Veterans’ Voices

Written testimony "means that we no longer allow ourselves to be silenced or allow others to speak for our experience. Writing to heal, then, and making our writing public, as I see it, is the most important emotional, psychological, artistic, and political project of our time."

— Louise De Salvo, PhD author, Writing as a Way of Healing

A few years ago, an old friend from Nicaragua started writing to me about his experiences fighting on the side of the Sandinistas during the revolution against a brutal dictator in the late 1970s and then later against the U.S.-supported contras. What I noticed most was how little it mattered that he was on the right side of that fight. He’ll spend his lifetime managing the stress that comes from having witnessed and caused and suffered so much trauma. No matter that the contras were an illegal, internationally condemned, U.S.-sponsored proxy army. They were also men. And my friend helped kill them.

His words reminded me of a veteran I met at a bar one night. He told me the greatest sacrifice you can make isn’t to die for your country. The greatest sacrifice you can make is to kill for your country – especially when you come home to a dysfunctional democracy that elevates the rights of corporations over the rights of people. It appears his intense personal sacrifice only helped make the world safe for profit-making, which is why, he explained, he spends as much time as he can at the local tavern.

Another thing I noticed in my correspondence with my (former) Sandinista friend was how important it was for him to write. He didn’t need a big audience – just someone to listen. There is some healing that happens when you use writing to make sense of your experience and to share your understanding with others. But I wished I could do more than provide a private audience. I wanted him and other veterans to be heard by more people.

What if we coaxed voices like these out from behind the barrooms and the private correspondence? What if veterans had more opportunities to meet with other veterans, write about their experiences, and share those writings with peers and possibly even the public? Not only might veterans share in the healing power of writing, but if their articles and stories were read and published in larger venues, the public would benefit too. Their "ground truth" could provide the mobilizing force to stop this war and prevent the next one.

With these ideas in mind, I organized a meeting last November that brought Vietnam veterans and Iraq veterans together to launch a writing group. Being used to needing multiple meetings and tons of energy to get projects off the ground, I was surprised that all it took was getting a bunch of veterans in the room together. The group launched itself from that point. I worried that we had no money; the grants I had written hadn’t come through yet. "What do we need money for?" one veteran asked. "Everyone bring your own pencil, okay?" And so the first Iraq Veterans’ Writing Workshop in the Boston area began.

In March, some of these veterans gave a reading, and I had the enormous honor of going to hear them. Why do I say honor? It’s not easy to listen to what veterans have to say. They not only witnessed horrors, they committed them as well. I could feel my tears come almost immediately. But there is something right about being a witness. It’s like agreeing to share a burden that otherwise they would have to bear alone. It’s like admitting we have a shared responsibility for all that happened (and is happening) in Iraq, even though they’re the ones who went through the physical motions, and I was not.

I brought a Vietnam veteran friend with me to the reading. I think being at the event was particularly hard for him, but also particularly meaningful. A recovered alcoholic, he told me later he spent the whole weekend after the reading, fighting the urge to have a drink. When the reading was over, he was the first to raise his hand, ready (almost desperate) to offer support and advice. He has been struggling to live with his war stories for four decades, and these young men are just getting started. He told me later that he has always wanted to find ways to be there for returning veterans. He once joined a group in South Boston for exactly that purpose, but it turned out the group intended only to post "Welcome Home" signs around the community.

Since the first writing workshop got off the ground, I have managed to raise a little money, which means we can offer some payment to workshop facilitators and maybe cover the cost of veterans’ transportation and childcare. Two new workshops are about to start – one for women and one for men. There are veterans who are asking for special workshops for family members. We have ideas about training veterans to be workshop leaders and taking the workshops further into local communities – into public libraries, YMCAs and YWCAs, and other neighborhood venues.

In June, at the U.S. social forum in Atlanta, I learned that the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) have created the Warrior Writers Project (http://www.ivaw.org/node/723) and published those writings in a booklet. Meanwhile, Maxine Hong Kingston, who has been conducting writing workshops for veterans for the past 15 years, is starting to see more and more Iraq Veterans. (Read the transcript of her eloquent interview with Bill Moyers at http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/052707A.shtml.) One IVAW writer, Matt Howard, said that there is no place in society that is safe or comfortable for veterans to write about their experiences – except the writing workshop.

At the start of this Veterans’ Day weekend, when the news is that one out of four veterans is homeless, and tens of thousands of veterans are returning home with physical and emotional wounds that society is in no way prepared to mend, we should focus on creating grassroots venues for veterans’ voices to be heard. Veterans (young and old) have a lot to offer each other – if we can find ways to bring them together. They have a lot to offer non-veterans, if we choose to listen. By simply telling the truth and being heard, they represent a most powerful force to stop the current war and prevent the next.

When a young organizer from UMASS asked for advice about how to do anti-war organizing in his mostly working-class commuter school, I said, "Find the veterans. And don’t just ask them to come to your meetings or your demonstrations, but figure out a way for them to be heard. Find a venue for their voices. And then listen."

On October 27th here in Boston, veterans and their family members were at the head of our march. To its credit, the anti-war movement has taken important steps to make sure veterans and military family members are in leadership positions. But in addition to marching with them, we should create longer-term structures, such as writing workshops, that give veterans the chance to work with their peers, share their experiences, make sense of those experiences, and prepare to share what they learn with the rest of us.

If you are interested in learning more about writing workshops for Iraq Veterans in the Boston area, or if you’d like to set them up in your own community, contact cyn.peters [at] gmail.com.

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