his young adult book "Ghosts of War" with students. The event is a part of the Park City Education Foundation (PCEF) sponsored series.
Over the course of the summer, all high school students were required to read "Ghosts of War," a memoir following Smithson from the time he enlisted at the age of 17 through his tour in Iraq. While Smithson would readily admit he was not the standard image of what people think of as a soldier - not serving on the front lines of combat but rather as an Army engineer - he recounts his experiences being ambushed, handing out water to local villages and waking to the sounds of distant mortar fire.
"For me personally, the experience of writing this book was so therapeutic," Smithson said.
"For the kids who read it, I think it gives them a perspective they wouldn't have normally," he added, "especially kids who grew up with this war. They may not have friends or family overseas. The book is what it is, and that is my perspective. I've had a number of teenagers who have read it tell me how the book helped them, how they didn't realize what their father, mother, brother, sister, friend went through until they read it."
During community event hosted by the PCEF Wednesday night, Smithson signed copies of the book and spoke about his personal experience breaking into the world of publishing, a process that took hundreds of rejection letters and thick skin. But after several re-writes, he found a young adult publishing company that picked up "Ghosts of War."
"I loved the book," said Colin Hasik, a PCHS 10th grader who attended the lecture. " I will always remember the chapter involving a town he went to where he taught a small child a few words in English and the child gave him a (trinket.) He described it in a way where I realized that the child would remember the soldiers not for coming into the village destroying and killing, but for giving him Gatorade and handing out food.
"This war wasn't all about death and killing. He learned about another culture; he tried to help. A simple engineer can learn something about another country and never kill a single person."
Abby McNulty, the executive director of the PCEF, added to why the book was chosen for this year's Author-in-Residence program.
"I think the value of the program is that it is a uniting activity for every student in the high school," McNulty said. "Every student is reading the same book and he can relate to kids this age. He made these very difficult decisions at a young age and I think that speaks to these students."
Smithson said he was as honest as possible about the experience of being in a war, from the small moments where he bridged a language and culture gap to an ambush where an insurgent attacked the Humvees he and his unit were traveling in. It was only when he was home after spending a year in the desert that he started having night terrors, waking up in a cold sweat. It took him more than a year to write about his time in Iraq, but it was an instant release, he said.
"I wrote an essay about getting ambushed," Smithson said. "Immediately I felt this therapy in writing about it. The essay was for a college class and my professor said I have a serious story to tell and that I needed to keep going."
This week, Smithson went to Park City High School English classes to speak more with students about his experiences and the writing process.
"Not everyone will get the benefit of writing," he said, "but for me at least it was such a curative process, and one I do encourage. This taught me that you need to face your issues and try to learn something from it. Life is not always easy but you have to be able to drive on."