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Words of war, peace of mind: The Veterans Writing Project

NORFOLK, Va. — Ron Capps is clearing his throat at the front of a classroom in Williamsburg. It's a Saturday morning.

He begins with questions: Who are you? Why are you here?

A National Guardsman says he drove all the way from Charlottesville because it turns out writing is harder than it looks. The veteran next to him says his thoughts have been especially scattered lately, and maybe it will help to see them on paper. A woman who deployed twice to Iraq explains that this was her therapist's idea.

After he lectures on narrative structure, theme, characters and endings, Capps, who grew up in Virginia Beach, tells his own story: There was Kosovo and Rwanda. Then Afghanistan and Iraq. Then Darfur. It was there, eight years ago, sitting alone in a pickup in the desert, that he nearly shot himself in the head. He'd made the decision. The pistol was in his hand. And then his wife happened to call and interrupt. He was sent back to the United States, where conventional treatment and alcohol weren't enough.

"What brought me home," he says, "was writing."

More than 2 million Americans have deployed in the post-9/11 wars, and they've all come back with something. Besides physical wounds and full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, there are subtler torments: "moral injury," an affliction separate from PTSD that comes from experiences that transgress deeply held moral beliefs; the weird desire to go back to a place they hate, because now nothing else makes sense; the feeling of extreme isolation, because whereas before they lived among people they'd have died for, now they live among people who barely know there was a war; the nagging certainty that they'll never feel as alive as they did over there, or as connected to others, and that nothing will ever feel as important.

If nothing else, they've come home with stories.

Capps, who is 56, runs a nonprofit called the Veterans Writing Project. Launched three years ago, it offers free writing courses for current and former service members and publishes their work in a literary review called O-Dark-Thirty. Capps teaches most of the classes himself.

He tells his students that writing after war is not new. Homer's "Iliad" is a seminal example, he says, and returning Greek soldiers of the time were required to publicly share their combat experiences so as to "communalize" them among the citizens they'd fought for.

He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said of his comrades in the American Civil War, "It is for us to bear the report to those who come after us." He reads aloud Vera Brittain, a World War I nurse who authored a book in an attempt to "rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the war."

A century later, the longest stretch of fighting in American history has produced a new crop of writers. They've published books, essays, poems and plays, and they've written for themselves — letters they never intended to send, notebooks that no one else has opened.

They've learned the hard way what science has shown: Writing about traumatic experiences can make a difference when nothing else has. It improves physical and psychological health. It organizes chaotic thoughts. It helps you find meaning, and then get on with things.

Something Capps writes on the board in his classes is this: Either you control the memory or the memory controls you.

Capps was in his mid-20s, playing guitar at Oceanfront bars and studying English literature at Old Dominion University, when he joined the National Guard to get money for school. After graduation, in 1985, he was commissioned into the regular Army. He was a cavalry officer before moving to intelligence.

In 1994, ready for something new, he transferred to the reserves and took a job with the State Department. He worked all over the globe, collecting information on brutal conflicts and sending it home.

In Africa, he tracked refugees and killers after ethnic massacres. In Kosovo, where a Serbian thug once held a pistol to his head, he documented war crimes. When homes were burned with families inside, Capps went to take notes. When villagers were shot in the backs of their heads, Capps counted bodies. When thousands of ethnic Albanians were rounded up by force, Capps interviewed them. Sometimes they pleaded for protection, but direct involvement wasn't his job. He would write later that he compiled "crisp, dry reports about messy, horrible acts of cruelty."

He wrote for himself, too, about the messiness that was not in his official dispatches: the way their yellowed skin surprised him the first time he saw corpses, the dirt under their fingernails, his uselessness to intervene. He didn't know exactly why, but he wanted to record and preserve what he was seeing. "I wanted it memorialized," he says now.

By the time the Army called him to Afghanistan in 2002 to oversee human intelligence operations, the dead from Europe and Africa were visiting him nightly in "wretched, tormenting, wide-awake dreams," asking why he didn't save them. When they came in the day, Capps hid in bunkers, trembling and crying, and then saw an Army doctor who put him on Prozac. After his near-suicide in Darfur in 2006, he was flown home to Washington.

He kept taking medication and saw a psychiatrist. It wasn't enough. In some ways he was OK — he could get his work done — but in others he was as wracked as ever. He felt overwhelming sadness and fear that he knew weren't rational. On the train some mornings, he couldn't control his shaking. He mixed alcohol with his prescriptions. He got lost in his own neighborhood. The worst episodes would start in his chest and end with him rocking in a ball. His breath would shorten, his gut would wrench, and images of bodies would come. When he retired in late 2008, he decided to enroll in a two-year graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

In his classes, he tried to capture his past. He went back to things he'd written years earlier, sharing them with classmates and editing and re-editing them into what would become chapters in a memoir. He says it was that process — repeated, controlled, purposeful exposure to some of his worst memories — that began to make a marked difference. "I was getting better, and I knew it wasn't anything else."

