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Veterans Writing Project, coming to William and Mary, seeks to record military experiences

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — After Ron Capps saw five wars in 10 years, the horrific images began to collide.

"I was in Afghanistan and I was seeing the dead from Kosovo and the dead from Rwanda in my dreams, and then not in my dreams," he said. "And I decided to get help."

Therapy and medication didn't get him where he needed to be. Drinking made it worse. The Tidewater native eventually found his answer in writing, and it worked so well that he decided to help other veterans with the healing power of the written word.

Capps directs the Veterans Writing Project, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. This weekend, it will convene a seminar at the College of William and Mary for 25 preselected veterans from Hampton Roads.

The visit was made possible through the persistent work of Sam Pressler, a W&M junior who grew up in a family that put a high value on helping former service members.

"I knew I wanted to do something to help veterans, and I was looking at more creative ways to do it," said the 21-year-old from Wayne, N.J.

He eventually found the Veterans Writing Project, which begins with Capps' own story.

Capps grew up in Virginia Beach and graduated from Bayside High School in 1976. His dad served in the Navy and was based at Little Creek, serving in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Capps chose the Army, where he served for 25 years between active duty service and the reserves. He also worked as a foreign service officer for the U.S. States Department.

"Between those two jobs, I spent a lot of time overseas," he said.

He quickly found his niche.

"What I was good at," he said, "was going somewhere and figuring out what was happening on the ground and writing home about it – either for (the departments of) State or Defense."

Capps witnessed some of the worst horrors in the world – genocide in Rwanda, violence in Kosovo, tragedy in the Sudan, plus Afghanistan and Iraq. He distilled gut-wrenching sights and sounds into clear, precise, sanitized reports for policy makers and analysts back in Washington.

But the stress of trying to find clarity amid the ugliness took its toll. At one moment in Darfur, he contemplated suicide, and a phone call tore him away from the moment. But the damage had been done. Diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and "in really, really bad shape," he eventually lost his security clearance and left military and diplomatic service.

But when he turned to writing about his experiences, he found solace. He went back to graduate school to get a master's degree in creative writing. His work began to get recognized. One night, he was driving back from a workshop and wondering about his life after graduation.

"I'm a working writer, so what am I going to do with this? I'm going to give it away."

The Veterans Writing Project was incorporated in February 2011 and works toward three goals. The first is literary. Capps believes a new wave of literature is coming from returning veterans and their families. The second is social: to get these stories in front of people, considering that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on the other end of the spectrum, the World War II generation is dwindling.

Its third goal is therapeutic. Capps is quick to note that he's not a therapist, and if someone needs professional help, his organization is not the place for it. That said, the healing power of writing can help veterans deal with their experiences.

Last fall, back in Capps' home turf of Hampton Roads, Pressler was seeking ways to serve the many veterans who live in Hampton Roads. The College of William and Mary, where he is pursuing a double major in government and finance, is already well known for its work on behalf of veterans.

The Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefit Clinic assists former service members with complex disability claims, and it has been certified as a national "best practices" program, joining the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans.

When Pressler came across a news story about the Veterans Writing Project, it struck a chord. He made a formal proposal to college President Taylor Reveley, and that started the ball rolling. He eventually linked up with the veterans clinic, and over the summer began raising money to bring the Veterans Writing Project to campus.

Reaching to local community colleges, spreading the word on Facebook and contacting the American Legion was enough to secure 25 participants. Although this weekend's event is filled, Pressler hopes to make this a recurring project – especially given the number of veterans in the Hampton Roads region.

The Veterans Writing Project is for all veterans, not only the post/911 generation. It welcomes military family members to write about their experiences as well. Pressler said that's important to remember.

"The goal is to create this experience with veterans of different generations," he said. "Each generation has a story to tell."

About the Veterans Writing Project

Participants don't need prior training in writing. All instructors are working writers who hold masters-level degrees in writing and are also combat veterans. It publishes a quarterly journal of veterans writing, O-Dark-Thirty, found at o-dark-thirty.org. Visit the Veterans Writing Project on the web at veteranswriting.org.
 

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