Post-9/11 veterans use storytelling to reconnect with society

Telling their stories Matt Tom John Aaron Susan Eric Ron Scott Kiersten David Mark

Mark Fetterman, co-founder of The Homefront Foundation tells his story before an audience at the culmination of a workshop for veterans and first responders at the University of South Florida in Tampa on Aug. 27.


By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 9, 2016

TAMPA, Fla. — Three days after Matt Fetterman was sworn into the Navy at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, he stood with his twin brother, Mark, and the other plebes behind their school overlooking the Long Island Sound and watched the second plane fly into the World Trade Center.

The rest of Matt’s service was in wartime. Like Mark, he commissioned with the Navy reserve; they lost a classmate in Afghanistan and the brothers volunteered to deploy. When Matt came home, he didn’t tell his mom about the bomb that nearly killed him — or about another friend who was killed. He thought he was protecting her.

But it alienated him from those he loved.

Last year, having left the military, Matt was working toward his graduate degree in organizational psychology at Columbia University in New York when the class participated in a one-day workshop to help people connect through storytelling.

He went in that morning skeptical — cynical even — and emerged transformed. He started to tell his story. And relate to his family again. And find a place for himself back home.

Matt’s story is the story of a generation of young men and women who entered the military at the turn of the century in peacetime and grew into adulthood in the service of war. In the 15 years since 9/11, 2 million U.S. forces have come home with a bag of untold stories they’ve yet to unpack. Matt believes that telling those stories can help members of their generation reconnect. He knows it because that’s what happened to him.

Mark came home just as bewildered. He hid in a hotel room for nearly three weeks, realizing he no longer had a community where he had been living in California. With help from Matt and other friends, he moved forward. But he wondered: How many others were out there like him who didn’t have a strong support network to bring them back?

Mark saw the shift in Matt after he learned to tell his story. The two brothers started toying with the idea of creating a nonprofit to teach others. But Matt was engaged to be married and wary of the financial risks.

One day, in a moment of job-hunting frustration, Matt told his fiancé he wanted to buy a boat. Erica Rios was astounded.

“What are you doing?” she asked him. “You know what you need to do.”

The workshop

There were 11 participants, all in service: military or veterans, a firefighter, a police detective and a first responder. Other than that, they knew only each other’s first names.

Edwardyne Cowan — a storytelling and leadership coach who was their guide for the day — arranged them in a circle on the theater’s black floor. They sat in varying degrees of discomfort, unsure where they were headed this day.

They’d arrived at this theater on the University of South Florida campus on Aug. 27 under instructions to bring three stories about themselves that they might want to tell. They would each tell one that evening before an audience.

Most of them had no idea how they would do that. That’s what they were here to learn.

Edwardyne launched right in. Rate how present you are, she said.

Matt was first. He was 80 percent there, he said, and 20 percent focused on the logistics of this event, which marked the launch of their nonprofit, the Homefront Foundation.

Eric was 70 percent present and 30 percent terrified — he hates public speaking, he said. Susan carved out 10 percent to the unknown, 4 percent to always on being on call, and she was 6 percent certain that she shouldn’t be here. Dave: 90 percent here — the other 10 was in service to the group, he said. They would learn that he was headed on his fourth deployment in early September.

Mark, the other organizer, was 50 percent sure everyone’s numbers were wrong.

Unusual introductions, some noticed. Without rank or profession, or even last names. “Who I am transcends role or title,” Edwardyne said.

An accomplished theater actress, her role was to teach the group what it takes to tell a story — to reach inside and bring a compelling and authentic piece of yourself to an audience and connect with them. It takes the ability to be in the moment, and to be flexible — to handle the unexpected.

Aaron nodded. “Like an athlete,” he said. “Someone who can turn it on when the stakes are high.”

“Think about what you want people to know or feel differently about you or your service,” she said.

There are four main categories of storytelling, she said: be present; reach out — building relationships through listening and authentically connecting; be expressive — use voice, body and face to express feelings and deliver a message; and be self-aware — accept yourself and reflect your values in your actions and decisions.

She told them to pick the skill they are best at. They were grouped into categories, and shared their strengths. Now, pick the category representing your biggest challenge, she said. And describe it in a metaphor.

They shuffled across the room to their respective groups. They came back to the circle, armed with metaphors.

In John’s struggle with being present, he feels like he’s trying to identify clothes in a tumbling dryer, he said. For Tom, being in the now is like NASCAR — drivers zipping in and out, vying for his attention.

Aaron’s trouble: reaching out and really listening. “I am like a vending machine,” he said. “You push for a Snickers and I give you an apple.”

Scott said he puts up a roadblock. Eric is the gray man, low-key, hiding in plain sight. Ron’s a turtle. Susan is on a roller coaster of self-knowledge. And Kiersten is trying to learn to ride the waves of her emotions.

