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Writing is 'transformative' therapy for Seattle-area veterans haunted by their experiences

Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Dawsey attends a script-writing class taught by actor Tom Skerritt at the University of Washington-Tacoma.

COURTESY OF SGT. ROBERT DAWSEY

By NICOLE BRODEUR | The Seattle Times | Published: November 11, 2019

SEATTLE (Tribune News Service) — For years, she said nothing.

Then, last year, in a classroom filled with those who had been there, those who understood, something in Maggie Shartel cracked open. And the story she had held inside spilled over more than 80 pages. She called it “Cobblestones,” and it recounted her being sexually assaulted while serving in the military.

“I thought it would be a better way for me to get down to the nitty-gritty, to the heart of why I was being seen at the Federal Way Vet Center,” she said, adding that she had been receiving counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

That “better way” was found at The Red Badge Project writing program, which hundreds of veterans have used to exorcise the impact of their military experiences, and turn them into prose.

“It’s like therapy, but not going to therapy,” said Shartel, 41, who served in the Army from 1996 to 2002 as a communications specialist. “You can get the benefit of getting to the core of things without sitting in a therapy office.”

The nonprofit was founded in Federal Way in 2012 by actor Tom Skerritt and former Army Capt. Evan Bailey, who have in recent years expanded the program to veterans’ centers in Everett and Seattle, as well as quarterly classes in Walla Walla.

“Storytelling is the best thing ever, ever,” said Skerritt. “It’s hugely therapeutic. We lead them to themselves.”

Like the Red Badge students, Skerritt, 86, is a veteran, having served as a classifications specialist in the Air Force for four years — most of that time at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas.

Still, the actor knows what combat can do. The shutting down, the holding back. The facade of toughness that often cloaks trauma.

“Tough doesn’t mean you’re not human,” said Skerritt, who lives in Seattle and whose lengthy career includes roles in scores of TV shows and movies, including “M*A*S*H,” “Top Gun,” “Alien” and “A River Runs Through It.”

That same military-style toughness and discipline can be applied to writing, he said.

“I do believe we are irrevocably changed by PTSD,” Skerritt said. “But I also believe that that energy in your system can be used creatively. It’s all yours. This is about you, of you, and who you used to be.”

The Seattle and Federal Way classes are taught by Warren Etheredge, a writer and film producer who met Skerritt 20 years ago through a Seattle International Film Festival event. He was on the founding faculty of The Film School, which Skerritt started in Seattle in 2002 with the late screenwriter Stewart Stern.

“I always resist the word ‘therapeutic’ and go with ‘cathartic’, ” Etheredge, 55, said of the work that goes on in his classroom. “I’m not a therapist, but I know storytelling saved my life. Red Badge gives these people the tools to reshape their lives.”

Bryce Ely, 73, served in the Army for three years, starting in 1966. He was an infantry platoon leader and then shipped to Vietnam, where he served as a battalion recon commander, in charge of 18 soldiers. All but two came home, he said, “but a bunch of them came home wounded.”

He settled in Seattle, went to night school, worked in sales and raised a family. It was only after he retired when his PTSD started acting up.

“Staying busy keeps you occupied,” said Ely, who lives in Covington. “I retired and things started to hit me.”

At the Veterans Center in Federal Way, he saw a poster about The Red Badge Project that piqued his interest. He had always wanted to write, and once took a class at the University of Washington, but “failed miserably,” he said, “because I wrote about my Vietnam experiences and the instructor didn’t like that at all.”

He went to his first Red Badge class, which he said wasn’t like a class.

“It was drawing the story out and it’s terrific therapy, when I look back on it,” he said. “But it’s difficult to write about those experiences.”

Ely’s story recounted how he hid in a bunker just as he hid under the porch as a child. Inches away, he wrote, a Viet Cong soldier lay dead, his legs tangled in a broken ladder, his eyes still open.

“My God,” Ely wrote. “He looks young. Saint George, protect me. My mind is screaming for St. George to protect me.”

Psychologist Arthur Satterfield, the director of the Seattle Vet Center, has referred clients “who have an interest in pursuing something creative” to The Red Badge Project because it allows them to find their voices in a way that is different from talk therapy.

“Writing gives them a little distance,” Satterfield said. “It’s not overwhelming. It’s more about reshaping trauma, changing how we relate to it. Writing can help people slow down, clear their heads and think about how they are going to frame things.”

Dr. Jesse Markman, the acting associate chief of staff for mental health at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System, agreed: “Narrative therapy helps people feel empowered and creatively explore things.”

Etheredge urges students to write with honesty and “write what you struggle to know and understand,” Ely said. Everyone in the class struggled with pulling their experiences up and out, putting them to paper and sharing them with others.

“But that was also one of the great things about it,” Ely said. “I kept going back because it was a safe place, a safe place to talk. I was among people who cared. It didn’t make any difference if it was Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq.

“We were all brothers and sisters, and I got to trust with Warren that he understood what we had been through.”

That was true. Etheredge was abused as a child and didn’t speak until he was 6.

“I feel like trauma is trauma is trauma,” he said. “The impacts are similar, but the factual details are less important. It’s all bad, and it brings us together. And that, to me, is the purpose of story.”

Red Badge is not a collegiate writing class, he said. It’s not lectures and lessons. The idea is not to write what you know, he said, but to write “what you’re desperate to understand.”

“And vets have a lot of experiences in their lives that they are desperate to understand,” he said. “So you have that; you have a lot to work with. I see it dawn on some of them. And those are the ones who do great writing.”

Beth Hudson brought Red Badge to the Walla Walla Public Library after seeing Red Badge instructor Shawn Wong speak at a Humanities Washington event. She had tried to connect with local veterans before with library tours and other events, but the response was “very lukewarm.”

After Wong’s speech, the VA pledged $6,000 to bring Red Badge to the library.

“Veterans come back with pain that alienates them,” said Hudson, who retired as the library’s director this year. “And I wanted them to be part of us.”

They did. Veterans have become more a part of the library community. One female veteran who suffered a head trauma and was reluctant to speak has recited poetry and poignant stories, she said.

Earlier this year, at West of Lenin, a theater space in Fremont, a group of Red Badge students gathered to read their stories to an audience for the first time. There was a podium, and a stool with a box of tissues within arm’s reach.

There was palpable discomfort in some readers. Years, decades have passed, and still they remember details vividly. The pain. One man wore a VA patient bracelet on his wrist. Another spoke of a suicide attempt in a piece called “Blindly Lost.”

“Where did I go wrong?/How can I get rid of the pain?/I can see, but I can see nothing.”

Shartel, the former soldier who was sexually assaulted while serving in the military, walked to the podium, looked out at the crowd and said, “Oh, my God.”

She took a few deep, collect breaths. A voice came from the front row: “You got this.”

The room went silent. And then she began. At the end, she walked off with a small smile. It was out of her, in the air — and being taken in and absorbed by those who understood.

“There is something, especially in this realm,” Etheredge said, “where the sharing of the story aloud, with a roomful of people, is the end of the cycle. And that makes it permanently transformative, in my mind.”

That seems to be true for Ely. He still struggles with sleep, but writing has helped him sort out his anger.

“It never goes away,” Ely said of his military experience. “It’s like a movie going on in the back of your head.

“What’s nice about Red Badge is that you get commercial breaks.”

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