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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Q5: Dispatches

  • Emma Rainey leads Writing My Way Back Home, workshops hosted around the country for veterans that focus on catharsis by documenting war experiences.
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  • Emma Rainey leads Writing My Way Back Home, workshops hosted around the country for veterans that focus on catharsis by documenting war experiences.
    Upcoming workshops are scheduled for 5-7 p.m. April 25 and 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. April 26 at The Writers Place, 3607 Pennsylvania Ave., in Kansas City, Mo.
    It is open to all veterans, as well as spouses, partners and teenage children.
    1.What made you want to get involved in Writing My Way Back Home?
    "I started Writing My Way Back Home five years ago while attending the University of Iowa. I’m well versed in what goes on with military life: my father was a naval officer in the Korean War and my sister a pilot in the Coast Guard.
    "My news comes from listening to NPR, reading the New York Times online, and The New Yorker, all of which began chronicling the physical devastation of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. … I could handle this news — sad news, of course — but I could go on with my day.
    "What I could not handle were the news reports about soldiers committing suicide upon their return home. After struggling with depression, often with subsequent addiction to drugs and alcohol, soldiers found themselves unable to deal with civilian life, and then, despite surviving the harrowing conflicts abroad, they ended their lives.
    "It was during a morning commute to UI, driving along stubble-faced soybean and cornfields recently harvested, I heard one NPR report too many. The irony of soldiers serving tours overseas, surviving, then killing themselves, overwhelmed me. I understood the irresistible craving for death these soldiers sought and found. I understood, too, that writing heals, it’s a means to honor pain and loss and grief and move beyond that craving to end your life."
    2. How does the workshop serve as a catharsis and healing exercise for military members who have experienced the worst — and best — of humanity in war?
    "Humans are inherently storytellers — we love telling stories and we love hearing them. The reason we read books, listen to the words in songs and go to movies is because we resonate with what the storyteller is saying.
    "Growing up in a military family, I fully understand the significance of the military lifestyle and all that goes on for each member of the family. Soldiers are trained to not express their emotions … and this is necessary for soldiers to maintain order and take direction under the extreme circumstances they find themselves in during war. These soldiers don’t suddenly come home and begin expressing the confusion and doubt and fears inside. Rather, they continue to hold them inside as they were trained to do.
    Page 2 of 5 - "Writing about trauma offers a harbor between holding trauma in, and talking about it. I have witnessed veterans unable to express their emotions because they were trained to take orders. Writing about extraordinary experiences opens the sealed-off armored compartments veterans often carry inside.
    "At workshops I often offer index cards and pens beside a locked box with a slot, and then I invite the veterans to write the unspeakable, the one thing they cannot say aloud that gnaws inside. Just that action — writing the unutterable — offers relief.
    "I think the one thing that always amazes me more than anything else is the visceral joy at these workshops. Yes, there are tears sometimes when a memory long buried emerges. But, mostly there is just plain relief. Being with other veterans — the camaraderie is off-the charts, doesn’t matter the war or branch of service — and the fact that someone wants to hear their story.
    "Readers benefit from hearing the veterans stories because we have no clue what they have been through. … As we all are well aware of now, the devastation of war on the human psyche remains mysterious."
     
    3. Can you tell us about veterans who have attended your workshops and how the writing experience helped them navigate their more troubling emotions from war?
    “One veteran described the process as “fast.” With sections so full of painful content there was hardly time to stop the full effect — powerful concepts being laid out. He said, ‘Time passed so quickly. Need more time. Need more life.’  “Another veteran said, ‘When I wrote down the first word that comes to mind, I wrote down “memory” as my mapping. From that word memory I wrote down other words relating to it: lost, pain, help, feeling, therapy, etc. this really set my mind as to where I wanted and needed to go as a veteran with PTSD.’
    "I remember one veteran from Iraq who was afraid he didn’t deserve to attend the workshop because he hadn’t seen combat. I kept him on the phone for a bit and learned that as soon as he arrived in Iraq, an extremely heavy piece of equipment fell on his foot.
    “Rather than complain, he kept on with the project they were constructing even though he was in unbearable pain. He completed the part of the mission he was a part of during the next two weeks, however he couldn’t keep his broken foot a secret any longer. They had to amputate his leg.
    "For some unknown reason, excruciating pain continued to plague him upon his return home. He is now wheelchair-bound, unable to drive since he never knows when the pain — literally blinding — incapacitates him, despite numerous operations. His wife wanted him to attend.
    Page 3 of 5 - "Another time, I kept getting phone calls from Chicago, but I couldn’t understand what the person was saying. Finally, at 6 a.m., she called — 'before I take my meds.' She asked if I could register her since she had no access to the online form.
    “She also mentioned she was bringing a sleeping bag, and was there a corner she could sleep in for the three-day workshop? We got free rooms from a local hotel, and they shuttled the vets back and forth every day.
    "Before hanging up, she mentioned that she was taking the bus with two other friends and, oh, she was in a wheelchair.
    "I have tons of such stories, (like) the grammar school principle who was fired when they discovered he had PTSD."
     
