Veterans turning to poetry to heal their war wounds
By DAVID ALLEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 21, 2009
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When Army Spc. Matt Ping returned to the States after 16 months isolated in the mountains of northeast Afghanistan, he felt cut off from his new surroundings.
And the nightmares scared him.
"I was having these intense bad dreams at night, mixing my childhood memories with Afghanistan — like machine-gun towers set upon the roof on my grandmother’s house," he said.
But he was reluctant to seek traditional therapy from a Department of Veterans Affairs facility.
"It’s all prescription-based — Ambien and Zoloft solve everything," he said. "I didn’t want that."
Instead, he turned to poetry to help him deal with the haunting memories.
Roseanne Singer, a "poetry as therapy" writer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said the written word is an important tool in treating combat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The therapy gets physically and mentally wounded servicemembers at Walter Reed to express themselves and deal with their feelings through writing.
Singer offers free poetry workshops at the hospital’s Mologne House, a halfway house between acute care and going home.
Singer is part of a broader group of writers and artists who work with active-duty servicemembers and discharged military veterans.
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"We set up in the lobby and make ourselves available to whoever wants to stop by, even if it is just to talk," she said in a telephone interview from her Takoma Park, Md., home. "Some do come in and write some things; others might take part in a poetry collage — where there’s a poem on a certain theme that they might add to, to bring it forward."
Poetry therapy, also known as “bibliotherapy,” first came into popular use in the 1960s. The goal is not to analyze the writer’s work, but to help them communicate feelings, Singer said.
“We’re more interested in the response than form,” she explained. “It’s more geared toward healing than looking for something publishable.”
One young soldier whose work really touched her was a 22-year-old Army medic recovering from wounds received in an explosion in Karbala, Iraq, last April.
Shrapnel struck Spc. Victoria Montenegro’s right eye and forehead, and she had a complex fracture and a loss of bone mass in her left hand. Montenegro was awarded an Army Commendation Medal with “V” for valor for aiding her fellow soldiers who were also wounded when her vehicle was blown up. One soldier died.
She came across Singer at the hospital a few months ago.
“I stopped at her table because I remembered the poems — a lot of hip-hop rhymes — I used to write in high school,” Montenegro said in a recent phone interview. “She gave me a bunch of poems to work with, and after about 45 minutes, I came up with ‘Perspectives.’ ”
It’s a poem about being a young, short, wounded female in a world of men.
“A lot of times around the hospital, I’d be mistaken for somebody’s family member,” she said. “It bugged me.”
Montenegro recommends writing as a therapy for any combat veteran.
“The best thing about it is that it’s self-therapy,” she said during an interview in Washington, D.C. “It’s at your own pace. You really never know what is going to come out. I think there is this facade that you have to be artistic to be a poet, but really you just have to have ideas.”
She said the workshop allows her to express herself in a private setting.
“I’m not explaining myself to anyone else,” Montenegro said. “I just write what I feel, and if I don’t want people to judge me on it, then I won’t show them. You know, it’s my choice.”
Montenegro’s poem is the kind of art Lisa Rosenthal looks for when working with veterans in the Chicago area. A playwright, Rosenthal is the founder of the Vet Art Project, which plans to hold creative arts workshops across the country that she hopes will tap into the talents of veterans.
“Our veterans are the gatekeepers to the truth,” Rosenthal said during a telephone interview.
She had just completed a night of poetry readings to celebrate Veterans Day.
“What is surprising to me is the clarity with which these veterans recognize the burdens they carry and their ability to share their experiences,” Rosenthal said. “Every piece is a different journey.”
Two of the veterans to read that night shared their experiences downrange, she said.
“It was so touching to hear them read their work,” Rosenthal said. “You could just visualize what they went through and what they are coping with now.”
... paid to behave and be brave and be...
pay to be new to be bold and be....
I’d pay to be....
busted, bruised, brainwashed
The best of the worst, of the altogether
unsatisfying, unbelievable, unbearable
worst for the best, of the broken, ...
These words, from Ping’s “Salut,” particularly resonated with the veterans who took part, Rosenthal said. Ping, 26, was an Army specialist with a field artillery unit of the 10th Mountain Division. He was deployed to Afghanistan from February 2006 to June 2007, holed up with only 100 other soldiers near the Pakistan border. Now a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he’s been active in Rosenthal’s project since February.
It’s changed his life, he said.
“Poetry helps me deal with coming back to a society that’s gone in a different direction,” Ping said. “Coming home is one of the strangest things I’ve ever encountered. The 16 months of isolation and being secluded and then coming back and trying to be the same person you were before you left. I don’t know if that’s possible.”
Ping, who is focusing on creative writing and sculpting at the school, has a blog where he shares his experiences and poetry with others.
Ilona Meagher, the author of “Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops,” maintains a detailed online list of resources for veterans seeking help with PTSD. In the past, she has featured the warrior poets.
“Everybody coping with PTSD needs an outlet, some way to express themselves,” she said during a telephone interview from Chicago. “This is one powerful way to not only to help the veterans cope, but to make the public at large aware of this serious problem.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Felicia Joseph contributed to this story.