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Veteran finds healing through writers' program

UNSPLASH

By HOLLY ZACHARIAH | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 12, 2018

Robert Paley bought his first journal more of a ledger, really  in 1983 at a place called Howard's Office Supply near Eastland Mall. He was 17 and had no inkling of the salvation that writing would one day become.

He was a kid obsessed then, one with a lot to say. A senior at Groveport Madison High School, he was driven toward fulfilling a promise to his war-hero father that he would attend and graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He had big dreams to put into words, as well as a secret nightmare he hoped to tame.

So he put pen to paper and has never really stopped since, even writing hundreds of pages from the middle of a war zone while deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. Journals fill a shelf in the den of the Canal Winchester home he shares with his wife, Alison, and he always keeps a notepad in the pocket of his camouflage fatigues.

"I write incessantly, constantly. I find it fascinating that words will live after we die. It's a way to leave our journey, our lives, behind," said Paley, 52, an Army major employed full-time with the Ohio National Guard. "It isn't like I want to write. I have to write."

He has long been focused on writing his father's story. He hoped to tell the world how the late, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jerome Paley honorably served his country in both the Korean and Vietnam wars and how it came to be that West Point for his son was so important. (Robert Paley not only graduated in 1989, his ailing father was able to be the one to give him his first salute.)

He is writing it all as a screenplay, and is doing so with the help of professional mentors from the Writers Guild Initiative, or WGI. WGI is a nonprofit organization that brings storytelling to under-served populations through workshops and mentoring provided by members of the Writers Guild of America, East, a union that represents television and film writers.

Paley has been working with mentors for a decade, ever since an email popped into his inbox announcing WGI's inaugural free writing workshop. It was specifically for veterans, and it was to be held in April 2008 at Thurber House in Columbus.

Paley was skeptical.

"I figured it was either a miracle or a scam," he said. "I was hoping it was a miracle."

He signed up and says the dedication and help of each of his mentors since cannot be overstated. Now, some of his work will be spotlighted on a national stage. On Monday, actors will read selected works from program participants during the WGI's annual fundraising gala in Manhattan. Paley is there to hear one of his pieces read, a short story called "The House on the Corner."

It's a raw, powerful, painful-to-read piece about how when he was 9, a serial child molester in the neighborhood attacked him.

"I'll kill that son of a bitch," Paley writes in recalling his father's reaction. I was terrified, but when I heard my father pull the bolt of the rifle back, load it with a bullet and slam the bolt forward, an inexplicable feeling of calm came over me. In that moment, my fear ... left me. I never felt so safe in my life as I did in that moment, knowing my father would risk his life to protect us, just like he did in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

The elder Paley didn't kill the accused molester, of course. The man was charged and brought to trial, but a jury couldn't reach a verdict. He was never retried.

The stress from the fallout and the gripping obsession to further protect his family exacerbated Jerome Paley's war injuries, his son is convinced, and led to his eventual collapse at home when Robert was 12, prompting his son to vow that day to make it to West Point. The elder Paley lived the next 12 years with dementia-like illness under constant care out of the home and never recovered. His wife took him out of the hospital against doctors' orders to take him to New York for their son's military academy graduation. He died some 20 months later.

Paley has not only lived with what happened to him as a child, but has been plagued with guilt that his father's sickness and death were somehow connected to what happened to him, no matter how unreasonable that might seem.

As he worked on his father's story with his mentors' help, he realized over time that he also would have to tell his own. Monday will be a step on that journey. He said he hopes he is ready.

Christopher Kyle, whose film credits include "Serena" and "The Widowmaker," is Paley's current mentor. Kyle said Monday night will be a proud and important moment.

More than 700 people, mostly veterans and their caregivers, have participated in WGI workshops since the program's inception, and Kyle has been there since the beginning.

Kyle said the program is designed to help the participants work on whatever project they want -- whether it be a play, a movie script, a novel, documentary or just an internet blog -- and it doesn't have to be wrapped around their military experience. Often, though, it is. And though the workshops aren't intended as therapy, healing often happens organically.

"There is a certain kind of therapeutic effect to put your stories in writing," Kyle said. "The most-therapeutic effect comes from the other veterans in the workshops. They counsel each other, they support each other. It is the most amazing thing to watch."

For the most part, Paley keeps his pain at bay. He finds refuge in his writing and his quest to tell his father's story. But not always. Even now, nearly 30 years later, he must pause and collect himself as he shows the now-faded photograph of his father giving him that first salute.

As Paley explains it, he stops and presses his fingers to the corners of his eyes to stem the tears.

"These writing mentors are the real heroes for helping us tell our stories and, for those of us who have suffered, to help us overcome what hurt us," he said. "For anyone who has experienced trauma, I say to them, 'Find a dream. Find a dream that is more powerful than your nightmare.'"

hzachariah@dispatch.com

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