Feeling write

As sol­diers re­turn home from war, they’re of­ten con­flic­ted and scarred by the over­whelm­ing ex­per­i­ence. The pro­gram War­ri­or Writers coaxes them to use pen and pa­per to ex­press what they’re think­ing.

When sol­diers re­turn home from over­seas, many have stor­ies to tell.

But of­ten, shar­ing those stor­ies can be dif­fi­cult. Some­times sol­diers have trau­mat­ic tales they’d rather try to for­get than share.

Also, many vet­er­ans can be­come with­drawn be­cause of symp­toms of post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­order (PTSD), find­ing that simply com­mu­nic­at­ing with oth­ers can be a dif­fi­cult task that once was so nat­ur­al. 

Sean Ca­sey, a 30-year-old Doylestown res­id­ent and a vet­er­an who spent five years with the U.S. Army — in­clud­ing tours of Ir­aq in 2006 and ’09, both through Bagh­dad — re­called that when he re­turned home he struggled with de­pres­sion and was with­drawn to the point that he can­celed get-to­geth­ers with friends and fam­ily.

“I called it ‘sit­ting in my shed.’ I’d tell people, ‘I’m go­ing to be in my shed.’ Just mak­ing plans to meet friends would be dif­fi­cult,” he said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view. “As a vet­er­an, one of the com­mon as­pects of PTSD can be so­cial isol­a­tion. It’s sort of a numb­ness … you just get to a point where everything is stress­ful.”

It’s a point where many vet­er­ans can be­come so isol­ated that they don’t know where to turn.

When Sean Ca­sey stood at the cross­roads, he learned of the loc­al chapter of War­ri­or Writers, a na­tion­wide non-profit as­so­ci­ation that provides cre­at­ive out­lets to vet­er­ans strug­gling with PTSD, and he soon found a sense of solace, he ex­plained.

Ca­sey — now the com­mu­nic­a­tions man­ager for War­ri­or Writers — said that in the mil­it­ary there are few chances for cre­at­ive ex­pres­sion. 

This pro­gram changed that. 

It’s a cre­at­ive out­let and an at­mo­sphere of shared ex­per­i­ence that Lovella Calica, 30, the founder and dir­ect­or of the pro­gram, said is prov­ing suc­cess­ful for par­ti­cipants re­turn­ing home from ser­vice in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. 

Since the of­fi­cial start of War­ri­or Writers in 2007, she said, the group has served hun­dreds of vet­er­ans across the coun­try by en­cour­aging their in­volve­ment in writ­ing, art or per­form­ance art. Calica, an artist and writer, had been work­ing with vet­er­ans via oth­er out­reach pro­jects be­fore her de­vel­op­ment of this pro­gram.

The War­ri­or Writers or­gan­iz­a­tion is work­ing on its third book of pub­lished works by vet­er­ans who’ve been part of the pro­gram.

ldquo;It star­ted very or­gan­ic­ally. I just star­ted shar­ing my po­etry and they star­ted shar­ing theirs,” said Calica, who lives in West Phil­adelphia. “When I star­ted read­ing it, I was just so struck.” 

The pro­gram has blos­somed in its four years. Calica has taken War­ri­or Writers work­shops to New York City and Chica­go, among oth­er cit­ies, and she has found that vet­er­ans who join the pro­gram tend to en­counter oth­ers with sim­il­ar con­cerns or ex­per­i­ences, lead­ing to spe­cial con­nec­tions or bonds.

ldquo;I think it’s been really power­ful for some people,” Calica said. 

Ca­sey thinks the pro­gram is im­port­ant in urb­an areas like Phil­adelphia, where vet­er­ans can feel isol­ated from oth­ers as they re­build their lives. Most mil­it­ary bases are in rur­al areas, he ex­plained, and of­ten there are more vet­er­ans and sol­diers who settle down in areas near those bases to main­tain that fraternal bond and sup­port.

Urb­an re­gions, Ca­sey said, are vast and move at a swift pace that can make vet­er­ans feel like out­siders. “Vet­er­ans in cit­ies can kind of feel alone, or they’ll feel isol­ated,” he said.

War­ri­or Writers en­cour­ages a cre­at­ive out­let to sort out those feel­ings. In ad­di­tion to writ­ing work­shops, Calica said, the pro­gram brings vet­er­ans to­geth­er by in­tro­du­cing them to a vari­ety of artist­ic en­deavors, thus en­abling them to de­cide what they en­joy and how they want to cre­ate.

The work­shops also can be a place where vet­er­ans simply stop by to listen to the poems or stor­ies told by oth­ers, per­haps help­ing them to feel less alone for a while.

“Some­times people do come to the work­shops just to hear stor­ies,” she said. “It’s a place they can come where people hear them and un­der­stand them.” 

Al­though Calica has nev­er served in the mil­it­ary, she has found a com­mon bond with re­turn­ing sol­diers through cre­at­ive ex­pres­sion. She con­siders the pro­gram an im­port­ant tool that aids a vet­er­an’s re­in­teg­ra­tion on the home front. 

ldquo;I think our gen­er­a­tion can do a bet­ter job of learn­ing what it means to live among and with vet­er­ans so that vet­er­ans from Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan don’t be­come such a large part of the home­less pop­u­la­tion like our Vi­et­nam vet­er­ans,” Calica said. “As cit­izens, we can­not just pass off re­spons­ib­il­ity to Vet­er­ans Af­fairs and wash our hands. We have an op­por­tun­ity to move for­ward with all of our vet­er­ans, and change the ways we in­ter­act to cre­ate healthy re­la­tion­ships.”

War­ri­or Writers, she ad­ded, helps to in­dir­ectly treat sol­diers who may have found little com­fort in tra­di­tion­al ther­apy or have be­come lost through self-med­ic­a­tion.

Ca­sey agreed, say­ing the pro­gram doesn’t in­tend to re­place tra­di­tion­al ther­apy for sol­diers who need it, but ex­ists as some­what of a bridge for vet­er­ans to in­ter­act and ex­press the feel­ings that re­turned home with them.

For Ca­sey, War­ri­or Writers was the life­line he needed. “Ab­so­lutely, this was in­stru­ment­al in me get­ting my con­fid­ence back,” he said. “We aren’t try­ing to take the place of tra­di­tion­al ther­apy, but we are an­oth­er tool in the tool­box.”

In her time work­ing with vet­er­ans in War­ri­or Writers, Calica said, she has been in­spired by their strength as they look to a hap­pi­er fu­ture.

“It’s this abil­ity to move for­ward, and that is something I feel af­fected by,” she said. “I’ve found com­munity here in a way I nev­er ex­pec­ted to.” ••

For more in­form­a­tion on War­ri­or Writers, vis­it www.war­ri­or­writers.org 

You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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