He wanted to understand why. In late 2010, he read a book called "Achilles in Vietnam," by retired Veterans Affairs psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who introduced the clinical concept of moral injury. Relatively new but gaining traction, it describes the psychological fallout of experiences that are at odds with deeply held moral beliefs, such as collateral deaths of women and children. Taking part in a transgression isn't necessary; witnessing intense human suffering, for example, is enough to set off the internal conflict that marks moral injury. While some symptoms mirror those of PTSD, others are unique: guilt, shame, self-condemnation.

Capps was struck by the part in Shay's book about how Greek warriors were required to tell their stories upon coming home. "Any blow in life will have longer-lasting and more serious consequences if there is no opportunity to communalize it," Shay wrote.

Nearing graduation, Capps decided what he wanted to do next: He would give away to other veterans what he'd learned about writing. He assembled a board of directors. He persuaded George Washington University to let him hold a set of summer seminars on its campus. He recruited his first participants.

Today, he runs the Veterans Writing Project from his attic in Washington. With three other instructors — all of them veterans — he teaches weekend courses close to home and out of town, as well as longer classes. He also leads weekly sessions in Bethesda, Md., at the military's National Intrepid Center of Excellence, which cares for service members with brain injuries and PTSD for whom conventional treatment hasn't worked.

He estimates around 1,000 veterans have taken his courses.

Capps authored the curriculum he uses, a 150-page textbook called "Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story." It includes sections on diction, dialogue and point of view, and passages by Leo Tolstoy, Tim O'Brien and Ernest Hemingway.

The next-to-last chapter is titled "Writing About Trauma."

"This is difficult work," Capps explains. It takes time. It's painful. Its effects are gradual.

And it's worth it.

"Keep writing."

Researchers have been examining the effects of writing about traumatic experiences for more than three decades. Among the things they've learned: It reliably improves physical and psychological health for a wide variety of people. It is tied to better immune function, better grades and better relationships. While it doesn't work for everyone and it isn't a cure, over time, it helps many people become less impaired, and there is no evidence that it is harmful.

As for how it works and why, psychologists describe the benefits as a cascade.

Confronting traumatic memories, rather than avoiding them, is central to feeling better. Airing them can reduce stress and bring clarity.

Beyond that, organizing them into a coherent narrative helps make meaning of them, which causes them to be recalled more like other memories, says Joshua Smyth, a professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University. At first, the memories are intense, immediate and highly sensory, like a flashback. Processing them brings in objectivity and distance.

With time, when the traumatic memories are triggered, such as by a smell, you feel less like you're reliving them. "We can see on fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance images) that the neural representation can change," Smyth says. "You can access the memory in a less traumatic way."

Rather than ruminating, you become free to focus on things such as a job or friendships, says James Pennebaker, head of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied the effects of writing about trauma since the mid-1980s. "Over time," Pennebaker says, "all of these benefits add up."

The point, Capps stresses, is not to erase traumatic memories. It is to control them. He says writing allows you to process them in a manageable way, like a glove allows you to pick up something hot.

He describes what is accomplished as the "concretization" of the memory. You create something tangible that you can crumple up, burn, revise or publish. A memory that was roaming wildly becomes tamed. "You are building a framework around the memory and placing it under your control," Capps says, "rather than vice versa."

Denise Sloan, a researcher and clinician at the VA's National Center for PTSD, says writing for a half-hour a handful of times can be enough to make a difference, and she believes writing may approximate the effectiveness of conventional treatments, such as cognitive processing therapy. She is conducting a study comparing them and says that, so far, "the findings seem promising."

In one regard, Sloan thinks writing might even be better: Veterans, many of whom are hesitant to seek help, will actually do it.

In early 2011, a Navy SEAL checked into the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed Military Medical Center, where Capps leads sessions each Wednesday.

Since 9/11, the SEAL had deployed a dozen times, mostly to Afghanistan. He spent the better part of a decade tracking and killing members of al-Qaida and the Taliban, and then he was assigned to a desk job. He wore ties and advised civilian and military decisionmakers, and life finally slowed down enough for the wars to catch up to him.

"When you've hunted people for all that time, it's hard to do anything else," says the Virginia Beach-based SEAL, who spoke for this story on the condition that he not be named. "It's contrary to everything else in society, and you give everything to it." When it ends, "you don't know how to live anymore."

It was little things: the realizations that he had few interests unrelated to war, and no idea how to relate to the unburdened masses at home. It was big things: disillusionment, indifference and crushing depression.

