Creative writing program helps Veterans with PTSD

Readings bring tears, standing ovations


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They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. Sometimes a thousand words can help a person with PTSD regain their humanity and begin to heal.

That’s the view of Dr. Bruce Kelly, assistant chief of Primary Care and lead for the Creative Writing Program at the Charles George VA Medical Center.

Dr. Bruce Kelly

“Writing programs for Veterans have existed since the Second World War to help them make sense of their military experience. It’s a way to honor the voice inside wanting to be heard,” Kelly said. “Writing about the experiences of combat and its impact helps organize what’s banging around inside. It can with time soften the grip that holds power over those who’ve seen the horrors of war.”

To help Veterans who’ve suffered from PTSD for 50 years, Kelly, along with former North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti, professor at Appalachian State University, began planning a creative writing program back in 2014. They both keenly felt the unmet moral obligation we as a nation have to this cohort of veterans.

“Veterans told me they were reluctant to bring the war back up,” Kelly added, “that creative writing seemed like a ‘cockamamie idea,’ that they couldn’t write, had trouble spelling, bad experiences with groups and more. But they gradually spoke about the wounds that haunted them and were often ready to try anything that might help.”

The Veterans pictured above were the first to participate in the creative writing sessions.

Picked up their pencils and began to write

Kelly said he, Bathanti and the Veterans were all nervous when they met for the first time.

“It was something new and untried for all of us,” he said. “As their physician, I was maybe more uneasy than any, knowing how hard they worked to control what haunted them. They were understandably anxious about the writing and opening up in deeply personal ways to a group of strangers.”

Kelly said that after handing the first session over to Bathanti he went to the back of the class to watch the men’s expressions and body language. He was ready for anything, including some walking out.

A film writer couldn’t have scripted what he saw next.

When they were asked to begin writing, in unison they picked up their pencils, put their heads down, opened their notebooks and began to write without a moment’s hesitation.

My family understands me now

When asked how the program has helped them, one Veteran wrote that, “My relationships with my family have improved since they’ve heard my writings. They understand me better now, and I better understand my moral injury. I’ve connected with Veterans who share my experiences and built new friendships. I’ve been able to express thoughts and feelings held in for 50 long years.”

Eighteen of the Veterans agreed to participate in a staged reading at Asheville Community Theatre titled “Brothers Like These.” They performed later that year at Appalachian State to a standing-room-only crowd of students and teachers. The full staged reading has now been performed at eight locations across North Carolina.

On each occasion the audience was deeply touched, many in tears, but always leaving with a new understanding and respect for all who served in combat. The men felt honored, empowered and found a voice they didn’t know they had.

The standing ovations they received provide some sense of the long overdue welcome home they were denied by a country deeply divided on their return.

Bathanti says that in 41 years he’s never seen writing transform lives so deeply. He and Dr. Kelly often refer to it as the “Church of Classroom B” (where they meet), due to the work of the soul and deep collective reverence they’ve witnessed there.

A writing program for women Veterans began last fall with a second group planned for the spring.

Read the full-length story here.


Vance Janes is the public affairs officer for the Charles George VA Medical Center. Dr. Bruce Kelly contributed to this story.

Author

VAntage Point

Comments

  1. Albert (Al) Shaff    

    I am a retired Creative Writing teacher with much experience at teaching in high schools and colleges (including University
    of Maryland in Germany. I’m also a veteran who receives care at the VA center in Austin, Texas. How do I get in contact with someone to volunteer my skills and experiences to veterans who might need this marvelous form of telling their stories?

    I also was part of a group recovery program at the center near Austin until I needed to stop. Who is now in charge of that
    program whom I might connect with to help establish a writing program at that center?

  2. Gregg Soppet    

    What I have is my reliance on Christ whose life centered on the faith he had in God and the faith he inspired in people. Christ endured unbelievers and those who claimed to be believers but were serving their lusts and money even to the point of putting him to death on the cross. Inspire some faith in yourself. Read the Bible, learn about God and Jesus Christ His Son.

    1. Keith Squires    

      I’m going to try not to hurt today. I’m going to focus on the reasons that make this life amazing. I’m trying to let go of all the hurt, betrayal, cheating, lies, harsh/hatful and mean words that have caused so much pain in my life. I’m going to sweep all the mess into a pile, like the broken glass, and toss it into the dumpster.
      From this day forward, I promise myself to be free of all the past hurt, I’m letting go of everything that has held me down.
      My home, wherever it will be in the world, will be a magnet for my children; grandchildren, and my friends. There will be no harsh/hurtful words spoken here, only kindness and peaceful words of acceptance. We will share our lives with joy and happiness. With every breath we will breath in joy and exhale peace.
      The name of my home is forgiveness, it’s a destination and a way of life. Laughter is the language spoken here, kisses and hugs are what you will be greeted with.
      Everyone is welcome

  3. Brian K Banks    

    How Great is this!!
    I’m a Vet from the Gulf War & have been a writer of 3 books & 10 booklets, (all none published) since High School.
    My motivation at that time, I do believe, from it’s genesis, was my English Teacher’s actions on an assignment that I’d made up. (After all I did have a pretty good imagination at 17. 😉
    We were given instructions to write a book report , after reading (what I considered) probably the most boring book that I’ve never read in my whole life! 😀 (I can’t even recall the name of it, …like it really matters anyway! 😀
    …. After my teacher graded it, she handed it back to me. And oh to my surprise it actually had a “BS” for a grade on it!! Can you believe this ?! I’m like “Whaaat..??? 😀 Of course, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know whether I should be offended, or if the teacher was just joking with me, or that she actually-accidentally wrote the “B” or the “S” on it.. Or, that she was chastening me, or what.??!
    So, as I considered the matter, I caught the teacher glaring at me from the corner of my eye, & turned to look. Suprisingly, accompanying her glare was a mile wide grin: that she’d hoped this smart a** dared to guess what she was thinking about behind it, just as I had with the contents of my paper- regarding the book- that I was supposed to have read. 😉
    Well, …I figured, “BS” is an awesome grade! ” So I gave her right back a big fat grin of my own.

