Late Breaking News
Catalyst for Healing- Writing Helps Returning Troops Deal with Experiences
By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — In 2006, Ron Capps was on his third combat deployment when he took a 9-millimeter pistol and drove out to the desert in Darfur. He said he was prepared to kill himself but was interrupted in the act.
Five years later, Capps is regularly published in national magazines and journals and credits writing with helping him turn his life around from that low point in the desert. He is now helping other troops sort out their war experiences through writing.
“I came back to the United States. Two years later, I was out of government service. I had lost my security clearance … I couldn’t even work in the government, he said. “So I went to graduate school and started trying to get better control over my writing because I knew that was how I was going to get better. I really feel like ‘I wrote my way home.’”
Capps is founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project and a regular contributor to Time magazine’s Battleland blog and to Foreign Policy. He shares what he has learned about writing with injured troops at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, MD, as an instructor for a writing program called Operation Homecoming.
In December, officials announced that the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Operation Homecoming writing program would take place at National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) as part of a new formal medical protocol in a yearlong pilot. Writing workshops for military personnel and their families around the world have been offered by Operation Homecoming since 2004.
“Through Operation Homecoming, we join forces to give troops a way to explore, express and use the arts and write as a catalyst for healing,” said NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman at an event last month, during which the program was announced.
Program Introduced as Healing Protocol
NICoE, a 72,000-square-foot facility, provides evaluations of troops with complex cases of PTSD and/or TBI or other psychological problems. The center already offers some art therapy, and expressive writing is viewed as another avenue for troops to express themselves, said Thomas DeGraba, MD, deputy director and chief of medical operations at NICoE.
“Our goal here is to be able to explore those strategies that allow us to understand the difficulties that our servicemembers have in being able to express those things that are stopping them from being able to get back to active-duty lives and back to their interpersonal relationships with their families and friends,” DeGraba said.
Patients will be able to take part in an expressive-writing workshop as part of their clinical rehabilitation. In addition, wounded warriors and their families will be able to take part in an informal four-week creative-writing and storytelling series at the Fisher House, where families and patients stay during treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center..
While patients will be helped in writing their stories, there are no plans to publish their works. The authors have the option to keep or destroy what they write.
Bill O’ Brien, senior adviser for program innovation at NEA, said a key component of the pilot will be to determine the effectiveness of expressive writing in improving health and well-being of the troops. NEA and NICoE will design and conduct assessments to evaluate the workshops.
“If we develop a systematic approach that works and we can prove it works and we know why it works, a writing-therapy program is actually something that can be implemented very cost-effectively in lots of different areas, as long as we develop a set of recommendations that can be carried out by other people,” said O’Brien, senior adviser for program innovation at NEA.
DeGraba added that the program offers an opportunity to develop some measurement protocols.
“The most awesome thing about this program is that we have real potential to find those types of measurements,” he said. “There is no place else we have seen that will attack that challenge as impressively as they do here.”
|Rear Adm. Alton L. Stocks, Commander of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman in the art therapy room, during the announcement of Operation Homecoming at The National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE). Photo courtesy of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence.|
Writing and Memory Control
Capps, who has served for 25 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve, had a combat tour in Afghanistan and worked as a foreign-service officer for the U.S. State Department in Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq, Darfur and other countries. He said writing gave him a way to sort through his experiences.
“I had a lot of memories that I had to work through. By writing, I was able to shape each of those and get control of them so that they were not just festering in the back of my mind,” he recounted.
Last year, Capp launched the Veterans Writing Project, which provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, active-duty troops and family members, as a way of giving them the tools they need to tell their own story.
Wartime literature also helps those who have not served in war to understand what troops go through, Capp noted.
“We have 1% of the American population involved in the military, so 99% are not participating,” he said. “There is a huge divide between that 1% and that 99%. By getting servicemembers and even family members to tell their own stories, we can help bridge that divide.”
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