Speaker Spotlight: Veterans Writing Project

We are excited to welcome Ron Capps from the Veterans Writing Project as this year's Anne Smedinghoff Award Recipient for our 2017 series Undercurrent. The Veterans Writing Project is a Washington D.C-based nonprofit founded upon the core belief that every veteran has a story worth telling. VWP provides no-cost writing seminars to veterans, service members, and military family members and commits itself to helping veterans cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As the founder and director, Ron Capps served 25 years in government service between the Army and the Foreign Service. Capps has been published on Time and The New York Times, and served as a consultant for Time, Rolling Stone, and PBS Frontline. His memoir, Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years - outlining his time in the service and his personal struggles with PTSD - was published in 2014.

We've collected some incredible excerpts of writings from the project for you to peruse. Join us at 7:30 PM in Mudd Hall on April 5, 2017 to find out more.

Interview with NPR

SIEGEL: And, first, why did you start The Veterans Writing Project?

CAPPS: I found that writing for me was very therapeutic. I came back from a number of combat deployments and was looking for a way to get better control of the memories from five wars and decided that writing was the tool that I was going to use. I found that there were so many veterans that have stories to tell and I wanted to help them by giving them the tools that they need to tell their own stories.

And so I founded The Veterans Writing Project and there were a group of us who are working writers with graduate degrees in writing and who are combat veterans. And we give away what we’ve learned.

SIEGEL: So this is at least part, in its origins, part therapeutic project, part documentary project in writing about the experience of veterans, but also a serious literary project.

CAPPS: That’s exactly right. I mean, we try to approach this from three different directions. Well, the first is literary. We think that there’s a new wave of American literature coming and that a great deal of that will be written by veterans and their family members.

But there’s also the social aspect. We really want to help bridge the divide between the less than 1 percent of Americans who are taking part in these wars and the 99 percent who are not. And we think that by getting these stories out and into the hands of the public that we can help do that. And finally, yeah, there really is a therapeutic aspect to this. Writing helps service members really get control of traumatic memories.

"Back From The Brink: War, Suicide, And PTSD" by Ron capps

Image courtesy of Veterans Writing Project

Image courtesy of Veterans Writing Project

Here's an excerpt from one of Capps thrilling pieces. You can read the rest of the short story here.

When the phone rang I jumped—startled—and nearly shot myself. This was almost comic, because I was already planning to kill myself and was holding the pistol in my hand. So I would have pulled the trigger while the pistol was pointed at my foot rather than my head. The ringing phone broke the spell. After all the crying and shaking, the moralizing and justifying, the calming of hands and nerves, the intense focusing on the immediate act of charging the weapon to put a bullet into the firing chamber, and then taking off the safety and preparing to put the barrel in my mouth, the ringing phone pulled me back from the brink.

I looked at the phone lying on the seat of the pickup and saw that it was my wife calling from Washington, D.C. I looked up as a boy with a camel in tow walked past the truck I was sitting in. The boy’s face was dirty—he’d probably been walking in the desert all day—and he was wearing a stained, full-length thawb (the classic garment worn by many Arab men) and dusty sandals. He looked at me; our eyes locked for a second. Then he looked away and pulled the camel’s rope bridle a little harder.

“Hello?” I answered. The static on the phone cleared up.

“Hey,” my wife said. “What’s up?” Uncanny timing.

I paused. I certainly couldn’t answer with the truth.

“Not much,” I said. “What’s up with you?”

"Extreme Measures" by Larry Thacker

I wake up, tongue stabbed and swollen, sore-raked across the teeth, a mystery
in the mouth at first but familiar once
the coffee stings over the bleeding spot.
I worry a top molar over a small missing chunk, the taste of blood mixed with morning breath, the same story no VA therapist
or new chemical cocktail can unravel.
It smarts more than usual but at least
it didn’t wake me up in the middle of another strange dream this time, choking, stabbed
in the mouth, tongue extracted, cut away,
or drowning, chewed and swallowed.
I’m not epileptic. I don’t grind my teeth. I just bite the fuck out of my tongue. Maybe it just keeps me from screaming the answer to a mystery in my sleep.

TED Talk: Bearing Witness to One's Truth

Inspired by the Veterans Writing Project, English teacher Jim Ott began to teach writing courses to Veterans in California. Ott discusses the importance of empathy and supporting veterans through the healing process in this TED talk. Watch the full video here: