03 November 2011

Vets Write Their 'Ways Back Home'

Blog-editor's note: This post is based on pre-event press materials regarding "Writing My Way Back Home," a free writing workshop for veterans conducted in Iowa City, Iowa, Oct. 14-16, 2011. The event was sponsored by the University of Iowa Veterans Center. Contact information regarding future such events appears below.

The day after Emma Rainey finished organizing and teaching a writing workshop for veterans in 2010, she received a letter from her father—a U.S. naval officer during the Korean War—describing a war trauma he suffered and never mentioned to anyone in the family. "The irony did not escape me," said Rainey. "I barely understood my passion to help veterans—mostly I was driven by news reports of returning veterans committing suicide and knew writing could help. To discover my father had suffered an ungodly trauma—and never mentioned it till now—sent me reeling."

"The workshop’s primary aim is not to generate work of literary quality—although this may happen and certainly did in our first workshop,” said Rainey, a 2009 graduate of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program co-facilitated the workshop with John Mikelson, UI Veterans Center coordinator. “The workshop begins the powerful process for veterans to write their stories and reflect on events they experienced in war in a way that may lead to greater insight, creativity, and healing."

Writers from UI's Nonfiction Writing Program and Writers' Workshop, poets, playwrights, and veterans volunteered to teach blocks of instruction. Topics ranged from the use of descriptions and dialogue, explorations of poetic and visual forms of expression.

"Our first workshop was full of surprises," said Rainey. "First, half the veterans were women—I didn’t expect that. Also, I was overwhelmed by the determination of disabled vets to journey to Iowa City—a blind vet flew in from Minneapolis and a paraplegic took the Greyhound bus from Chicago—to write their stories. But what struck me most of all was the camaraderie—it didn’t matter which branch of service, age, rank, or war had been fought. They veterans were just glad to be together."

Following 2010's event, Rainey and Mikelson had noted many veterans wished to participate, but found traveling to Iowa impossible. Rainey has since incorporated and is finishing the application process for non-profit status to conduct writing workshops throughout the U.S. The name "Writing My Way Back Home" came from correspondence with John Lavelle, a Vietnam War vet from Bettendorf, Iowa. "John used the expression: 'writing my way home' in our e-mail communications," Rainey said. "This phrase was an ideal metaphor for what the vet faces when returning stateside, as well as how they must reconnect—and come home—to themselves. So when it was time incorporate and fill in the name of our organization, John Lavelle gladly gave his permission to use it."

Rainey recently completed a course titled "Recon Mission" at the Therapeutic Writing Institute, Wheat Ridge, Colo. She also conducted two writing workshops this past year for Operation: Military Kids, run by Iowa State University for military children with parents about to deploy. "I think the National Guard has it particularly hard since they are not full time. And though I wasn’t born when my father served in the Korean War, I remember how difficult it was for our family when he was out to sea, sometimes for a year at a time. I’m impressed how organizations are recognizing that family members need supportive attention, too."

The writing workshop was open to all current and former military personnel—whether they were in combat or not.

One lunch was donated by Bread Garden Market, Iowa City. "Eating together—the vets and writers and volunteer therapists—helped deepen the bond in the writing community during the weekend."

Rainey also mentioned Karl Marlantes's 2011 book, "What It Is Like to Go to War" “Marlantes bravely looks into the heart of the warrior and demands our society recognize the healing work needed for our returning warriors.”

Marlantes writes:
This book is my song. Each and every one of us veterans must have a song to sing about our war before we can walk back into the community without everyone …quaking behind the walls. Perhaps it is drawing pictures or reciting poetry about the war. Perhaps it is getting together with a small group and telling stories. Perhaps it is dreaming about it and writing the dreams down and then telling people your dreams. But it isn’t enough just to do the art in solitude and sing the song alone. You must sing it to other people. Those who are afraid or uneasy must hear it. They must see the art. They must lose their fear. When the child asks, "What is it like to go to war?" to remain silent keeps you from coming home.
This year John Mikelson is setting aside a time slot for veterans to read their work during this year’s Veterans Reception on Nov. 9 at the Old Capitol Town Centre. "The one component missing from our last workshop," Rainey recalls, "was a venue for the veterans to read their writing to civilians. It’s a transformative experience, both for the vet and the audience, to hear and understand the warrior’s experience. It’s part of the healing process for the vet and the civilians."

Rainey believes it is essential we reach out to the veterans we have sent to war to help integrate them back home. "After reading my father's war narrative, I began to write an essay about it and realized how his unspoken trauma became an intimate member of our family—an unnamed sibling—and would have been rendered invisible if not for its explosive echo powerful enough to erupt, to this day, the lives of my sisters and mother. More than ever I am committed to helping U.S. military personnel find their way back home through writing."

For more information on "Writing My Way Home" offerings, click here.

Visit the project's Facebook page here.

Or contact:

Writing My Way Back Home
P.O. Box 3470
Iowa City, Iowa 52244

John Mikelson, UI Veterans Center: john-mikelson AT uiowa.edu

Emma Rainey, Writing My Way Back Home, Inc.: emma.rainey4 AT gmail.com

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