She spent eight years in the military, learning to be direct and forthcoming. Then she came into the civilian world. “Dial it back,” they told her. It infuriated her that a man acting the same way was fine. “Why the (expletive) can’t I act that way?” she said to a now silent room. “I am learning to ride the waves and not get overly expressive when someone pisses me off. And not to shut down.”

“Ah, yeah,” said Aaron. Others nodded.

Edwardyne stepped into the circle and turned to Kiersten. “You nailed it. Did you notice?” she said. Getting emotional. Swearing. “That is the ability to connect.”

They divided into groups again to adjust their metaphors so they were no longer weaknesses. John’s dryer became a clothes line, garments wafting in the breeze to a beautiful scenery. Tom’s NASCAR morphed into a single racecar going for the land speed record on the salt flats. Eric gave his gray man a shadow. And Aaron turned his vending machine into an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“You just did storytelling,” Edwardyne said.

She led them in exercises: rocking back and forth from heel to toe, then learning to breathe through their diaphragms. They leaned over and stretched, and played a game of clapping at each other while saying “ha!”

Matt felt silly. So did Kiersten. Edwardyne told them to think about the armor they put up and what makes them take it down.

“The ability to fail without consequence,” Matt said.

“To recognize it is OK to have all the attention,” said Kiersten.

“It will help us tonight,” Matt said.

“I sure (expletive) hope so,” said Eric.

They broke for lunch.

Matt’s transformation

If anyone had told Matt on the morning he walked into Edwardyne’s workshop at Columbia that this would be a pivotal day in his life, he would have scoffed.

Edwardyne was working for the Ariel Group, a business leadership training company out of Massachusetts that uses theater tools to help people in business connect.

Through much of the morning of that session in November 2015, Matt responded with questions and sarcasm. But at some point along that day, he turned a corner.

“Matt was a pain in the ass,” Edwardyne said. “He would shoot holes in ideas and questioned everything. So for him to be the storyteller that represented our group — to be that open and vulnerable and to have the impact he had on the audience, it was like ‘Are you kidding? Where’s Matt?’ ”

“He said immediately this is what we need to do for veterans,” she said.

No one was more surprised than Matt. He was never much one for the arts. He played rugby in college. He also played hockey and rode dirt bikes. Reconciling his notions of himself with the value of the theater in sharing a story, took a little getting used to. But he knew that something in him had changed.

Matt took his lessons home. He saw the consequences when he started sharing with his family — telling them about the day the main charge of a homemade bomb didn’t go off under his truck. How, had it exploded, there was “no way” anyone would have walked away. And how it was just weeks after his and Mark’s buddy from the academy went for a run on a base in northern Afghanistan — and was shot and killed by an Afghan soldier.

“Our stories typically don’t get heard,” Matt said. Veterans either believe they don’t have a story because they weren’t in combat, or they don’t find a relevant way to tell their stories when they get home.

In the spring, Matt’s classmate Dave was chosen to be the student speaker at their master’s program graduation. Dave spoke briefly, then closed his speech with a sentence beginning, “As I approach my fourth deployment, I leave you with this . . .” Matt said.

“You could hear the silence in the room,” Matt said. “Two to three thousand people — dead silence.”

When Dave learned that Mark and Matt were holding their first event for the Homefront Foundation — in partnership with the Ariel Group — just over a week before he was set to deploy Sept. 5, he decided to attend as a refresher before he heads off.

Maybe he can use those tools to bring his men together, while they will be deployed in Kuwait helping run operations from the rear.

“Our culture doesn’t necessarily align with being able to address our personal stories and our personal lives,” he said. “Part of it is, it’s tough for us to be able to do it and part is creating a forum for us to do it. Matt is doing both.”

And then they told their stories

After lunch, Edwardyne paired them up to coach each other through the afternoon. They began telling each other their stories.

They told each other what they did well, how they improved and where they might adjust their delivery.

“Aaron was really funny,” Kiersten said. “You made me laugh. You made me feel good.”

Time had come to reflect on what story they wanted to tell. But first, they shared some thoughts.

“I have been thinking about this story for a long time,” said Scott, a flight medic who is Mark and Matt’s older brother. “The transition to sharing a story — that is a really big deal for me. I hope it is for you too.”

Edwardyne surveyed the room. “This is part of the journey,” she said. “It’s just a conversation between two people.

“I am pushing you into the water,” Edwardyne said. “Sit down and just think for five minutes.”

After a break it was crunch time. They told each other their stories in phases — beginning with just the words, then moving on to delivery — the power of the voice, using sound effects and character voices. Then adding in facial expressions, body language, using the space.

“I’ve known Mark for a while now,” said John. “But hearing his story, I understand not just the humanity behind his story, but also the event that was a catalyst to creating this foundation.”

“It’s your story,” Edwardyne told them. “You are the final arbiter. It’s your choice what you put in and what you leave out.”

And then it was time.


Meghan Zbikowski of the Ariel Group, left, and Tampa Fire Chief Susan Tamme, share an emotional exchange during a storytelling workshop at the University of South Florida theater in Tampa on Aug. 27 for service members and first responders.