There is no denying that with our proximity to Camp LeJeune, Fort Bragg and Seymour Johnson our area is directly impacted by the military presence. The very real world of our veterans is a less visible but nonetheless very impactful part of our community.
There have been several workshops of late aimed at veterans and writing about their experiences, but one in particular caught my eye: Invisible Wounds of War, funded by the North Carolina Humanities Council. A statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the program incorporates writing for veterans, as well as mindfulness, suicide prevention work with mental health professionals and a reading from Kirsten Holmstedt’s new book, “Soul Survivors: Stories of Wounded Women Warriors and the Battles They Fight Long After They’ve Left the War Zone,” which focuses on female veterans. The project has been developed by Jen Johnson and Kyle Horton.
Johnson—a licensed professional counselor, writer and photographer—will be facilitating the writing workshop. Kyle Horton is a physician with years of experience providing medical care to veterans, as well as creating policy change related to suicide prevention. Johnson was kind enogh to tell encore a little about what they have planned in September.
encore (e): How did you and Kyle put this together, and why were you drawn to this project?
Jen Johnson (JJ): Kyle and I both come from military families. Kyle’s father served during the Vietnam War, and my father served in the Korean War. We each have other relatives who have served as well. In addition, Kyle and I have both worked professionally with veterans, Kyle as a physician at a Veterans Administration (VA) clinic in Richmond, and I as a contract statewide coordinator for the VA’s Independent Living Needs Program in Georgia. During our work for the VA, we saw an overwhelming need for services but a lack of staff to provide timely services.
After I left the VA, I felt I could have a greater impact with suporting veterans’ healing by encouraging them to write their stories. I have studied and practiced therapeutic writing and photography for years, and have experienced significant healing from difficult experiences in my own life through writing and photography. I had been imagining this project for a long time when I met Kyle, and when I told her about my ideas, Kyle immediately said yes to collaborating. We’ve met regularly for over a year to plan the details.
e: This is an interesting grouping of events how did you two develop the syllabus?
JJ: We wanted to create experiences for the veterans that offered opportunity for healing, including writing, photography and mindfulness aspects of the project. In addition to healing, we felt it was important to share some of the writing with the community, in hopes of inspiring a greater understanding and compassion from civilians. One of the frequent things we hear from veterans returning home is they feel alone and misunderstood. We also recognize there is a greater need for physicians and psychotherapists within the private sector to serve veterans’ health care and mental health care needs. We hope our lecture series educates providers about the psychological, spiritual and moral injuries of war, and inspires more providers in our state to offer services to veterans or at least understand their needs and where to refer them for support.
e: What can participants expect from the September 12 writing workshop?
JJ: Participants can expect the writing workshop to be an afternoon of healing expression through writing, as well as an opportunity to connect with other veterans and active-duty military personnel. Veterans do not have to have any experience with writing in order to attend. This workshop isn’t about turning out perfect writing; it’s about expressing yourself in writing, just getting it out and down on paper. I will read brief narratives and poems written by other veterans and provide prompts throughout the workshop to help get them started.
e: How is this workshop different from other veteran writing workshops?
JJ: We’ll be writing about the aftermath of war, the invisible wounds of war—not the details that happened during battle. Some other writing groups focus on writing the war experience, whereas we will be focusing on writing about its impact. Our workshop is designed based on the research of experts in the field of writing and healing.
e: Tell me about the wooden plaques you’ll have on display November 5, and the anonymous writing opportunity associated with it—will writers get the plaques after the display?
JJ: Ted Gittings, the veteran representative on our planning committee, has graciously volunteered many hours of time to make 1,500 wooden plaques. We’ve set the bar high and hope to collect 1,500 writing submissions by the end of October for the exhibit. We want the civilian population to understand what these men and women face when they return home from war.
The idea for the wooden plaques was inspired by the concept of Japanese Shinto prayer boards, as well as other artists who have used this concept to display writing. We have been attending local community veterans events, where some folks have written on the plaques. Others have submitted their writing anonymously online, and we will transcribe that writing onto the plaques. Because the writing is submitted anonymously, we won’t be able to return the plaques after the exhibit. We hope it will either become a traveling exhibit or find a permanent home in a NC museum.
We wanted to create an anonymous opportunity to submit writing because we respect participants’ privacy and recognize that we are asking them to write about what a majority of our culture views as unspeakable. We’re asking them to break their silence.
e: Tell us a about the exhibit—what do you hope the general public learns?
JJ: It will include the wooden plaques and writing from several featured veterans from our writing workshop, as well as self-portrait photographs that veterans will co-design and co-create with me.
We hope the exhibit serves as a collective voice from veterans and active-duty military statewide regarding their invisible wounds from war. Healing begins when people begin speaking about what they may feel is unspeakable. Connection with others begins with starting the conversation about personal struggles. It takes a lot of courage to speak or write about our struggles, but it’s the more courageous choice than choosing silence. Suffering in silence only leads to a greater sense of isolation and despair.
Veterans are committing suicide in our country at a rate of 22 per day. It’s time to end the silence and start talking about the struggles that can happen after being in war. We realize we’re asking a group of men and women who have been taught to be brave and “deal with it” to write openly and honestly about their struggles and that some of them may be hesitant to do so because they fear it will be viewed as weaknesses. But it’s not weakness to express struggles. It’s the starting point for healing to occur.
We hope the general public is led to a greater understanding of and compassion toward veterans returning from war, as well as a deeper appreciation for what they have sacrificed for our freedom. We also hope this is only the beginning of more conversations amongst the veterans, and between the veteran and civilian communities regarding what can happen to a person as a result of war. We believe post traumatic stress and other psychological injuries, as well as spiritual and moral injuries, need to be met with understanding, compassion and support. These struggles are normal reactions to being exposed to abnormal circumstances.
e: Why did you want to include a mindfulness workshop on November 7? What will participants will take away from it?
JJ: There’s encouraging research on the effectiveness of mindfulness training for veterans struggling with post traumatic stress. We’ve seen strong research show it helps to relieve stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and symptoms of a number of medical disorders. Studies also indicate it increases resilience and feelings of peace, happiness and well-being. We’re offering the mindfulness workshop for veterans, active-duty military and spouses, to give them an introduction to this powerful tool in hopes it can bring them some measure of relief from all they are going through. Mindfulness is a skill that can be taught and practiced at home.
e: Tell us a little about Kirsten Holmstedt’s book and her reading on November 13?
JJ: We’re so excited to have Kirsten offer the book reading. This event is co-sponsored by the Women’s Studies Program at UNCW. Kirsten’s book, “Soul Survivors: Stories of Wounded Women Warriors and the Battles They Fight Long After They’ve Left the War Zone,” will be released later this year. Kirsten recognizes that in addition to facing the challenges many veterans face returning from war include physical and psychological wounds, trauma and stress. Yet women also face sexual harassment and assault issues related to chains of command and issues with the VA.
This is Kirsten’s third book about women veterans’ stories. Her previous two books are “Girls Come Marching Home” and “Band of Sisters.” She will read from her upcoming book, plus there will be a female veteran, whose story is featured in Kristen’s book, at the reading to share her own story.
e: What can we expect from the lectures on November 17 and 20?
JJ: We have a strong lineup. Our lecture series is co-sponsored by UNCW’s College of Health and Human Services and SEAHEC. CME and CEU credit will be available for physicians, counselors and social workers.
We hope physicians and mental health providers attending the lectures will leave with a greater understanding of the psychological, spiritual and moral injuries from war. We hope that they will either be inspired to obtain further training to offer services to veterans or will at least be more knowledgeable about the issues and better prepared to refer them to the appropriate services for support.