Veterans Writing Project touches all generations

By HUGH LESSIG | Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) | Published: May 12, 2014

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Pete Donnelly and Georganne Hassell both speak the Air Force language, but they appear to have little in common beyond that.

Donnelly, 53, is a colonel at Langley Air Force Base, where he serves as a deputy inspector general at Air Combat Command. His career began in the late stages of the Cold War, and he has deployed seven times to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Hassell, 28, served in the Air Force four years and worked as a public affairs officer. Her one deployment to Afghanistan lasted four months and was routine by military standards.

But both bear the mental burden of having served overseas, and both have found solace in the Veterans Writing Project at the College of William and Mary.

Founded in February 2013, the W&M effort is an affiliate of the national Veterans Writing Project, which seeks to harness the therapeutic value of writing to help active-duty troops, veterans and their families deal with the invisible scars of military service.

"There is no requirement for experience and no requirement for what era you're from," said W&M student Sam Pressler, who brought the project to campus. "We're as open as possible. That's what makes the program so cool."

Donnelly and Hassell did more than write. Last month, they took the extra step of reading their work in a public venue on campus.

Hassell recounted her emotional reaction when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared on campus and talked about losing sleep over the casualties of war.

It struck her that such a high-ranking official might have been worried about her. To her surprise, she began to cry on the spot.

I wept in the middle of an auditorium of strangers. I didn't want to count myself . . . among the scarred. But it was clear now. There was no coming back from the war without them.

Donnelly titled his reading "The Burden." Early in his career, he served on a B-52 crew as part of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. He thought about what would happen if the Soviets attacked. Years later, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan and called in air support to assist ground forces. The killing became very real, and it defined him forever.

As he wrote:

That's what you've become for the rest of your life. You can change jobs. You can change the color of your hair. You can change your address. You can change your name. But you'll always be a killer.

Expanding focus on veterans

The national Veterans Writing Project is headed by Ron Capps, a Virginia Beach native whose career spanned the Army and State Department, and who turned to writing after witnessing horrors in Kosovo, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pressler, who grew up in a family that put a high value on serving veterans, came upon Capps' organization and wanted to bring it to campus. He partnered with W&M's Puller Veterans Benefit Clinic that helps former servicemembers with complex disability claims. Since then, William and Mary has held two veterans writing seminars, in December 2013 and this February.

He wants to continue the seminars, but says the college can do more. Pressler has put together a plan that calls for a Center for Veterans Engagement. He said undergraduates are interested in veterans issues, but they could use a centralized program to serve as a catalyst.

Some veterans "feel disconnected from the undergraduate population," he said. "And we could bridge that gap."

The center could serve as an incubator of ideas on how to reach veterans, Pressler said. It might be drawing, painting or even standup comedy. Not everyone is interested in writing.

But Donnelly and Hassell are.

Donnelly arrived at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington, in the mid-1980s as part of a B-52 crew. Serving on alert status, he was part of America's nuclear deterrent during the era of mutually assured destruction. If the Soviets were ever detected within a certain distance, Donnelly and his crew went to their B-52 and — well, sat there.

"You sat in the airplane, full gear, ready to flip the switches and go because they were so close," he said.

They talked about what they would do if nuclear war ever broke out.

"There were actually people, guys on the crews, who said they wouldn't do it — or couldn't do it. And obviously that became a big deal. Most of the rest of the guys figured they'd never have to make the decision. Once in a while, you got into these deep, philosophical conversations — the why of it — but it was all theoretical."

The Cold War ended with the collapse of communism, and theory went out the window on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Donnelly pivoted from theoretical killing to the real thing.

As a forward air controller, he called in aircraft to support troops on the ground. He served on the ground with small patrols and in the rear echelon with larger units. As he told his audience before publicly reading "The Burden," he was good at his job.

"We were the first to deploy on the ground, and I went in with Special Forces. Now my country needed me to stop philosophizing about killing and actually start killing people. They tried to kill me, and I killed a lot of them. The evolution of becoming a killer is what I wrote about."

Over multiple deployments, Donnelly wrote about what he saw and how he felt. Reading it with fresh eyes years later, he saw how intense it was.

"I was surprised I was the one who wrote it," he said. "Maybe I was too busy at the time to appreciate what I was doing."

Hassell's experience in Afghanistan was brief, but an emotional challenge. She deployed there in 2010 as a member of a provincial reconstruction team after getting married three months before. Her husband, a pilot at Langley, managed to deploy there as well — although not to her area.

As a public affairs officer, she worked with a governor's spokesman on ways to connect the government with the people. She managed to see her husband a couple of times, although he was a helicopter ride away.

"It's always so awkward because you don't have any privacy, and nobody knows we're these newlyweds who are just trying to get by," she said. "We just looked like these people who hung out all the time. But it was interesting."

She reluctantly left the Air Force because she and her husband had a hard time getting stationed together. She ended up working at William and Mary, and was on hand when Gates appeared on campus to discuss his memoirs. His plain-spoken admission about losing sleep over young men and women in harm's way really got to her.

"You don't really think of yourself as part of anybody's nightmares until you step away from it," she said. "I had been out for three years and was far enough removed to see how I was part of it. I never wanted to be part of this scarred generation of war, but it's unavoidable. It was a very short time overseas, but it was very impactful for the rest of my life."

Visit the national Veterans Writing Project at veteranswriting.org