Writing Project Helps Veterans Cope After War
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I'm Robert Siegel.
And today, we observe Veterans Day. Today also marks the launch of the new literary journal called "O-Dark-Thirty," from The Veterans Writing Project. The project is a nonprofit based here in Washington, D.C. that provides writing workshops for veterans and their family members. Retired Amy Lieutenant Colonel Ron Capps is the founder and director of The Veterans Writing Project and he joins me now from Little Rock, Arkansas. Welcome to the program.
LT. COL. RON CAPPS: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: And, first, why did you start The Veterans Writing Project?
CAPPS: I found that writing for me was very therapeutic. I came back from a number of combat deployments and was looking for a way to get better control of the memories from five wars and decided that writing was the tool that I was going to use. I found that there were so many veterans that have stories to tell and I wanted to help them by giving them the tools that they need to tell their own stories.
And so I founded The Veterans Writing Project and there were a group of us who are working writers with graduate degrees in writing and who are combat veterans. And we give away what we've learned.
SIEGEL: So this is at least part, in its origins, part therapeutic project, part documentary project in writing about the experience of veterans, but also a serious literary project.
CAPPS: That's exactly right. I mean, we try to approach this from three different directions. Well, the first is literary. We think that there's a new wave of American literature coming and that a great deal of that will be written by veterans and their family members.
But there's also the social aspect. We really want to help bridge the divide between the less than 1 percent of Americans who are taking part in these wars and the 99 percent who are not. And we think that by getting these stories out and into the hands of the public that we can help do that. And finally, yeah, there really is a therapeutic aspect to this. Writing helps service members really get control of traumatic memories.
SIEGEL: And to give listeners some sense of the kind of writing in "O-Dark-Thirty," this is a clip from David Peters, a contributor, at a public reading last year. This is from his nonfiction story, "Death Letter." It's the letter that service men and women in combat zones write, a letter to be sent home in the event of their death.
DAVID PETERS: I wrote one on some Red Cross stationary when I first arrived in Iraq. I wrote it because I thought I was going to die in the first couple days. Every explosion and rifle shot sounded so close that I knew that even though I was a chaplain and that God was on our side, I was not immune from the grim lottery of death.
SIEGEL: And this is realistic writing. It gets a little grittier and more profane than we can actually use on the air. This is just a short excerpt. Tell me a bit about the writing we would encounter in "O-Dark-Thirty."
CAPPS: Well, you're going to get poetry, nonfiction writing and fiction writing from veterans from active service members, from military family members that's really going to run the gamut. Some of it is directly related to the combat experience. Some of it written by family members is about what it's like when a service member comes home from war and some of it really has very little to do with the military experience. So, yeah, we warn people up front that there's a little bit of language involved in this. But some of it's also pretty funny. It might make you laugh out loud.
SIEGEL: A couple of years ago, you wrote a commentary for us about your experiences, especially as having been a soldier, I guess, detailed to the State Department and being sent to war zones to report on what was going on. The essay was about your experiences. It was also about PTSD and depression that were hardly unrelated to those experiences. First, I'm curious, with two years greater distance and having done the writing, I mean, do you feel differently or do you feel better about things?
CAPPS: It's a process. I'm getting better. I still talk to my doctors. I still take my medication and I try to feel better every day. And writing is a huge part of that for me personally and that's part of the reason that we're having this discussion because it is working for me and I want to be able to help others.
SIEGEL: Yeah, I know, but your experiences as you recounted them were literally nightmarish encounters with the victims of atrocities that you could only document, but had been unable to be part of any prevention or rescue. It just sounded like a very, very tough spot to be in after all those years.
CAPPS: It was. But I'm trying to get better. And if we can help one other person get through a bad night by helping them get control of traumatic memories, everything we're doing is worthwhile.
SIEGEL: Ron Capps, thank you very much for talking with us.
CAPPS: It's my great pleasure.
SIEGEL: That's retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Ron Capps, founder and director of The Veterans Writing Project, which is launching a literary journal on this Veterans Day called "O-Dark-Thirty."
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