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Veterans Writers Project asks veterans to write about experiences

A soldier stumbles down a dusty cracked dirt road. His vision is blurred, and his anxiety is mounting, suspended in a bizarre silence. A sigh of relief hinges on the tip of his airways. Then suddenly, a sharp noise strikes through his radius of surrounding air, lasting longer than one would imagine, but not long enough to deafen the sounds of the blast’s aftermath.

Courtesy Terrance Russell

And in America, thousands of miles away from the war, days and months since the occurrence, reality snaps back into focus for Iraqi War army veteran Terrance Russell. The noise isn’t an improvised explosive device taking its victims, clouding him in smoke. It’s the dull clunk of a garbage truck passing through his street – a machine that poses no single threat to passersby, save for Russell and his memories.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious mental health condition prevalent among many of America’s soldiers who come back from war-torn countries, often creates a great deal of issues for soldiers as they re-assimilate into a culture arguably ignorant, or at least, majorly untouched by the horrors of war. PTSD’s association as a taboo or unknown illness is dead with its old pseudonym “shell shock” within modern culture, and according to the University of Massachusetts’ Veteran Services Coordinator Judy Gagnon “PTSD is now an accepted illness.” Still, many soldiers battle at home with how to cope with it.

“PTSD can take many forms,” said Gagnon. “Some soldiers come back and they are fine … others have seen atrocities that we can’t even imagine, and they’re back here and life is normal … but it’s like nothing is the same.”

Soldiers with PTSD may suffer from nightmares or flashbacks. Gagnon also said that an additional symptom of PTSD could be individuals “blocking out thoughts that they don’t realize they’re blocking out and an event may trigger them.”

This problem has generated a number of solutions on national and local levels. But one outlet for sufferers hitting the Pioneer Valley is getting veterans to express their perspectives and experiences in war through writing.

In a project called “The Pioneer Valley Veterans Writers Project,” organized jointly by the Veterans Education Project in Amherst, UMass Veterans Services and the Daily Hampshire Gazette, veterans were asked to meet for writing workshops at UMass to gain greater writing skills and join a safe environment with fellow veterans to decompress past terrors through creating all forms of literature – from poetry to letters to fiction and non-fiction pieces.

According to Gagnon, those involved with the project “wanted to give veterans an opportunity, if they wanted to, to learn to express their experiences in a cathartic way.”

Russell, who served in Iraq twice in the last decade and was part of the army’s military police, said he has been trying to write to “finally feel back at home.”

“I don’t think I made a difference in the war,” said Russell during a panel to discuss veterans’ writing project. “I feel like my time was wasted … It’s hard knowing that people don’t understand. Hopefully us getting our ideas and thoughts out, people will understand. It’s just hard everyday. It’s a battle everyday.”

The panel, which was held on the evening of April 5, featured an explanation of the project’s roots and aspirations and a presentation by best-selling author and editor of the book “Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Homefront, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families,” Andrew Carroll. The book is part of the national “Operation Homecoming Project,” which was sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts [NEA], and Carroll played a key role in working on the project. NEA Director of Literature and the Operation Homecoming Project Jon Peede also spoke at the open forum held in the Reading Room of the Campus Center.

These men’s efforts to have soldiers write creatively or truthfully were launched on a national scale, and, according to Rob Wilson, director of the Veterans Education Project and opening speaker at the panel, the work of Peede and Carroll have inspired some of the valley’s local efforts to help veterans handle their experiences positively, such as the Veterans Writing Project. UMass Veterans Services made the arrangements to have Peede and Carroll speak. 

Peede told the story of a poet and peace activist who was invited to teach at West Point. When her cadets went overseas to Afghanistan and Iraq, she had wished she could do something for them. Together with Peede, the poet whose name was not disclosed at the forum, decided to get soldiers to write about their experiences in the war, without making the works political, to help “people process what they were going through.” The idea of these two poets getting together “at midnight to think about what the arts might offer world,” said Peede at the event, essentially piloted the ideas of getting soldiers to write about their experiences behind both the national and local projects.

Carroll said that, during its initial days, critics of the Operation Homecoming Project were suspicious “it was an effort to promote the war.”

“That’s not it at all,” said Carroll about this criticism. “It was about teaching people to respond creatively to their personal experience.”

Carroll said he wanted to be a part of the Operation Homecoming Project because of its “human” factor – as it would give soldiers “the chance to talk about their experiences and give families a chance to talk about it too.” Also, he said liked the idea because of its “historical” significance – gave individuals a chance to talk about war experiences themselves without a political filter going through it. Lastly, Carroll added that the project held “literary” importance – in the belief “they would discover some genuine literary talent.”

