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N.C. Veterans find healing through words at Methodist University group

Robin Talley put her trauma on paper.

Talley, 44, wrote a poem titled "My PTSD." In 15 terse lines, she details the sexual assault that occurred shortly after she joined the Army at age 17.

"Ravaged in a country not my own," Talley wrote. "In a war too young to understand."

Talley said the act of writing the lines - and reading them aloud - has been invaluable in her healing.

"This is the first time I was able to put it on paper and read it to anyone but a therapist," Talley said.

Talley is a participant in the Veterans Writing Collective at Methodist University.

The group, founded in January, helps veterans express themselves by honing their writing skills. Membership is free to all active-duty and retired military personnel, as well as their families.

"It's pain and sorrow and joy," said Robin Greene, one of the founders of the group. "It's everything. Nothing is taboo."

Greene is director of Methodist's writing center and a professor of English and writing. She started the group with Paul Stroebel and Rebecca King, both of whom earned writing degrees at Methodist.

A similar veterans writing group meets monthly at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. The group, which was started in October, is sponsored by the college's Literacy Commons and invites veterans to show up and share their work.

Greene said the Methodist group provides an environment where veterans feel comfortable expressing themselves.

"They feel free and they feel safe because we're talking about the writing," she said.

Members gather once a month to read from their work and receive critiques. As many as 30 people attend the meetings, Greene said.

Occasionally, guest writers attend to talk about their work and offer their expertise. North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti was a guest at a recent session.

The works shared by the students include poems, short stories and memoirs. Although many participants address their military experiences, they are free to write about whatever they choose.

Greene said she sees the collective as part of Methodist's outreach to the community. Participants have access to the university's writing lab and other resources.

The group keeps the focus on the mechanics of writing, Greene said. Meetings are not intended as therapy sessions.

Often, those mechanics consist of helping students focus more squarely on details.

One student, Greene said, wrote a memoir that included a passing reference to talking a fellow service member out of committing suicide.

"She just skipped over that," Greene said. "She was able to pull out that moment that I helped her identify."

Collective members gathered in a Methodist classroom on a recent Saturday afternoon to share their work and offer creative criticism.

The guest lecturer for the day was Tracy Crow, a former Marine Corps officer and military journalist. Crow is the author of a memoir titled "Eyes Right: Confessions From a Woman Marine."

Crow sat at a desk in front of a blackboard. There were written tips including "Show, don't tell" and "Making art from fact." She encouraged each student to read from his work, then led a critique session.

"I may have been a little bit off when I started this," one student apologized before launching into his work.

"Honey, we're all a little bit off," Crow said to laughter. "Don't let that worry you."

One student read an account of her experiences as an African-American woman in the military. Crow offered praise for a section in which the student wrote of her fear and excitement over learning to rappel.

"Did you hear the human heart in conflict with itself in that last part? Whoa," Crow said.

Student Ken Digby, 77, was in the Army from 1959 to 1979, including a stint in Vietnam. Digby said he joined the group because he was thinking about writing his memoirs for his family.

Not all of Digby's memories are related to his service. For instance, he has written about his youth in Tiffin, Ohio. Specifically, he recalled an elderly Civil War veteran who lived in his neighborhood.

"He'd sit on the porch in the summer," Digby said. "He'd say hi to me, I'd say hi to him."

Robert Kugelmann, 80, served in the Air Force from 1957 to 1977. He said the group has helped him see that his experience can have value to others.

"My big hang-up is I always ask, 'Who cares?' " Kugelmann said. "This is personal stuff. Who wants to read this?"

Kugelmann said one memory that has surfaced during his time in the class was an incident at a base in South Carolina in the late 1960s. A storm was raging, and the ground crew was struggling to get the runway ready for planes to land.

"It was panic time," Kugelmann said. "You've got more than a dozen airplanes, and you've got to get them in."

Kugelmann said all the planes landed safely.

Talley said writing about her sexual assault has been therapeutic. She has read her poem in front of the class and was due to present it at a writers conference in Wrightsville Beach.

"This class has been a 100 percent life-saver for me," Talley said.

Greene said Talley's experience shows the effect that facing one's traumatic experiences and writing about them can have.

"She went from victim to victor," Greene said. "That kind of transformation is so important."

mullenr@fayobserver.com

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