Charles George VA Medical Center - Asheville, NC
Veterans Writing Program
ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but sometimes a thousand words can help a person with PTSD regain their humanity and begin to heal.
At least that’s the view of Dr. Bruce Kelly, now Assistant Chief of Primary Care and lead for the Creative Writing Program at the Charles George VA Medical Center.
“Writing programs for veterans have existed since the Second World War to help them make sense of their military experience. It’s a way to honor the voice inside wanting to be heard,” Kelly said. “Writing about the experiences of combat and its impact helps organize what’s banging around inside. It can with time soften the grip that holds power over those who’ve seen the horrors of war.”
To help Veterans who’ve suffered from PTSD for 50 years – Kelly, along with former North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti, a professor at Appalachian State University, began planning a creative writing program back in 2014. They both keenly felt the unmet moral obligation we as a nation have to this cohort of veterans.
“We believed the work could help heal what remained wounded,” Kelly said. “As I recruited men during routine medical visits, I began to see more deeply how remarkable they each were, all heroes in their own right who needed to unburden themselves.
“They told me they were reluctant to bring the war back up,” Kelly added, “that creative writing seemed like a ‘cockamamie idea,’ that they couldn’t write, had trouble spelling, bad experiences with groups and more. But they gradually spoke too about the wounds that haunted them and were often ready to try anything that might help.”
Kelly said he, Bathanti and the Veterans were all nervous when they met for the first time.
“It was something new and untried for all of us,” he said. “As their physician, I was maybe more uneasy than any, knowing how hard they worked to control what haunted them. They were understandably anxious about the writing and opening up in deeply personal ways to a group of strangers.”
Kelly said that after handing the first session over to Bathanti he went to the back of the class to watch the men’s expressions and body language. He was ready for anything, including some walking out.
A film writer couldn’t have scripted what he saw next.
When they were asked to begin writing, in unison they picked up their pencils, put their heads down, opened their notebooks and began to write without a moment’s hesitation.
“They might not all be storytellers, but they were all ready to tell their stories,” Kelly said, quoting Ron Capps of The Veterans Writing Project.
It was just the beginning, but what a beginning it was.
Thanks to funding from the North Carolina Arts Council, North Carolina Humanities Council, other state-based granting agencies and strong community support, there have now been four eight-week sessions involving 38 veterans in Asheville.
Kelly has continued to meet monthly with 25 of them. He and Bathanti stay in frequent email, phone and personal contact to support the men in their writing and healing journey. Charles George Whole Health funding supported Mr. Bathanti this fall to hold a group for another 10 veterans at the Hickory CBOC to begin expanding the work.
When asked how the program has helped them, one Veteran had this to say:
“My relationships with my family have improved since they’ve heard my writings. They understand me better now, and I better understand my moral injury. I've connected with veterans who share my experiences and built new friendships. I’ve been able to express thoughts and feelings held in for 50 long years.”
Another Veteran agreed and said:
“My Grandmother and teachers encouraged me to write about my experiences in Vietnam. I couldn’t do it until I heard other vets who felt the same. I couldn’t write Poetry until I learned from the leaders and other vets in the room. I didn't want to talk or think about Vietnam. This experience forced me to refresh my memory. Turns out it’s been good for me and my quality of life.”
In 2016, 18 of the men first agreed to participate in a staged reading at Asheville Community Theatre titled “Brothers Like These.” They performed later that year at Appalachian State to a standing-room-only crowd of students and teachers. Veterans from the recent groups have joined in. The full staged reading has now been performed at eight locations across North Carolina.
On each occasion the audience is deeply touched, many at some point in tears, but always leaving with a new understanding and respect for all who served in Vietnam, and by proxy, in combat zones wherever they may be. The men have felt honored, empowered and found a voice they didn’t know they had.
The standing ovations they receive provides some sense of the long overdue welcome home they were denied by a country deeply divided on their return.
The men have read at countless local and regional events and been interviewed on the radio. Their writing is published as a chapbook, “Brothers Like These,” St. Andrews Press’s all-time best seller.
Fairview Elementary School used one of the men’s stories as the basis for a “Destination Imagination” skit that won a state, and then national “Torchbearer” award as one example of the community ripples. Videos of five of the men reading one of their pieces and interviewed for Veterans Day in 2018 by the Asheville Citizen-Times was picked up by “USA Today” for national distribution.
Bathanti says that his involvement has given him “the opportunity to sit in a room filled with courage - as these guys face their pasts, their demons and their 'lost' selves. The courage they display is remarkable, admirable and ever miraculous as they find their humanity again.
The college professor said that in 41 years he’s never seen writing transform individuals lives so deeply. He and Dr. Kelly often refer to it as the “Church of Classroom B” (where they meet) due to the work of the soul and deep collective reverence they’ve witnessed there.
Charles George recently applied to the VHA Innovation Network Spark-Seed-Spread program to catalyze new programs. Kelly was heartened that 17 VAs across 12 states signed on to participate, with five VAs across the VISN being funded. Salisbury, Durham, Wilmington, Fayetteville and Hampton, Virginia, will start programs based on the Asheville model.
Whole Health funding will support a new group at Charles George and one at the Franklin CBOC. In addition to supporting Veteran’s healing they’ll collect feedback on outcomes to begin building an evidence base for the work.
A writing program for women Veterans began this fall with a second group planned for the spring.
Editor’s note: Dr. Bruce Kelly, Charles George VA Medical Center assistant chief of Primary Care, contributed to this article. For additional information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.