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.
“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.
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.