As part of their mandate to provide programming that encourages family reading and literacy, since 2011 the non-profit Missouri Humanities Council has also provided opportunities for military veterans and their families in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield to participate in creative writing workshops.
According to Missouri Humanities Council Director of Family and Veterans Programs Lisa Carrico, the idea is to provide “a creative outlet for self-expression through writing for veterans. Every veteran has a story to tell, and they often carry these stories inside them well beyond their time of service. So for many veterans the act of writing and telling their stories can be therapeutic in nature. We hope to build camaraderie and support by creating a safe and inclusive space to write in.”
The Humanities Council hopes to expand their offerings for veterans into areas such as verbal storytelling, and a potential collaboration with Missouri State University on some sort of veterans’ filmmaking program. Lisa Carrico says they would like to reach more Missouri veterans with one-day and weekend writing workshops in smaller cities around the state. But for now they are limited to the five-week workshops in St. Louis, Kansas City, and for the last four years, here in Springfield.
For this report I was able to attend the final Springfield Veterans Writing Workshop on June 2nd at the Mid-Town Carnegie Branch Library. There were about a half-dozen people in attendance—illness or summer travel kept several other participants away that Saturday morning. The group was led by local facilitator Karen Craigo, who told me that the group “has a lot of stories to tell. And that’s the nice thing about a veterans writing group. We also have veterans’ family members.”
Workshop participant Tanya Bresee spoke up: “Well, I’m a veteran too—but also a family member.” This came, apparently, as a surprise to Craigo and the rest of the group, who had thought of Bresee strictly as a veteran’s family member. Craigo asked, “You’re a veteran? What’s your—.” “I was in the Missouri National Guard for about four years,” answered Bresee. “Well, I didn’t realize that!” Craigo responded. Longtime participant Jerry-Mac Johnston also expressed surprise: “I’ve been doing this for three years and that’s the first time I heard of that! She hadn’t told anybody.” He also noted that Bresee had been in the service longer than he had—“Two years, nine months and 14 days was all I had,” Johnston said, laughing, referring to his Army service. Karen Craigo was impressed by Johnston’s ability to note his military service “right down to the day!”
Craigo discussed the therapeutic benefits of writing for military veterans. “You don’t have to have been in service, or in combat service, to have something kind of painful to bring up sometimes, and writing is so great for just addressing that.” She turned to another attendee, Eugene “Gene” Ward, who has just self-published a book of his poetry called “God, Family and Life.” “Gene, why do you write? You have this wonderful book you just gave me.”
Gene Ward was happy to tell his story. “I started writing birthday cards and anniversary cards to family and friends, and it just kind of rolled into poetry. And I use poetry as an escape from PTSD. I thank the good Lord that He allowed me to physically come back from Vietnam... but sometimes, mentally, I’m still there. And I can take this poetry and crawl inside it, and it’s a whole new world.” Ward returned home from Vietnam in 1970, and started writing two years later. “I went into the Army in 1967 and did two tours in Vietnam. After that I said, ‘That’s enough Army’... so I turned around and did 22 years in the Marine Corps!” This inspired sympathetic laughter around the room. “I loved it,” insisted Ward. But his Marine service was strictly stateside: “No, no, they wouldn’t let me go back. But it was a good career—I enjoyed it.”
But Gene Ward didn’t necessarily enjoy what he saw and experienced in his two tours of Vietnam in the late 1960s. “The second tour,” he said, “I was the door gunner on a Huey. So we picked troops up and dropped them off in the landing zones, and then picked them up again—or what was left of them—and brought them back.” After a pause he added, “That will cause PTSD.”
And his poetry helps him deal with it. For this final workshop session Ward had just written a Memorial Day poem:
“Shedding tears for veterans, it does not mean you’re weak--it simply means you’ve lost a friend, and you can’t find the words to speak.
“On this and every Memorial Day, let us shed our tears for all those men and women who’ve stood for freedom’s call.
“Let our memories never waver, for they’ve earned our full respect.
“And as we shed a tear for them, give a salute and stand erect.”
Actually, the subject matter of Gene Ward’s poems runs the gamut from war-related to the seasons of the year. “Anything from the homeless, to my family and how we met, and the love, and grandkids. I’ve covered everything you could think of.”
To find out more about the Missouri Humanities Council’s Veterans Writing Workshops, and about their multi-volume book anthology called “Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors,” visit www.mohumanities .org or call (314) 781-9660.