Writing about their experiences in the military can mean confronting and conquering the past for some veterans.
For Reed Kohberger, who is credited with saving 396 lives during his 33 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, it’s about the 40 or 50 people he couldn’t rescue.
For Venita Willis, it’s about continuing to heal from emotional scars left by a sexual assault during an Army tour in Korea that led to her medical discharge after 16 years of service.
Not all of the participants in the Veterans Writing Project workshop wrapping up Tuesday at the Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City have such powerful, pent-up stories to unleash about their time in the armed forces. Some simply want to get their experiences down on paper before memories fade; others are hoping to write novels or children’s books that have nothing to do with the military.
The free, eight-week series was offered in Howard County for the first time by the Veterans Writing Project, a Silver Spring-based nonprofit comprised of veterans who share their expertise as professional writers with other veterans looking to achieve literary, musical, social or therapeutic goals.
Co-sponsored by the Institute of Integrative Health in Baltimore, the workshop was the fourth in a yearlong series of veterans’ initiatives organized by the Howard County Library System.
Since there were about 18,000 veterans living in Howard County in 2017, according to a Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs annual report, the library system began searching for ways to serve that population, said Rohini Gupta, adult curriculum specialist.
“We’re focused on being inclusive and equitable,” she said.
The other Veterans’ Word programs organized this year by the library system were: a showing and discussion of “From War to Wisdom,” a 2017 documentary that follows a company of Marines who survived the war in Iraq; “In Freedom’s Name,” a traveling exhibit from Stevenson University on wartime contributions of Marylanders from 1634 to the present; and ART-illery, a class in making paper from old uniforms taught by Alexandria, Va.-based Torpedo Factory Art Center.
The library system’s effort to step up program offerings for veterans mirrors a trend.
Founded in 2011 by Ron Capps, the Veterans Writing Project has taught free workshops and seminars in 20 states, including library systems in Baltimore and Montgomery counties and at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore City, said Dario DiBattista, instructor of the Miller workshop.
Capps is the author of “Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story,” which provides the core curriculum for the project’s seminars and workshops.
Estimates of the number of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder range from 11% to 20% in a given year depending on service era, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website. About 30% of Vietnam War veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime, the website states.
“Veterans who want to write something powerful often need to process trauma,” DiBattista said. A Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, he is editor of the 2016 book, “Retire the Colors: Veterans & Civilians on Iraq & Afghanistan.”
Instructors often hear from veterans with PTSD that writing saved them from themselves, said DiBattista, who is also director of the Military and Veterans Center at Towson University.
“They say, ‘Now that I have writing in my life, I don’t want to put a bullet in my brain anymore,’ ” he said. “That’s intensely gratifying and rewarding.”
J.W. Rone, director of veterans’ initiatives at the Institute for Integrative Health, echoed that sentiment.
“Vets often tell us that art saved their life,” said Rone, who is also working with Root Studio in Columbia to provide improvisational theater classes for veterans.
Describing Veterans Writing Project workshops as Writing Bootcamp 101, DiBattista said he focuses on teaching “the DNA of storytelling.”
“Veterans have an innate and strong need to share their military experiences, and I try to demystify that process,” he said.
“We can’t make them functionally better writers in two hours, but we can take them from a crawl to a walk to a run by helping them understand what [the] story is and what makes writing work.”
Jerri Bell, a retired naval officer and author who also teaches for the Veterans Writing Project, offered workshop participants a few writing tricks on Oct. 1 in DiBattista’s absence.
“If you’re ever stuck, use ‘This is not a story about …’ ” as a prompt to get writing juices flowing again, suggested Bell, co-author of “It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan.”
A timeline of events — whether autobiographical or for a character — can also help by pinpointing change, which Bell described as “an essential engine of writing.”
“Why zero in on change?” she asked. “One of the first things I have against someone’s writing is when nothing changes.
“We all want to root for characters to overcome obstacles. If there aren’t any or if they’re overcome too easily, as one of my kids’ teachers says, ‘What’s the so-what?’ ”
Workshop participants listened raptly and said afterward that Bell’s approach to the craft and the mechanics of writing was enlightening.
Willis, an Ellicott City resident who volunteers with the United Services Organization, said the weekly class has “provided a release and a level of healing that’s been life-altering.”
“My stories somehow always come back to the military lifestyle,” she said. “It can be hard to get past it and to heal, but if you’re honest [with yourself], writing will catapult you forward.”
Valerie Moreno, a Laurel resident whose father and husband are Navy veterans, is writing a fantasy story about what happened to aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart after crashing her plane.
“Most people in the class are writing about something that actually happened,” Moreno said, adding she’s grateful to be eligible for the workshop as a dependent of a veteran. “The synergy of being in the same space with others who value writing like I do is magical.”
Kohberger, who retired from the Coast Guard in 2011 and volunteers for several veterans causes, said his PTSD “is never going away.”
The Columbia resident is currently concentrating on fiction because “it gives me something to think about instead of the recurring, negative thoughts” that have led to chronic insomnia and dreams in which he’s constantly searching for someone.
“Writing is calming and therapeutic,” he said, “and it’s been interesting to listen to people in the class take their experiences and make something out of them.”
Kohberger also took part in the paper-making class in August and made light blue paper from an old Coast Guard uniform, some of which he sent to friends.
“Breaking the uniform down and making something new out of it was cathartic,” he said.
For the Howard library system, 2019 was just the beginning.
A book discussion group is being considered for 2020, as is the establishment of veterans’ resource and opportunity centers at some library branches, said Gupta the adult curriculum specialist.
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“What we’d really like to do is make this an ongoing set of classes and workshops that becomes an enduring part of our programming.”