At the Navy Memorial on Memorial Weekend Saturday, interspersed with the hubbub of Rolling Thunder visitors and Honor Flight veterans, a group of veterans of Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan, all of them members of the Veterans Writing Project, read examples of their work. Veterans have always written about their experiences, including the famous World War I poem written by Canadian Major John McCrae after the funeral of a friend:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place, and in the sky….
The founder of the Veteran Writing Project, Ron Capps, told us the tale of his last peacekeeping mission to Darfur. As Ron says, every veteran has a story to tell. He includes family members as well, asking them to come and learn about writing to tell their stories; stories about serving in the armed forces or being a part of military family. These seminars are at no cost to the participants; they are not a quick one hour over view, but are 2 hour seminars once a week for 6 weeks.
It needs to be done
When asked why he decided to set this project in motion, Ron says, “it needs to be done.” He maintains that writing has helped many veterans, that telling their tales helps the veterans get control of the story. Today’s veterans are writing prose and poetry, songs and plays, blogs, books and movies.
Jeff Stein, the former national security consultant of the Washington Post and Spy Talk blog, who has written many books including A Murder in Wartime – read his piece on joining the Intelligence service, including some wry observations about the “alternate universe” of DC and seeing spies around every corner. Paul Kozak, the director of outreach services for Vetwork, read a harrowing description of his last day in Vietnam when his truck hit a landmine, eliciting gasps from the audience when he described his burns, which were over 70% of his body. Paul attends the current workshop (with me) and he drives from New Jersey to do so.
Fred Foote, who directs the Walter Reed Poetry Project, read some powerful poetry, including a poignant piece dedicated to a doctor who treated injured Iraqis, including women, and made scarves for the women, giving them their dignity, as he said “making them Sacred Women.” Larry Rock celebrated the unsung heroes, the support troops during Vietnam. His stories of some of the cargo being flown in – including in one case a water buffalo – were amusing. Not so amusing, were those of the nurses who had to open the body bags to check for unexploded grenades; as well as the tales of those in charge of bringing POWs home.
Elizabeth O’Herrin – a veteran of the Wisconsin Air Guard in Iraq – made us all chuckle at her droll description of driving bombs around on the flight line. She mused on how she feels when she is thanked for her service and how she responds. I saw a lot of nodding heads of recent vets in Iraq/Afghanistan ball caps. Brandon Friedman, the Director of Online Communications for the VA and author of The War I Always Wanted, gave us portions of two pieces that were recently published, including Go Tell The Spartans, his homage to his SEAL friend killed in a chopper accident in Iraq; and a piece that resonated with all of us – the end of mail to Iraq making it very clear that yes, it really was over.
Writing not only helps the veteran take control. It teaches, it opens doors and may help civilians and veterans begin to understand each other.
Photo from www.vetereanswritng.org