Military Veterans Find the Pen is Mighty

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At first glance, the military and creative worlds might seem like largely foreign lands. But as more veterans are making a connection and tapping into their creative sides, they are giving civilians unique glimpses into what it’s like to be a part of the armed forces.

Kevin Jones, an Assistant Professor of Writing and Literature at South University — Tampa, is one veteran who is putting pen to paper to tell his story — and encouraging others to do the same. A veteran of Desert Storm who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and Army National Guard, Jones is focusing part of his doctoral research on the benefits of creative writing programs for veterans of conflict, both military and civilian.

Providing military veterans with the support they need to express themselves is critical to easing their transition back into the civilian world, he says. “The current group of veterans is the largest component of people to return from combat since the Vietnam War,” Jones points out.

One of Jones’ stories, about a Marine who is trying to “deprogram” himself from the military and rejoin the civilian world, is featured in the anthology Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform, which was published in 2009. Writing the story allowed Jones to look back on his time stationed in Hawaii and explore the disconnect between the tourists, islanders, and the military on the island.

“All writing affects an author in one way or another; however, this one had particular resonance for me because I lived it,” states Jones.  While the actual events of his story are fictionalized, the time, place, and events that lead up to the story’s beginning are real.

“I served in Desert Storm and walked that line between being on a Marine base one moment and in Waikiki the next, trying to reconcile the two worlds in my mind,” he says. “With the wars going on now, I’m sure walking that line is much more difficult for active duty service members and veterans alike these days.”

Jeffrey Hess, a Florida writer and Navy veteran himself, edited Home of the Brave. The idea for anthology, he says, came about when a publisher learned that Hess ran a writing workshop for veterans. The book features stories from veterans and well-known authors including Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brien, and Gabe Hudson. Hess hopes it will bring attention and financial support for the organization USA Cares, which provides post-9/11 military families with financial and advocacy support.

“I had no idea how this book would take shape until I started receiving the first drafts. With America’s vast military history, I had to limit the time period somehow,” Hess says. The anthology, which begins in the height of World War II and ends with a serviceman leaving to fight in a current conflict, provided the right timeline for Hess. “That was a great scope for me. A time capsule, of sorts, rather than a strict chronology.”

In his writing workshops, Hess encourages participants to write about whatever they choose. He recommends that veterans interested in putting their experiences in writing get into a habit of putting words down on a page (or a screen). Hess also suggests reading books, stories, magazine articles, and blog entries to see what’s out there — and to use these sources as inspiration.

An unexpected benefit for many veterans comes from the writing process itself, Hess says. Just starting to think about stories in a creative way demonstrates a commitment to a newfound project, which many veterans find liberating.

“Some [veterans] have a passion for words and have been voracious readers for years and want to try their hand at it. Others have a story to tell, or many stories,” Hess states. “In the best cases, writers often get to a deeper place in their thinking by writing, and they can come away with new understanding for themselves and others.” 

Hess isn’t alone in providing creative resources for veterans. At the Milspeak Foundation, veteran Sally Drumm offers creative writing seminars meant to provide veterans with the opportunity to create and grow — while giving readers with a unique perspective on what it means and feels like to be a veteran. 

“Military life has traditionally been shrouded in silence. This ‘traditional silence about military life’ is expected as a show of loyalty to the service and to those one serves with,” states Drumm, who is a retired Gunnery Sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps who served during the Cold War. But this culture of silence often keeps active military and veterans from learning how to communicate their experiences in a positive way.

Finding the inner strength to break through this silence is often liberating, helping the writers to express themselves in a beneficial manner. “We human beings have a long history of associating art with combat — as a positive way to share our experience,” adds Drumm.

She emphasizes the value of sharing stories to capture points in time, much like a time capsule does. “If we don't capture the personal stories — the memoir of our veterans — we suffer as a society. If the veterans have no way to express themselves, they suffer in silence, as some of our Vietnam veterans have done, drifting through life more than 30 years with a story that grows more powerful the longer it gestates in silence.”

Drumm believes that writing keeps civilians connected to their military, allowing for greater understanding of the struggles, successes, and challenges veterans face. “The practice of writing with other vets provides a place of safety and understanding among like minds, who share in celebrating battles won and in mourning battles lost,” she says.

Jones asserts that the cathartic nature of writing and storytelling is extremely beneficial for veterans, whether or not the story being told is literally true. “It doesn’t have to have a message, or an answer, or explain anything to those who weren’t there. In fact, if someone wasn’t there, it’s impossible for that person to truly understand what a veteran has gone through.”

“The point is to let veterans express themselves as they see fit," he concludes.


Written by freelance talent for South Source.

© South University