|U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan|
After seeing the television news interview with U.S. Army Brigadier General Loree K. Sutton, M.D., I went back to Fort Leonard Wood to pursue my idea of writing-therapy for wounded soldiers. Unit Commander Major Mark Wilkinson was supportive, but then back surgery put me out of commission. I was going to have a very long recuperation and traveling was out.
Wearing two hats
I had been elected vice president of Missouri Writers’ Guild for 2010 and was chair of our annual conference for spring 2011. It involved a lot of telephone calls and emails, so I could do many things without leaving my house. I sent an email to the director of the Missouri Arts Council looking for conference funding. The director, Geoff Giglierano, was new to the job and I thought I could make an excellent case for his support. We met in his office.
I told him about the wonderful things we planned for the conference. He asked lots of questions and I was excited he was interested. Finally he said, “It sounds like you’re going to have a really good conference, but quite frankly, even though you’re a really nice person and you have this really great conference planned, your organization is basically no different than any other looking for money.” I was disheartened.
“These are hard times,” he continued, “and I have to be really cautious about how we’re spending our dollars. However, I’d like to know a little more about you so we can have a basis for future conversations. That’s what we’re all about. This is humanities.”
We talked about diversities and voices we never hear from; those segments of society that really go unnoticed for the most part. That led me into my experience with the soldiers at River of Life Farm resort.
Bingo, whammy, eureka
“I really would like to grow this into a project,” I said, “gathering stories from wounded warriors who have life-altering things going on that nobody knows about. You have to hear it from them. Wouldn’t it be great if we put together an anthology, using resources of Missouri writers to lead workshops with the soldiers?”
Geoff sat straight up in his chair and said, “This is the project I’ve been waiting for. Let me know whatever you need.”
I didn't know I hit his hot button until he told me he was in New York City when 9/11 occurred: he was curator of the museum adjacent to the fire station that lost so many firemen, and he suffered from PTSD.
With his assurance behind me, I began researching more earnestly how to go about the project.
I learned that Jefferson Barracks Veterans Administration Hospital in Lemay, Missouri was one of the locations for Operation Homecoming, the National Endowment for the Arts program in which prominent writers interviewed soldiers and produced an anthology. I called the NEA’s office in Washington, D.C. and was told the program was not ongoing. Could I possibly use the program’s formatting to do something similar in Missouri? They said I was welcome to anything they had.
Adapt and improvise
I went through the NEA records and the program was pretty high brow and expensive for what I felt we could do. I wanted something more personal. Fort Leonard Wood laid the groundwork for that; soldiers coming to the Fort’s transition unit are from a ten-state area, which gave me opportunity to focus on any needs special to the Midwest.
Geoff and I visited Jefferson Barracks and met with Occupational Therapist Rita Reichert and Public Affairs Administrator Marcena Guenther. They gave us permission to launch a pilot project of four four-week workshops: four weeks of poetry, four weeks of creative nonfiction, another four weeks of poetry, and another four weeks of creative nonfiction. Each workshop would be ninety minutes and consist of volunteer professional writers instructing groups of six to twelve soldiers in how to write their stories.
We recruited Kelli Allen, a board member of Missouri Writers’ Guild, for the first poetry session. She was managing editor for Natural Bridge, a journal of contemporary literature, and is an internationally known poet. I led the first creative non-fiction workshop. Matthew Freeman was in charge of the second poetry session. He is a poet from St. Louis who declares he is a diagnosed schizophrenic. He was very compassionate with the soldiers and they developed an outstanding rapport. Our final creative non-fiction workshop leader was Anene Tressler-Hauschultz, international book award winner in literary fiction for 2011 and adjunct professor at Webster University.
Next week, Part 3: Stepping Stones to Recovery
Deborah Marshall is founder of Missouri Warrior Writers Project, 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: Soldiers cross the Arghandab River in Zabul province, Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo by Specialist Tia P. Sokimson.
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 and what were the results?