A Creative Outlet for Veterans

Ron Capps teaches at white board
Retired Lt. Col. Ron Capps created and founded the Veterans Writing Project, a free program that allows veterans and their family members to hone their writing skills. (Photo by Jacqueline M. Hames.)
March 12, 2012

Retired Lt. Col. Ron Capps needs to write. And he has a lot to write about.

As a member of the U.S. Army and Army Reserve, Mr. Capps went to five wars— Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Darfur — all in a 10-year span.

“I came away from those experiences badly traumatized,” he said.

After a suicide attempt in Darfur, Mr. Capps was medically evacuated home and enrolled in a graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University. Writing became an outlet for Mr. Capps, whose work has been published in Time Magazine and who has been featured on National Public Radio and the BBC.

“I think that throughout history, returning war veterans have sought outlets to express what they experienced,” he said. “Any of the creative arts might serve as well as writing, whether it’s art, dance, theater or music. Writing worked for me, and it has for many other veterans.”

Mr. Capps said he soon realized that he wanted to help other veterans find their own outlet.

“I wanted to do something different with what I was learning,” he said, “which was giving away to other veterans what I had learned in school and as a working writer.”

So Mr. Capps created the Veterans Writing Project, a free program in which veterans and their family members receive instruction about writing elements and style as well as feedback about their work. Mr. Capps teaches the courses along with Iraq War veteran and author Dario DiBattista.

Veterans can enroll in sessions that run up to 14 weeks, or participate in two-day “open seminars.” The curriculum is based on Mr. Capps’ book “Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story.”

Starting last fall, Mr. Capps has also been teaching student-veterans at GW in a series of workshops funded by the University Writing Program (UWP). In December, he participated in a panel discussion titled Veterans in the Classroom: The Effect of Military Service on Students’ Experience of Academic Discourse sponsored by UWP, and conducted an open seminar for veterans last weekend in the Marvin Center.

Thanks to a gift from Joanne Holbrook Patton, MVS ’48— widow of Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., the son of World War II Gen. George Patton— Mr. Capps’ workshops will be translated into a regular credit-bearing UWP course at GW.

“The course will provide an opportunity for GW students who are veterans—or who have close connections to veterans—to explore their experiences of war and its effects through writing in a safe and encouraging space,” said UWP Interim Executive Director Derek Malone-France.

Dr. Malone-France said the UWP is working with the development offices for both the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the Mount Vernon Campus to establish a Center for Veterans and Writing on Mount Vernon, which would offer writing courses as well as host lectures and conferences around veterans’ writing. The center would also host a digital archive of veterans’ writings that could serve as important research material.

“GW is perfectly situated to make an impact on national conversations about the military and veterans, and a Center for Veterans and Writing would provide a useful, centralized organizational foundation from which to launch initiatives and programs that draw on our unique position in the nation’s capital,” said Dr. Malone-France.
Mr. Capps said Ms. Patton’s gift is a significant step towards integrating the Veterans Writing Project within the university.

“We still have a great deal of work ahead of us in turning this curriculum into something with sufficient academic rigor that meets the standards of the university, but everyone I’ve worked with at GW has been incredibly open and helpful in this process,” he said.

Dr. Malone said students in Mr. Capps’ UWP course will be studying and writing about war across a variety of genres and disciplines, including both nonfiction and fiction, and will learn how to conduct academic research to supplement the testimony of their own experiences.

Writing is a powerful tool for those in the military, said Mr. Capps, as it’s a way for veterans to use familiar skills to process their trauma in a safe and creative way.

“You use a different part of your brain to handle memory when writing,” he said. “And what you’ve created is then something concrete rather than some dark memory festering in a corner of your imagination.”

Documenting personal experiences also helps them live on in history. This kind of “bearing witness” is especially important, said Mr. Capps, now that less than 1 percent of the population is in the military.

“Those of us who have served have a responsibility to express what we have experienced to those who sent us to war,” he said.

Mr. Capps also notes that veterans writing is a time-honored tradition. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and J.D. Salinger are among the many acclaimed authors who are also veterans.

And participants aren’t just writing about their experiences on the frontlines. Mr. Capps said veterans have been writing in all sorts of forms, “everything imaginable from fantasy to memoir to poetry.”

“The topics range from the war and their experience in it to wild flights of fantasy into almost unrecognizable worlds with kings and kingdoms, flying lions and magical swords,” he said.

Mr. Capps already sees veterans responding to his workshops. An Iraq veteran with a traumatic brain injury told Mr. Capps the Veterans Writing Project “changed his life” by giving him the skills with which to write fiction; another veteran told Mr. Capps that through the project she felt comfortable —for the first time—talking about her experience on the frontlines.

Junior Elena Kim is an Army veteran who participated in a panel during the UWP-sponsored workshops last fall along with Mr. Capps and Navy veteran Joe Mancinik, now a GW senior.

For Ms. Kim, writing is “everywhere” in her life, from her classes to helping her younger brother craft his high school essays.

“Writing can be powerful, whether what you are writing is for yourself and helps get you through a rough time or whether what you are writing is for others and helps get a message through to the world outside of you,” she said.

Of course, not all veterans have to write, but Mr. Mancinik said they all need some way to process their emotions.

“I've seen other veterans teetering on the brink because they have no outlets other than alcohol and drugs,” he said. “If they want to write, and they would like to hone their skills, the Veterans Writing Project is a great place to go. I do feel that everyone has a writer in them, if simply as a diarist of their experiences. And the experiences—the pain, the joy, the grief of military service—are worthy subjects indeed.”

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