Writing Your War/Veterans Writer Group

Today is a sad day for our family–the 3rd anniversary of our son’s death.
About a year ago one of our local VA Clinic doctors asked me if I would be interested in facilitating a military veteran writer group. This past month I asked the group if it would be okay to post the discussion notes I create to guide our meeting-everyone thought that would be fine. If you or a family member might be interested, please contact Dr. Petersen (military veterans only). So here are our discussion notes for this evening along with an essay I wrote.

Writing Your War/Writer Group/VA Clinic, Bemidji 9 July 2018
Second Monday each month at 4:30PM Contact: Dr. Petersen 218-755-6360 or Wendell Affield 218-368-4221

Our goal in this group is to make sense of military experiences that haunt us—be it combat, the aftermath, or our return home from a deployment and the struggle to find our new normal. Our writing is private; only to be shared by the author if they choose.
Jot down writing prompts that our discussion might trigger for you—prompts you can explore over the next few weeks.
Triggers—let’s explore a few triggers.

• Trauma anniversary dates
• Music and Movies
• Sensory stimulus
o Taste
o Touch
o Sight
o Sound
o Smell

(If you are a combat veteran and attended a fireworks display, the last three triggers can really send you back.)
Over the next few weeks write three or more paragraphs about how each trigger affects you. Begin the first sentence with the trigger—for example, “The sound of fireworks….”
What triggers are unique to you?

We often talk about why we entered the military:

I’m reading Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour (2005) by Joseph E. Persico. Speaking of the British (p93) Persico says that, “…[army] volunteers sprang mostly from the wealthiest and poorest classes…”
What was your parents’ socioeconomic status?
Did it influence why you entered the military?
How has your military experience molded the person you are today?
In retrospect, how do you feel? Was it a positive or negative experience?
Write three or more paragraphs in response to each question. Conclude by answering this question—
Would you do it again?

I recently received this message:
Hello Wendell, It has been awhile, but wanted to touch base with you. I just took a peak at your website, and saw you were featured in the MN Remembers Perspectives documentary. I am in contact with the facilitator of this grant at MSUM, and we are thinking about pulling together a community event around veterans day, on their campus. My hope is for this to be a multi-media (visual, oral, written) sharing of the difficult/traumatic stories of war.
Wondering if you might be willing to be involved in this process in any way, or if you know others who might be interested. I am hoping to recruit vets to share their stories (in various ways) as part of this event, as well as aggressively advertise the event to community members to be the listeners/supporters. I also want to incorporate some sort of healing ceremony in which anyone can be involved.
Let me know if you have some ideas, or would like to partner in this project. We are planning an initial meeting the afternoon of Friday August 3.
Hope you are well. Margo Norton,
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
LEBP coordinator, VISN 23 PTSD Mentor, BHIP team lead,
Fargo VA, Phone 701-239-3700 ext 9-3150
I wrote this following essay a few years ago and just did some revisions. I’d be interested in your thoughts on it the next time we meet. (I’m thinking about submitting the article to Psychology Today magazine.)
9 July 2018
Tinnitus, Memory, PTSD, and Writing
Historically, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) was thought to be confined to the inner ear; to the hair cells in the cochlea. In the past decade, researchers have linked tinnitus to the limbic system, which is located deep in our brain and plays an important role in emotions, aggressiveness, memory formation, olfactory sense, and other functions. Because long term memory is formed in the limbic system, I believe tinnitus is a contributing factor to intrusive thoughts so pervasive in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This is how it works for me: It’s midnight. In an attempt to divert my attention from the ringing in my ears I focus on the slow-turning overhead fan that’s illuminated by a waning moon. The harder I try to ignore the ringing, the louder and more demanding it becomes. I remember back to the moment it was created, when a Russian-made rocket burned through the one-inch armor into my cox’n flat on the riverboat I was driving. Images explode. Shadowed in the moonlight, the fan blades become a Huey rotor. In the dark—why is it so often dark? I stumble over a smoldering skull as I search for survivors in a downed helicopter. My mind skips to another image—I’m trying to become invisible as the medevac Huey I’m riding receives enemy fire. I tense, unable to avoid tracking back to earlier that day. I’m lying wounded on a canal bank listening to another helicopter approach. And I spend the next hour playing “what-if” a young Viet Cong soldier hadn’t been in that particular spot that particular day. And again, as an old man now, I mourn him and all those lost. And the fan blades turn.

Here is one Ear, Nose, Throat doctor’s take on it. “Respected Sydney ENT, Professor Gibson, explains, “The limbic system is the part of the brain that generates primitive, instinctive emotions, those ones which occur before reasoned thinking even has a chance to start. The problem, as Professor Gibson explains, is that the tinnitus will be more or less amplified by activity in the limbic system, so depending on how focused you are on that sound, the sound will become louder or softer. If you’re threatened by the sound then the brain makes it louder. Therefore those who are alarmed or distressed by their tinnitus will find that it becomes worse.”” Rafaele Jourdy, in the publication, Sound Therapy International.