“I believe they showed us [literary talent],” Carroll said of the soldiers who participated in sending their wartime letters to him for the Operation Homecoming Project. Over 12,000 pages were sent.

During his opening notes, Wilson also thanked Professor of Humanities at Hampshire College Robert Meagher, and gave Meagher the floor to speak about the importance of expression for the soldiers.

“Another truth that doesn’t qualify as a truism is that wars are not over when they are over – they leave behind wreckage and wounds,” said Meagher. “Warriors bring their wars home with them. Not like a tan, but like a secret they wish they’d never been told.”

An approximately 20-minute long excerpt of a tear-jerking NEA-sponsored documentary film was shown, which showed personal accounts of soldiers and their families members on how writing about their experiences helped them cope.

The panel and open forum ended with a question-and-answer session, in which veterans or family members of veterans were invited to sit at the front four microphones to discuss their experiences and answer questions from those in the audience, which was made up of about 30 individuals. Six individuals, two of them family members of veterans, rose to sit before the audience to answer questions that evening.

Individual coaching from experienced writers was available for veterans and their family members to share stories, and those who attended one or both of the two workshops had opportunities for publication in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. The final workshop for the spring took place in the Isenberg School of Management on Saturday, April 9, from 1-5 p.m., and it was led by Stephen Sossaman, a Vietnam veteran and retired Westfield State University professor of English and writing. The project may return next semester.

While Gagnon said she believed the workshop to be helpful to veterans, she said many of the veterans who attended the workshops are not veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war, but mainly those from the Vietnam War who had not recognized they had PTSD because of its taboo status during that war’s immediate aftermath.

“[The Veterans Writers Project] is very beneficial,” said Gagnon, who has been working with veterans in undergraduate and graduate programs for eight years. “Because, with PTSD, some veterans – not all, but some – things don’t seem the same. In order to get their feet back on the ground and really focus, it is healthy for them to sit down and write about their experiences or write about what it’s like to be home.”

Russell, who has since retired a Staff Sergeant from the army since his deployment to Iraq, said that, in part because older generations were less inclined to share their emotional burdens and experiences, and in part because people expect him to be the same as before he left for Iraq, his relationships with friends and family members have “all been strained in one form or another.”

“My parents and aunts just want me to ‘forget and leave Iraq behind me,’” said Russell. “They want me to forget it and make it go away. They are the older generation that did not talk about things and kept to themselves. That is not me. I talk about my feelings and fears.”

“My friends who knew me before my deployments do not find it easy, or rather hard to see that I have changed in such a large way to them,” continued Russell. “They always expect to have ‘high school’ or ‘college’ Terrance to appear, and that Terrance is gone. Then, my new friends here in Massachussetts have to deal with the Terrance with bad dreams and fears of seeing trash on the road.”

Although Russell finds it a struggle to get up each day and at times finds himself in tears or in need of being alone, he finds comfort in talking with those who understand and wishes more Americans could try to talk more with understanding. He also finds comfort in writing about his experiences and hopes that the book he is attempting to write will help other soldiers and their families.

Alyssa Creamer can be reached at acreamer@student.umass.edu.

Comments
One Response to “Veterans Writers Project asks veterans to write about experiences”
  1. Anonymous says:

    “Then suddenly, a sharp noise strikes through his radius of surrounding air, LASTING LONGER THAN ONE WOULD IMAGINE…”(emphasis added)

    This is ADHD, not PTSD. The so-called “normal” person will be overwhelmed and unable to sort between the various stimuli and say something like “everything happened so fast” and really have no idea either of what is going on or what to do, or even which way to run. (Think squirrel in the middle of the road.)

    By contrast, the person with ADHD has the ability to instantly “hyperfocus” — to focus only on one thing and to literally not see, hear, taste, smell or feel ANYTHING ELSE — the classic example is the woman who was so hyperfocused on writing a paper that she only learned that her kitchen was on fire when the firefighters physically carried her out of the burning building, a neighbor reporting the fire.

    Much as the so-called “normal” person’s perception of time speeds up because of the sensory overload (and attempt to process everything), the ADHD person’s perception of time slows down because everything not directly related to the problem isn’t being processed. In an emergency the issue of what to focus on isn’t relevant and persons with ADHD are inherently drawn to high-stakes, high-risk occupations such as the military, law enforcement, firefighting and the like.

    This is the first war in at least 150 years not to be fought with draftees — everyone volunteered which means that we well may have a much higher percentage of folk with ADHD in the population of veterans.

    Reading this article, and the quoted portion in particular, I wonder if we need to think beyond just PTSD (which is quite real) and look at ADHD as well…

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