He says he was able to reconcile that he'd killed men who'd chosen to fight for an indefensible cause, but he could not accept the deaths of so many of his teammates. He came to see the wars as a waste — unworthy of their cost, fought by lions at the behest of lambs. At work, he did his best to put aside his mistrust and alienation.

"You put up a facade," he says, "and behind it, you're crumbling. It takes all your energy to keep it up."

He describes his depression: "It's a doom loop — a dark cloud with big hooks that just isn't letting go."

To explain his indifference, he offers this: "Sometimes I care more about animals than people."

And yet there are days when he'd go back. "It's almost an addiction," he says. "I miss it, and that's not normal."

He pauses. "But maybe it is normal."

Doctors at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence told him he had PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. They worked to assuage his physical ailments — horrible headaches, back problems, ringing in his ears — as well as his psychological ones. He promised himself he'd try everything during his four-week stay, and he did, even yoga. His first Wednesday there, he attended Capps' session.

Either you control the memory, or the memory controls you.

While Veterans Writing Project courses focus on craft, at the medical center, Capps tells service members to just write: Don't worry about spelling or grammar. If you can't figure out how to start, pick a day. What did it sound like? What did it smell like?

The SEAL wrote five pages. He chose not to read them to the group that week, but the next three Wednesdays, he did.

He has written on most days since. Sometimes it's a half-page. Sometimes it's 10. Some days it's stream-of- consciousness, and others it's detailed accounts of firefights.

Once it was a lengthy entry on hydrogen peroxide. They always carried it in Afghanistan because it dissolves blood, which they'd get on themselves when they searched the bodies of enemy dead. Afterward, they'd pour peroxide down their arms and over their weapons, and that is what the SEAL thought of when he saw one of the brown bottles on a shelf at home. Then he thought about how, even in the most mundane ways, like what he thinks about when he sees peroxide, he is different.

Then he wrote it all down.

At first, he bought expensive Moleskine journals. He uses cheaper notebooks now. He has a stack with full pages at his house in Virginia Beach. In the margins, he notes the subject and date so he can easily revisit past entries. He thinks he might eventually turn some into a memoir.

He says there is no undoing how war changed him; there is only learning how to live now that it's over, and he is doing it by writing. Slowly, writing has helped him make sense of what happened and the person he is now. It's quieted his self-criticism, eased his depression and shown him meaning.

He takes a low dose of an antidepressant but prefers writing to seeing a therapist because he is doing the work himself.

"It's the number-one tool I have," he says.

He tells a story.

One morning a few weeks ago, he found a baby robin crying on the ground in his yard. He put it in a box and searched until he found its nest, then set the robin inside and waited to see whether its mother would return. She didn't.

Later that day, while doing yard work, he lifted a heavy paving stone he'd set down earlier. Underneath was the baby robin, crushed. It had somehow fallen out of its nest again, and the SEAL hadn't seen it.

The downward spiral was immediate: All I'm good for is taking life, he thought, and here is one more. It felt worse than killing men in Afghanistan.

He finished in the yard and went inside.

He needed to write.

Capps is at the front of a classroom in Virginia Beach. He asks his usual first-day questions.

"Let's start in the back," he says.

In all of his courses, Capps tells veterans there are two reasons to get their stories down: The first, to control traumatic memories, requires only that the story be written. The second, to bear witness, as the Greeks did, requires that the story be shared, whether with a few trusted friends or with the world through publication. It's why the Veterans Writing Project produces a quarterly literary review.

Capps says those who didn't fight need to know what happened, and they need to know the struggles of those who did are part of the cost of war. And in its own right, he says, bearing witness helps veterans heal. It makes them less isolated and offers them a new mission. It softens the blow of leaving behind one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives because it is a way to stay connected to it.

His own life and his work with veterans have convinced Capps that moral injury is real, and he agrees with clinicians who believe that communalizing war experiences by sharing them — ceding some of the burden to people who did not participate — can be a sort of treatment.

"Maybe if I can confess my memories to someone, I can be absolved of them," he says in his memoir, "Seriously Not All Right," which was recently published. "Maybe if I can give the memories away or at least share them, they won't be so awful. Maybe they'll only be bad. Bad would be OK."

In the classroom's first row, the last student to introduce himself is the SEAL who met Capps at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence.

He doesn't give his name. He tells the group that he deployed more times than he wants to remember.

He looks at Capps. He says writing works, and he's been telling teammates who are struggling, which is a lot of them.

One is here today, seated beside him.

corinne.reilly@pilotonline.com

HOW THIS STORY WAS REPORTED

The reporter attended portions of two Veterans Writing Project seminars, one at the College of William & Mary in February and another in March at Old Dominion University's Virginia Beach Center. She relied on Ron Capps' published writing, as well as studies on the therapeutic effects of writing. She interviewed Capps, other veterans who have used writing to control traumatic memories, researchers and clinicians.
 

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