    4. What would you say to veterans who might be unwilling to try the workshop because they're afraid to relive many of their experiences?
    "We are extremely careful about creating a place of safety and compassion for the vet during the workshop. We always have counselors on hand.
    "But the biggest reason to join us is we are offering a chance for the veteran to begin sharing their stories and expressing feelings and insights, instead of internalizing them. The workshop is but a means to help them begin to tell their story and — hopefully — to create balance in their lives.
    "Even keeping a journal is life changing, allowing room for transformation through writing.
    “I have experienced the healing power of writing myself, and witnessed this transformative power innumerable times in workshops.
    "Will writing alone heal a person? Probably not.
    “But, neither will drugs or drinking or stuffing the pain inside so deep no one knows. Writing is a tool to help veterans write about the rage, the humor, the fear and helplessness.
    "It’s been proven that the act of writing and revision, not the quality of what is produced, helps the soldier develop healthy coping strategies. And honestly, once the story is out, the power of pain’s destruction inside the mind and heart is greatly diminished."
     
    5. What have been the most rewarding aspects in helping veterans find a voice to share their experiences, and do you think most of them find some resolution and peace after sharing their stories?
    "Many of our workshop attendees have gone on to publish novels and poems, they are represented in anthologies, and many blogs. This is all fabulous and validating.
    “What I see at the workshops is immense delight in being surrounded by other people like themselves that they don’t have to explain themselves to — there is a peace in that. I also see enormous relief that someone wants to hear their story.
    Page 4 of 5 - “I have also seen vets overwhelmed and still not ready to process their experiences, but this is rare.
    "For me, the most rewarding moments are when I see a poet and vet passionately discussing a piece of writing and skipping lunch.
    “For me, it’s seeing a disabled vet defying the loss they’ve incurred and stepping outside their comfort zone by sharing a piece of their work in a room full of strangers.
    “For me, it’s the Vietnam vets finally coming to terms with the horror that plagues them every night by attending our workshop. … It’s watching the women vets — sometimes blind, sometimes raped multiple times and then dishonorably discharged — courageous enough to tell their story. Finally.
    "It’s receiving an email from a vet who wrote his story and then read it aloud to an audience, describing his 'Ah-Ha' moment.
    "But, the most rewarding of all was immediately following our very first workshop.
    “I had been telling my dad, who was retired in Sacramento, about getting the workshop together.
    “I was surprised when, a week before the workshop, he phoned and asked, 'Want to hear a story from this old Korean War veteran?'
    “He promised to email it.
    "As it turned out, he couldn’t attach his story, and in the flush of organizing meetings with writers, therapists, raising funds, printing name tags, buying cases of water, tissues, journals and pencils, I forgot about my father and the story he promised to send.
    "His story, which he had never told anyone, was the most horrific war narrative I have — to date — ever heard. When I first read my father’s 1½ page story about the war, I thought, 'Too late.'
    “The revelation of my father’s secret war narrative … felt twisted, a paradox. But, he now volunteers for Make A Wish Foundation, working to fulfill the dreams of children with life-threatening medical conditions. I’m proud of him.
    “And he now sets aside his armor and mentions April 21, 1952, aboard the Saint Paul with odd details I could not conjure up.
    For instance, how he inventoried and packed up the personal belongings from the 30 lockers of the young men who blew up in the gun room moments after he left. He wrote 30 letters. The unintended fallout my father suffered in silence left him little more than an “unwritten code” to deal with it: “It was war, after all,” he tells me. And though I cannot say ‘Writing broke the silence, Dad. Welcome home’—I can write it.”
    Page 5 of 5 - — Rimsie McConiga

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