Writing Project Helps Veterans Heal Wounds

A writers' workshop for veterans provides a place for healing. The brainchild of award-winning writer Maxine Hong Kingston, the Veterans' Writing Group was founded in 1993. Roughly 30 vets meet every few months to read and discuss their material.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Writing about war experiences and then sharing your work in a group setting can help heal psychological wounds. That's what National Book Award winner Maxine Hong Kingston discovered when she brought together a group of veterans years ago. She has edited and published a collection of their writings called "Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace."

NPR's John McChesney has this story.

(Soundbite of drums)

JOHN McCHESNEY: At a small church in Berkeley, the group's percussionist warm up the audience for a public reading. Bob Joust(ph), a tall, lanky, stooped man with salt and pepper hair takes the stage to read one of his poems, "On Point," about a man who takes the lead position on a reconnaissance patrol in Vietnam. The soldier no longer feels much and doesn't care if he's killed.

Mr. BOB JOUST (War Veteran): On point you can feel fear and a threat of death accelerate him. He's been scarred and scared and numb for months, but on point he can really feel these people behind him would defend on him. And he's good, and he cares or he doesn't know them well. He guesses it's love, and walks out on that narrow road and he's alive for one more night.

(Soundbite of applause)

McCHESNEY: Joust was in the infantry in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. When he came home, he buried himself in work to forget what he'd seen.

Mr. JOUST: It took me over 20 years to come to the point of pain where I need to really do something about it.

McCHESNEY: He's been in Kingston's group for several years now.

Mr. JOE: Writing is a healing - part of the healing process for me. And I hope of a place where I can share with other people and help them to come to the realization that speaking about what they do, writing about what their experience was can help to come to point of healing.

McCHESNEY: Shawn McClain Brown(ph) was a Marine in the First Gulf War. Here, he reads from his prose poem "Spindrift." It's about a soldier named Garret(ph) cleaning a rifle in which the gun nearly becomes a character.

Mr. SHAWN McCLAIN BROWN (War Veteran): Firing any distance greater than 500 yards require compensation for the force of gravity on a spinning bullet known as spindrift. But Garret wouldn't need to compensate - not at this range.

McCHESNEY: As the poem progresses, we begin to realize this is a meditation on suicide.

Mr. BROWN: The bar was clear and clean. He reassembled the rifle, pulled back the charging handle and bolt, and released. The bullet shot forward in the chamber. The action was smooth.

McCHESNEY: Then, Garret reflects back on a time when he and his father tracked a fox through the snow to her den.

Mr. BROWN: His father gave the order. Garret raised the rifle. And the last thing he remembered after he squeezed the trigger was the fox's clear, yellow eyes looking at him. She never blinked.

McCHESNEY: Brown says the piece is based partly on his personal experience.

Mr. BROWN: I witnessed a fellow Marine in the Gulf commit suicide.

McCHESNEY: Brown says he was severely depressed and thought he might harm himself. He wrote to Maxine Hong Kingston after hearing about her work with veterans and she invited him to join the group.

Mr. BROWN: And I came. And that was just the best thing that ever happened to me.

McCHESNEY: Brown says the group literally saved his life.

Maxine Hong Kingston's two brothers served in Vietnam. She says that war had a profound effect on her life. And then, her house burned down in the big Oakland fire of 1991, incinerating a nearly finished manuscript. It was a warlike experience, she says, and her flow of words stopped.

Then, she met a Buddhist monk who was holding reconciliation sessions between veterans from both sides of the Vietnamese war and was inspired to start her own group.

Ms. MAXINE HONG KINGSTON (Founder, Veterans' Writing Group): What I wanted was a community of writers around me and they would be people who had been through war. And, so, then, we were all writing our war stories with a hope that one could go through war and arrive at peace.

McCHESNEY: Since its founding, over 500 writers have participated. Kingston has made Buddhist meditation part of the group's exercises. Some veterans become angry when they first joined because of what they perceive as pacifist attitudes.

Ms. KINGSTON: There's an explosion that happens and there - person shout and acts out and argues with people and swears and then leaves the room, say, goodbye I'm out of here.

McCHESNEY: But they, almost always comeback, Kingston says.

Mr. ANDREW CARROLL (Editor, "Operation Homecoming"): When I first heard about Maxine's group, I was very skeptical of these programs, not in their worth but that anyone really would even show up.

McCHESNEY: Andrew Carroll edited "Operation Homecoming," an anthology of letters and journals by veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The National Endowment for the Arts funded writers to hold writing workshops at military instillations. Carroll ran a workshop at Fort Bragg, and he was astounded when 150 troops showed up.

Mr. CARROLL: I think there's no question, we need these sorts of creative writing workshops going on all across the country. Nothing struck me more in talking with the troops of Fort Bragg. When I asked them why are you all here at this workshop is, along with the fact they find it cathartic, so many of them said I want the next guy to understand what I went through so here she won't feel that they're alone.

McCHESNEY: Andrew Carroll is hopeful that more groups, like Maxine Hong Kingston's, will find the money, energy and talent to come together in the near future.

John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco.

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