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Veterans Tackle PTSD by Getting Their Thoughts on Paper

Writing, songwriting, filmmaking help control what has been controlling them

spinner image A group of veterans at a song writing class
Ron Capps, founder of the Veterans Writing Project, right, has branched out into songwriting and led a weeklong retreat in May 2019 in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.
Sandra Davidson, courtesy of the North Carolina Arts Council

When Ron Capps founded the Veterans Writing Project, he hung a hand-lettered sign next to his desk. It read, “Either you control the memory or the memory controls you.”

Since its inception nine years ago, the project has provided no-cost writing and songwriting workshops to veterans as well as their family members. So far, the program has reached 5,000 people in 22 states.

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“Every veteran has a story,” says Capps, 61, who served in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur and Iraq. “Most of us, though, need help in telling that story.”

Moving such memories, which are often traumatic, on to the page, or into song or as part of film project, often is seen as helpful in lowering suicide rates among veterans.  Every day, about 17 former service members across the country take their lives and the suicide rate is 1.5 times greater than for Americans who never served in the military, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

spinner image line graph showing that the number of veteran suicides has increased since 2005, when there were 5,787. the number peaked in 2014 at 6,272 and in 2017 was 6,139.

Toughness takes a mental toll

Clarissa Burton served in the U.S. Navy for six years and began to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) before being honorably discharged in 1990. She says she “was close to committing suicide.”

“Most vets are only told to suck it up, to tough it out,” she says. “But it takes a lot of energy to keep the dark thoughts at bay. It wears you down.”

Burton, 56, attended a writing session in Washington in spring 2013. During that time, she realized that “no two vets’ pain is the same. Yet we all need to be allowed to speak up, to be able to write things down, to be able to express ourselves without being told to get over it.”

After participating in the writing project, along with veterans doing poetry, short stories, plays and film projects, Burton returned home and so far has written five children’s books and two books of poetry.

The seminars are open to veterans, service members and their adult family members. No distinction is made between vets who saw combat or those who, like Burton, served stateside.

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Veterans pay it forward

Vets who, like Capps, have advanced writing degrees teach other veterans. More than 500 have had their stories published in the Veterans Writing Project’s literary journal, O-Dark-Thirty

Those authors include Jay Snyder, 77, who served in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966. During his deployment, as his unit fought nonstop the entire time he was in country, he began to correspond with his sister’s college roommate, Jeanne Carson.

10 symptoms of PTSD

Among the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder:

1. Avoidance of events, places or thoughts that might be reminders of the experience

2. Bad dreams

3. Difficulty sleeping

4. Distorted feelings such as guilt or blame

5. Flashbacks, including physical symptoms such as a racing heart or sweating

6. Frightening thoughts

7. Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

8. Negative thoughts about oneself or the world

9. Tense feelings, being on edge or easily startled

10. Trouble remembering key features of the trauma

Source: National Institutes of Health

The two married when he returned home and adopted a son, a Vietnamese refugee, who went on to work in the U.S. Senate.

Snyder himself held management positions in Pennsylvania state government and was director of officials for the U.S. Tennis Association. He was the chair umpire for nine Grand Slam finals and worked three Olympiads.

After retiring in 2002, he began to write more about his military experiences and eventually drove from his home outside Harrisburg to attend a Veterans Writing Project seminar in Washington, D.C.

 “At some point, you realize that you have to take down that box, that part of your life, and open it up,” Snyder says. “You cannot shove such memories, no matter how traumatic, away forever.”

At his seminar’s final session, Snyder was asked to read some of what he had written.

Even though he was used to speaking in front of groups, he admits to being “really emotional that time. Still, it was so rewarding to do it.”

Snyder’s essay, “Dog Tags to Death,” was later published in the project’s quarterly journal.

Writing expands to songwriting

After Capps began his program, he wrote the curriculum for the National Endowment for the Arts when it opened creative arts therapies for service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and the Fort Belvoir (Virginia) Community Hospital, both in the Washington area. Such Creative Forces clinical sites are now operating in 10 locations from Alaska to Florida.

Veterans Writing Project instructors regularly visit the capital-area clinics, working with recently wounded veterans. Students are urged to carve out time, even a half hour a day, to devote to their creative work and telling their own story.

After earning a master’s degree in writing at Johns Hopkins University, Capps turned to music as his next creative and healing outlet. Capps, who once attempted suicide himself, used the last of his GI benefits to take classes at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

This year the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival honored two of his songs, and he is scheduled to give the keynote address Nov. 2 at the Veterans Health & Wellness Conference in Austin, Texas. The Veterans Writing Project had its first songwriting workshop this year in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

“Think of a traumatic memory as something hot,” Capps says. “If you touch it, you get burned.”

When writing, art, dance or music is put “into the mix, it’s like putting a glove on,” he says. “We can pick up, hold, shape, manipulate the memory rather than having it control us. I got my stories out of my mind and onto the page as a way of gaining control of them. I do the work with the VWP as a way of giving those skills to others."

Art, music, writing programs help with PTSD

More than a dozen therapeutic programs are operating across the country to help veterans control traumatic memories associated with their time in the military.

Armed Services Arts Partnership. Workshops in the Washington, D.C., area from this Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit include improvisation and stand-up comedy.

Combat Paper. Workshops and exhibitions across the country from this Burlington, Vermont-based organization showcase papermaking and transforming worn military uniforms into handcrafted paper.

Help Heal Veterans, aka Help Hospitalized Veterans. The Winchester, California-based nonprofit delivers therapeutic craft kits to hospitalized and homebound veterans to help them improve motor skills and cope with PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

Military Experience & the Arts. Artists and writers work with mentors to polish their work for publications of the Morgantown, West Virginia-based nonprofit that feature art, essays, poems and short stories from vets and their families.

SongwritingWith:Soldiers. Veterans and active-duty military members are paired with professional songwriters in this Nashville, Tennessee-based organization to craft songs at retreats nationwide. PBS aired an hour-long concert earlier in October that’s available on streaming video.

Theater of War Productions. Actors work with the New York-based company to present dramatic readings of plays followed by town hall discussions designed to explore topics including war and mental health.

War Writers Campaign. The nonprofit publisher, based in Parker, Colorado, helps veterans craft their stories and poetry and gives them royalties from publication sales.

Warrior Music Foundation. The Bowie, Maryland-based foundation works to reduce suicides from PTSD among active-duty and veteran service members in parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania through free music therapy.

Warrior Songs. The Madison, Wisconsin-based nonprofit helps veterans transform buried feelings into songs and other creative media.

Warrior Writers. Retreats and workshops nationwide from this Philadelphia-based organization help active-duty and veteran service members express their experiences through painting, photography and writing.

Veteran Artist Program. The Brooklyn, New York-based nonprofit helps veterans share their work and explore professional opportunities in the arts.

Veterans Book Project. Minnesota-based artist Monica Haller and people who served in and were affected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created more than four dozen books to archive those experiences.

Veterans Writing Project. Free writing and songwriting workshops across the country from the Silver Spring, Maryland, nonprofit give veterans, service members and their families skills to tell their stories and get them published in the organization’s quarterly literary review.

Source: Veterans Families United

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