The summer of 2009 I was working for a national outdoors retailer and went trout fishing on the North Fork of the White River, approximately thirty miles west of West Plains, Missouri. I stayed at the River of Life Farm resort. I learned from owners Myron and Ann McKee their son Jeremy was a wounded soldier and that some soldiers had come to the resort.
As a former newspaper reporter, the wheels started turning in my head. All kinds of wonderful things are available for soldiers when they came back to the states as long as they lived on the East Coast. I was aware of nothing going on in the Midwest.
“I’m willing to open up my place for any wounded warriors at no charge,” Myron said.
We contacted the Warriors Transition Unit at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, one of approximately three dozen such units throughout the United States. Soldiers who no longer require hospitalization and are not well enough to return to the field or their communities stay in the units for about thirty days. Most have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They don’t have much to do in the units except wait for their next appointments, usually at Veterans Administration medical centers in St. Louis or Columbia.
The Unit Commander at Fort Wood, Major Mark Wilkinson, was enthusiastic about the idea and arranged for a van to take eighteen male and female soldiers to the resort just three weeks after we contacted him. They spent four days river floating, walking hiking trails, and fishing. A colleague and I from my work taught them how to tie flies and fly-fish.
I received permission from Major Wilkinson to interview the soldiers individually. I asked about their experiences, how they were wounded, what happened to them since they returned to the States. Each one I spoke with expressed the same feeling: “I want to write my story but I don’t have a clue how to do it.”
I know writing can be healing
Researchers have proven that writing can be healing. I know from my own semi-disability—my spine is fused from L2 down—how much healing there is in writing and how it helped me set my head straight about things I was unable to do any more.
Soldiers told me of the stigma they felt with PTSD, that when they go home for short visits people look at them as some sort of freak. Talking with someone who understands or writing about it helps in the recovery process.
When I returned home after the four days, I saw a television news interview with Brigadier General Loree K. Sutton, M.D., the highest ranking psychiatrist in the U.S. Army and director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE). She said due to the high numbers of individuals returning with brain injuries and psychological health diagnoses, it was virtually impossible for the Armed Forces to keep up with the demand on services, “therefore, we call on the communities surrounding veterans to help us find ways to deliver services to them.”
I’m thinking writing therapy. Writers could do that. We are a natural resource because we lead workshops, we’ve been teachers, and many of us are interviewers. I went back to Fort Leonard Wood and visited with Major Wilkinson again.
Next week, Part 2: In search of grant funding.
Deborah Marshall is founder of Missouri Warrior Writers Project. She is president of the Missouri Writers' Guild and a former newspaper reporter and editor who now writes historical fiction, creative nonfiction, and short stories. Her work has been published in medical journals, magazines, and anthologies.
Photo courtesy Deborah Marshall.
Share your comments of helping veterans write their stories, or tell about a program with which you are familiar. If you are a veteran, have you been in a writing program? If so, what were the results?