The Sixth International Conference on Tinnitus, examined the confounding role tinnitus plays in brain function affecting memory and PTSD. A condensed excerpt states, “Tinnitus is the auditory perception of the sound or sounds that do not correspond with sounds in the surrounding of the patient. It consists of two processes. The first is the bottom-up process in the auditory system in which the cochlea is the main input. A second process is a top-down process which is neurocognitive in nature and controls the awareness of the sound percept. Both processes do not only involve the auditory system responsible for tinnitus loudness but also the extra auditory central nervous system, generally involved in tinnitus distress. The complex nature of these interactions has become clear by the evidence that auditory and non-auditory processes are network activities between different parts of the brain.” Tinnitus: from Cochlea to Cortex by Paul Van de Heyning (PDF Frame 17)

In late August 1968 I was medevaced back to the United States. After I was discharged from the navy I buried those memories—or so I thought. In 1969 the Veterans Administration awarded me disability for shrapnel wound scars, hearing loss, and tinnitus. Twenty-five years later they told me I had PTSD. I spent several years in group therapy. The term “flashback” was often used, but I never heard the term “flashbulb memory” until I began studying psychology at Bemidji State University (BSU). I’ve come to the conclusion that flashbulb memories are to still photographs as flashbacks are to video clips. And those memories are not limited to visual—recall the other senses.
On September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers were attacked, (an event used today by researchers in the study of flashbulb memory) I don’t remember where I was or if it was sunny or who I was with because I didn’t see the event. But I remember the hot Sunday afternoon, August 18, 1968, when I turned our armor troop carrier into Hai Muoi Tam Canal. I still taste the pungent sewer/jungle decomposition aroma wafting across my cox’n flat as I steer the boat past Cai Be. I hear the boat captain curse one of the machine gunners, “Stop whining and put your f—— helmet on.”

We each have a first memory. A fragment, like a water-stained page, where you can’t quite decipher particulars. But as you delve down, say to page ten, details begin to emerge; details linked to smell, taste, sound, touch, sight—sometimes a sixth sense, intuition. As you page forward, say to page one-forty-seven, an ink blot conceals the words. How can you retrieve those hidden thoughts?
In a perfect world, we’d all have only pleasant memories but that’s not the human condition. Empirical evidence supports the argument that writing about one’s trauma, one’s ink blot, is cathartic. That to revisit those hidden words is a step forward. I agree. I wrote this essay, exploring my “blotted” memories”—and how I retrieved them. It’s a collage of documented research, juxtaposed with my subjective experience.
Fifty–five years after WWII, in My Twice-Lived Life, (2001), Donald M. Murray, a WWII paratrooper and Pulitzer Prize winning author, wrote, “I move back across the years as if I were playing a movie in my head….The film of memory shows me a paratrooper on my first night jump…. But the film is edited. There are times when I watch myself in combat and the screen goes blank.”
In 2001 I enrolled in a writing class at BSU. An early writing prompt, “What would you like to write about,” produced this anguished response–an excerpt: Memories of bodies, decomposed, decapitated, disemboweled, disfigured, dehumanized, disintegrated. Of human flesh, so mangled it is dead, but clinging to that spark we call life, blood pumping on the deck as they cry for help. Blood, mingled with remnants of flesh, bone, and cloth, coursing down the well-deck, coagulating in a pool. Being wounded several times, of white-hot steel fragments entering my body, the first mil-second sensation, that of a horrible burning….
I was new to the writing craft. I didn’t know then that emotion should not be poured onto the page. I didn’t know that readers are repulsed by graphic imagery—heck, I didn’t know what imagery was. What I did know was that those images were an inherent part of my world. I began exploring. I’ve come to realize that, for me, olfactory imagery takes precedence over other sensory memories. The first essays I wrote dealt with events that involve decomposing and burning human flesh.
In an early writing class I learned about “Making a Tree” from the late Donald M. Murray’s Write To Learn. In looking back at those sketches I see that a flashbulb memory is the base and trunk of almost every sketch. Lower branch memories connect to the trunk. Other, more peripheral yet relevant memories branched as the tree grew. With manuscript revisions, long-forgotten details began to emerge—I’d jot them down as twigs and leaves before they drifted away. But a flashbulb memory—visual, smell, sound, taste, touch—is at the core of almost every chapter in my memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers (2012).
I’m confident the memories are quite accurate. I received this message from a soldier who was on our boat in the August 18 ambush. “Your book confirmed some things that I remembered but could not confirm. One was that I thought I saw a medevac chopper shot down. Thank you for letting me know that I didn’t imagine that. Another was about the hook not letting the ramp down. I sat at the front of the ATC [our assault boat] at one point when we were beached to discourage Charlie [Viet Cong, our enemy] from tossing grenades or firing another RPG.” (A grunt from, 3rd Plt, Co D, 4/47th Inf Bn, 2nd Bde, 9th Inf Div.) I’ve received messages from many veterans who read the book, men validating my recall.
PTSD treatment has advanced since my experiences in group therapy. I live in a very rural area of northern Minnesota. Many of my Vietnam Veteran friends—fifty years later as I write this—still live in isolation. I am thankful today to see a strong social network for returning veterans. Organizations such as the Vets Center Program and Wounded Warriors have helped open the closet to the trauma of war.

Expressive Writing Therapy shows promise. Veterans Writing Project is a success. Ron Capp, the founder, (http://veteranswriting.org/) works with Walter Reed Army Hospital. The National Endowment for the Arts has collaborated on writing programs for wounded veterans.
Putting my memories on paper has been cathartic. Sharing my early memory essays with young students in writing classes opened doors that had remained bolted for three decades. When I wrote Muddy Jungle Rivers I had no awareness of the psychological ramifications of what I was writing. I didn’t know about traumatic dissociation, flashbulb memory, numbing—lost fear of death, fatalistic suicide. Perhaps ignorance is strength. The book has been used in history classes, sociology classes, an honors program class exploring memory and writing. I’ve come to realize when I do public readings I intellectualize some experiences.
But in the gray dawn I’m back on that riverbank, my ears still ring, and a new sun illuminates the shadowed fan.

2 Comments

  1. JD says:

    May I share this with my daughter? She is a medic, USANG, currently serving. She will find this so helpful in her work.

  2. Wendell Affield says:

    Yes, please do.

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