Veterans open up, learn to tell stories under Red Badge Project
The lifetimes that brought a group of injured and wounded soldiers to a Joint Base Lewis-McChord writing program this spring contained the makings for many screenplays.
One tightly wound Army officer arrived looking for a purpose at the end of his 21-year career.
“I need time to mend my mind,” he said.
Another solider showed up clinging to the Army he joined at age 40 and followed to war four times as a combat engineer.
“I’ll endure till there’s nothing left of me,” he said.
And one more retired medic came because he finally could think clearly. Painkillers clouded his mind in his last years of service.
“Where I was in my life,” he said, “I was still in quite a bit of pain.”
They’re some of the newest graduates of the Red Badge Project, a nonprofit that connects Northwest artists with ill, injured and wounded soldiers leaving the Army out of JBLM’s Warrior Transition Battalion.
It was founded almost two years ago by actor Tom Skerritt of “Top Gun” and “Alien” fame and former Army Capt. Evan Bailey. They wanted to create an intimate environment where soldiers could collect their thoughts, open up and tell stories.
They targeted soldiers in the Warrior Transition Battalion knowing they’d find veterans at a vulnerable moment in their lives, contemplating the end of their military service.
“One of the things that was important to me was that soldiers learn to express themselves in a manner that they feel they are understood and they can tell their stories in their own voice,” said Bailey, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The course, now offered at the University of Washington Tacoma, is one of several programs tied to the Warrior Transition Battalion that get soldiers out in town working with civilians in the months before they leave the military. For Red Badge, participants can earn college credit, too.
The program is not necessarily therapy, but soldiers find new ways to talk about their own experiences while working on characters and plots. A sister program offers a writing course for veterans of all conflicts at the Federal Way Veterans Center.
“They get more control of their story, their feelings,” said Ellen Bloom, chief of behavioral health for the Warrior Transition Battalion “They get more comfortable figuring out how to talk, when to talk and when not to talk” about combat.
The News Tribune visited two Red Badge classes over a three-week program at UWT. As a condition of the newspaper attending the class, Red Badge required that participants not be identified.
In the first class, participants appeared reluctant to share personal details about their lives. They talked about a shared feeling that civilians cannot relate to their experiences.
“I stopped trying to tell anyone what it’s like over there (on a deployment),” the former officer said. “It’s so hard.”
At the same time, two participants brought relatives to help their families learn more about their lives. One, the former medic, brought his teenage son. Another, the engineer who joined the Army at age 40 and went through boot camp at 41, brought his wife.
Their instructor that day was author Warren Etheredge, who coached them through exercises about how to illustrate conflict in a story with small details and well-planned characters. He wanted the students to tell human stories instead of thinking about themselves only as military writers.
“Trauma is trauma is trauma,” Etheredge said. “Pain is pain is pain.”
Etheredge has no military experience, but connected with the class by revealing the ways he has coped with his traumatic childhood. Students gasped when he described physical and sexual abuse.
Etheredge didn’t talk until he was 6.
He didn’t think anyone would listen.
“Storytelling saved my life because finally I could get something out I couldn’t get out before,” he said.
His honest and engaging approach was one reason the Army engineer chose to take the Red Badge class for a second time this spring.
“The instructors are just outstanding,” he said.
Two weeks later, Red Badge participants were much more open in discussing their lives and their writing.
Instructor Shawn Wong, an author and UW professor, prompted the students to write about the anxiety they feel as they await decisions on their medical retirements from the Army. It’s a sort of limbo in which soldiers rarely know exactly when they’ll leave.
“I want purpose,” the officer wrote. “I need purpose.”
“Being a soldier is the greatest job in the world,” wrote the engineer who faces a medical retirement because of a knee injury. “They haven’t told me I’m out, so I’m in.”
Etheredge, one of the program’s founding faculty members, has been teaching writing courses for 25 years. He likes the Red Badge and veterans classes because they’re composed of students with deep life experiences.
“These guys definitely do want to share their stories in some manner, and that means everything to me,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean they’re going to write books or movies or TV shows, but it does mean what they have to share is potentially life-saving for them and also attitude changing and politically shifting for others.”