    THE END

    I need work & I’d love to help if/when you’ have an opening. Thanks for your time. Hope you enjoyed,
    Sincerely,
    Brian Keith Banks

  4. Michael Snyder    

    I don’t believe anyone is asking those with PTSD to do anything more than express what torments them. It’s not a question of liberal or conservative, it’s a valid attempt to relieve burdens that are preventing us from living full lives. I cannot talk about what happened that prevents me from being as happy and carefree as I once was. I read and write quite a bit but I never even thought about describing what caused me to fall apart emotionally. I’m going to sit down and really try to do it. It won’t be easy, but if it has a positive effect it will have been well worth it.

  5. Tyrone Vincent Lannes Jr    

    I need help with Proving that I got PTSD from military connection, I did not have it when I went to serve my Country.

    [Editor: All claims need three pieces of evidence: a current medical diagnosis; evidence of an injury, event or medical condition in your service records; a nexus from a doctor linking the former to the latter.]

  6. EGeraldine (Jerry) Farris    

    I have written many articles some of which have been published by Disability Magazine and Chabad.org, Does it help to write about it? To a small extent, yes. Does it make it go away? No, never. Why write? Because, putting it on paper, helps one to realize that it DID really happen, and now I can tell you how. Does it make you any happier? No really. It does serve to release some of the anxiety; but when you hear a car bacfire, or someone comes up behind you and suddenly slaps you on the back or loudly speaks….you are putting them up against the wall or yelling something inappropriate out loud.
    One of the first things I tell new friends and acquaintances, is that I have PTSD and I warn them to not do those thing which will elicit a reaction. One person did, and within seconds I had him up against a wall, fist drawn back and two people telling me it was okay, don’t hit him, he didn’t mean it, etc. The sheriff was sitting there. He said the guy deserved whatever I did as he heard me warn him more than once! PTSD isn’t funny. It isn’t a game. It is real. And, it doesn’t just “Go Away”!!!

  7. HM1 C. T.    

    It is not meant to help you forget but to process and deal with the trauma so that you can learn to handle and react to normal day to day ups and downs in a way that you have a choice in your reaction. And no, it doesn’t assist in forgetting with rape or abuse, as if it is any less of a trauma to live with. It helps you deal with those feelings and thoughts that are so haunting to one’s soul. It is very therapeutic to those who are open and willing to try.

    1. Keith Squires    

      Is sitting the posture of a hero?

      As I began my treatment, like any good Marine, I prepared myself for the task. So weeks prior to my departure date I would travel away from home, in doing so I would force my comfort level to expand. I set goals that I could realistically obtain, although these goals were not easily achieved. I drove to places I didn’t want to be, sat with people I didn’t want to know, but I always had a family member, or friend with me. As each obstacle was completed so was that portion of my training. There were so many small goals that I set for myself hoping to achieve the main goal, such was my hope. Although these are simple task for most, yet very difficult for me; I was able to make the journey to Tampa Florida, which was my main goal.

      Upon arrival at the James. A Haley VA hospital, I began a 3 week training program designed to help me be proactive with my health issues.
      As I meet with others who are also fighting their own battles , I was inspired by their determination, strength, and motivation

      The first day of treatment didn’t go as good as I had hoped, after an afternoon of appointments and planning, my body shut down, my mind was ready, but my body would not!

      If you listen to your body and treat the problem, not the symptoms, you will have success. Ultimately this means allowing the pain to pass through and through. As for me and my fight, this philosophy has kept me breathing, and if you’re breathing, you’re still in the fight!!!

      The enemy does not live and dwell within me, others around me are not the cause of my affliction, my friends and family are not the problem, it’s not their battle, they don’t need to “understand”!

      I must toil to understand what my body is going through and I must use everything I have inside of me if I am to continue this amazing life that God Himself began.

      So if you see me lying in bed, taking long walks, praying with tears running down my face, of sitting quietly in a crowded room, please don’t be offended for I am learning.
      Sometimes sitting is the posture of a hero. It’s not a battle, it’s an understanding. As the warm tears run down my face and drip on the floor I am reminded that my mind and body are in this journey as one. Maybe I should have known this a long time ago, but here I am!

      If you want to help me, pray for me, sit with me, cry with me, but don’t pity me,
      For He who began a good work in me will bring it to completion upon the day of Jesus Christ

      Keith R Squires
      USMC

  8. Richard G Kensinger    

    In my clinical experience, men tend to internalize their trauma. Writing and talking about it w/ a counselor are important in releasing some of their distress. The War Horse encourages vets to do this as well.
    Rich

  9. Sergeant Major H    

    Recalling bad memories does not help you forget bad memories. May wirk for a raped or abused person, but seeing bodies explode and your friends dead is not a discussion to have. WE WILL NEVER FORGET! Stop with the weak-minded liberal nonsense, like meditating, too.

    1. HM1 C. T.    

      It is not meant to help you forget but to process and deal with the trauma so that you can learn to handle and react to normal day to day ups and downs in a way that you have a choice in your reaction. And no, it doesn’t assist in forgetting with rape or abuse, as if it is any less of a trauma to live with. It helps you deal with those feelings and thoughts that are so haunting to one’s soul. It is very therapeutic to those who are open and willing to try.

  10. James Richard Freeland    

    Sir,

    I would like very much to be a part of that program. My closest VA is Salisbury NC
    How can I virtual participate?

    Jim Freeland

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