Missouri Warrior Writers Project, Part 3 of 3: Stepping Stones to Recovery

A U.S. Marine and Iraqi soldiers
Guest article by Deborah Marshall

On our first visit to Jefferson Barracks Veterans Hospital to set up the workshops, Geoff Giglierano and I discussed with staff that each veteran should have a pen or pencil for writing in class and for homework.

“That can’t happen,” said Rita Reichert. “Psychiatric inpatients can’t have any instrument they could use to injure themselves.”

“Do they have access to computers?”

“No, we have one computer and it’s not for patients.”

“What about laptops?”

“That would be okay, but we don’t have any.”

“We’ll provide them,” said Geoff. Missouri Humanities Council gave twelve laptops for use in the workshops and for check-out from Occupational Therapy. As it turned out, we had only two inpatients enrolled in the workshops; the remainder were outpatients.

Getting started
A doctor's permission was required for a veteran to participate in the workshops. This was therapy and a member of the hospital's Occupational Therapy team was always in the classroom. We were dealing with sensitive topics so things could become very emotional.

Approximately six to twelve veterans attended each class. None of our volunteer professional writers was a trained writing therapist, but we knew how to lead discussions and coach writing. Our instructions to attendees often started with free-writing, that is, writing the first thing that came into their minds without editing or censoring themselves.

We directed them through lists of exercises involving their senses, writing about places they would like to visit, and writing letters to their spouses and children on difficult things they couldn’t talk with family about face-to-face. We walked them through creating a plot and a pyramid for creating story. They did beautiful work whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. It was tough for the workshop leaders because we shared the veterans’ hurts.

A woman who was raped while on duty in Operation Desert Storm wrote gut-wrenching poetry, “but I get to a point where I can’t reveal any more. I start blocking it because I’m one of two women in a class of men.”

One veteran said that for most of his last month overseas all he could think about was coming home. He dreamed about his family and friends greeting him when he arrived at the St. Louis airport. No one met him. He took a cab home alone. He was among many veterans who come home to an unwelcoming family and facing divorce.

"You saved my life."
After one of my sessions, a forty-year old soldier walked me to the door.

“I have to thank you for what you did for me,” he said.

“That’s what we’re here for,” I replied. “Thank you for your service.”

“You don’t understand,” he said. “I suffered from flashbacks when I came back. My psychiatrist put me on medication that made me feel pretty crummy. When you suggested that we do journaling, I started journaling every day and after a while told my psychiatrist I was feeling a little better.

“He asked to see my journal so I gave it to him. I spent two-and-a-half hours writing every morning and hadn't read any of it. After reading my journal, the psychiatrist asked how long had I been thinking of killing myself. It was not something we’d been discussing.”

I listened to his story without interrupting. He wanted me to know.

“I told the doctor I didn’t know what he was talking about, that I was not suicidal. For crying out loud, I’ve got seven children and a lot to live for. He showed in my journal where my handwriting had changed dramatically. The tone of writing did a complete reversal.”

He said the doctor concluded he was having blackouts during which all he was writing about was self-loathing and killing himself. The doctor put him on new medication to take care of the blackouts.

“Today I feel great,” he told me. “I’ve been on this new medication for a week and a half and haven’t felt this good since before I was injured. I think you saved my life.”

Stepping stones
The pilot project at Jefferson Barracks ended November 17, 2011. Evaluations with staff and students were positive and encouraged us to look for ways to expand the program. Jefferson Barracks asked us back for next year; the extent of what we will do has yet to be determined. We are researching ways to incorporate visual arts and theater into our current workshop offerings. We have also been contacted by several community and veteran organizations to possibly host workshops in conjunction with their current programs.

We laid the groundwork, now we have to concentrate on adding workshop leaders and establishing the project with its own 501(c)3 status in 2012.

It's been an exciting journey from one little fishing trip to something that changed people's lives.

Deborah Marshall is founder of Missouri Warrior Writers Project, president of the Missouri Writers' Guild, and a former newspaper reporter and editor who writes historical fiction, creative nonfiction, and short stories. Her work has been published in medical journals, magazines, and anthologies.

Photo: A U.S. Marine and Iraqi Army soldiers watch over streets from a rooftop in Karabilah, Iraq. Department of Defense photo by Corporal Neill A. Sevelius, U.S. Marine Corps.

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?


  1. Very powerful. Thank you, Deborah, and Wayne for letting us know the wonderful story behind the project.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful program. I hope it can continue in a way to help veterans. Thank you for doing this.