To help veterans confront war: pen and paper

Writing about war memories is tough, but it's also therapeutic.

"Take another minute or two to bring your writing to a stopping point," I tell the six veterans sitting with me around a fold-out table at the San Diego Vet Center.

Their pens, moving more quickly now, make a soft rustling sound across the pages of their spiral notebooks. Looking up from mine, I wonder if that rustle in any way resembles sounds they might have heard or listened for on moonlit patrols decades ago along the Mekong Delta. A light wind through river reeds. A snake in a tree. The muffled footfall of Vietcong.

It's not something I'd know from direct experience. During the Vietnam era, I was a bell-bottomed college coed, a high school English teacher not long after that, and, for the past 20 years, a freelance journalist. In the last five, I've written about the war in Iraq and my son's two tours of duty as an infantryman in the area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death.

During the 27 months Roman was deployed, I came to see what a helpful thing writing can be when trying to come to grips with a subject as difficult as war. And that realization has led me to lead writing workshops at this Center on Sixth Avenue every Wednesday.

I'd expected that veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan would be the ones to sign up. As it turns out, this first group mostly remembers Vietnam.

The heart of each workshop session involves writing together. I offer a prompt – a word, a phrase, an object – to get pens moving. We all write for 20 minutes, then take turns reading aloud what we've written. That part's always optional, but most make that choice. It's a chance not only to be listened to, but in some instances to at long last be heard.

Psychologists who work with men and women returning from war are well aware of the struggle most go through to come to terms with their time in combat. An essential part of that process, they say, lies in confronting the experience, difficult and complex as that might be.

At our first workshop meeting in early September, I offered the phrase "It was a place called_________" and asked each member of the group to fill in that blank, to write from that place. I wanted to get a sense of where they were willing to go. Most revisited some chapter from their youth or childhood. And that's OK, I thought. Life's full of all sorts of experiences worth writing about. That first afternoon only one from the group traveled on the page back to Southeast Asia. I took that to mean most might not want to go there.

But in the weeks since, I am proud to say they have proven me wrong.

Oct. 3: our fifth meeting. This time I ask the group to "list three significant people from any time in your life. Childhood. High school. The service. Take a good look at your list. Then write about the person there who seems to be saying to you today, 'Remember me.' "

Taking up their pens, they set to work. Twenty minutes later, Dwight volunteers to read.

He looks up from his notebook, then back to the words he's just set down. The end-of-day sunlight, slicing through the room's bent miniblinds, turns the gray in his dreadlocks silvery. And in a voice as deep as it is gentle, he begins.

For the next few minutes, we are out on patrol in the jungle, walking stealthily – "like cats," Dwight writes – several yards behind a young man named Corporal Wilson. The corporal, coming upon what appears to be a booby trap, yells, "Stay back!" The group freezes. Wilson inches forward, jabs a mound of dirt in a cluster of grass with the butt of his gun.

"Why he did that, I'll never know," Dwight interjects, with a rueful shake of his head.

It is the last thing the corporal would ever do – his final act, ending in the explosion witnessed that day by the soldiers in Dwight's story, and now by all of us. One more war story among so many. Too many, any combat vet will tell you. But with stories such as this one, I'm learning from these veterans that it can take as much courage – maybe more – to pick up a pen later in life, as it does to carry a government-issue M-16 right after high school.

Dwight's voice tapers off as the end of his story nears, and the silence of our listening deepens into something more, a hush that holds within it the echoes of every shot ever fired, every bomb ever dropped, every anthem ever played. It is the kind of moment for which there are no words.

This Veterans Day, I have only these two to offer Dwight and all who have served: Thank you.

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