Photo courtesy of Ron Capps
Ron Capps: I like to say that I wrote myself home. I was in the army for 25 years, about half of that on active duty and about half of that as a reservist. While I was a reservist, I was also a foreign service officer at the State Department. That was my civilian job. Between those two careers, I ended up going to five different wars in ten years. I went from Rwanda to Kosovo to Afghanistan then to Iraq and then to Darfur, all sequentially, all with very short breaks in between. I came away from all that very badly traumatized. I was treated in Afghanistan for post-traumatic stress disorder but, because I got the treatment, because I was in treatment there, I was able to complete my tour safely but I came back from Afghanistan and, six months later, I landed in Iraq. I came back from Iraq and, about six months later, I was in Darfur. And, on my second year in Darfur, during my second year there, I had some real problems. I was suicidal, ended up being medically evacuated, sent home. What I was able to do, through writing, was to work through my own problems. I didn't really know what I was doing. I was sort of treating myself alone but I figured it out and what worked for me was being able to shape those memories, to control them myself by writing about them. And so, by writing about these stories over and over again, and shaping them into a way that I understood them, I could make sense of them. They're no longer as traumatic as they used to be and I can now manage it myself. And so, as a part of wanting to give back what I've learned, I founded the Veteran's Writing Project and now I'm working with Operation Homecoming at NICoE and working on a lot of other ways of giving this information away.
Jo Reed: That was Army veteran, author and lead instructor for Operation Homecoming, Ron Capps.
Welcome to Artworks the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
The survival rate of American wounded service members in Iraq and Afghanistan is over 90% which is a testament to rapid and excellent medical treatment received by wounded troops. However, the signature wounds of these wars, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) have proved challenging for both patients and health care workers.
That's where the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (or the NICoE) comes in. Located on the campus of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center NICoE aims to be a leader in the treatment and research of traumatic brain injury and psychological health. To that end, it offers a four-week program for service members suffering from brain injuries and other psychological trauma. Along with psychotherapy and physical therapy, the Healing Arts Program which focuses on the visual arts, music, and writing, plays a central role in the assessment and treatment of these service members.
The National Endowment for the Arts is partnering with the NICoE to investigate the impact that arts interventions may have on the psychological and cognitive health of these wounded service members. As a result, NICoE is incorporated the NEA's writing program Operation Homecoming into therapeutic sessions with patients and their families.
As we heard, veteran Ron Capps is the founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project, a nont-for-profit that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, service members, and military families. He was asked by the NEA to develop the curriculum and serve as instructor for Operation Homecoming, the writing component of the Healing arts program for the wounded service members at NICoE. Operation Homecoming has two distinct functions: it provides an informal four-week creative writing and storytelling series for service members and their families and an expressive writing workshop just for the service members as part of their clinical rehabilitation.
Despite his busy schedule, Ron Capps was gracious enough to meet me at the NEA studios. I began our conversation by asking him how he first got involved with Operation Homecoming.
Ron Capps: Actually, it started when I answered an email from Bill O'Brien here at the NEA. Bill emailed me, having found out about a project I was working with George Washington University, which is a nonprofit that I founded called the Veterans Writing Project. And our objectives at the Writing Project are to transfer what those of us inside the project have learned as working writers and as veterans to other veterans and military family members hoping that then they will have the skills and confidence to tell their own stories. Bill had been talking to some folks at NICoE, the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, that I knew that I'd worked with before and then this little loop seemed to close where Bill contacted me to come and work with NEA at NICoE working through Operation Homecoming to provide an expressive writing component for the patients at NICoE. NICoE is a research and treatment facility. And what my role is, is to provide an expressive writing component that links in with the other creative arts therapies.
Jo Reed: And by expressive writing, do we mean fiction or creative non-fiction …?
Ron Capps: It can really be anything. It's not a specific genre, it's not a specific type or form of writing. What we're trying to do is just get people physically to write. The research has shown that, over time, people who just sit and write for 15 minutes and then another 15 minutes and then another 15 minutes over a period of days, their medical condition improves, their ability to express, through the use of metaphor through writing, their trauma really does help them. And it's not going to work for everyone but, for those who self-select or for those who that really is the way that they're able to best express themselves, it really is an amazingly effective form of therapy. Expressive writing is used in two different forms, one on the medical side, the medical research side. Work at the University of Texas has shown that, simply by writing, it helps people who have suffered trauma to distance themselves from that trauma a little bit so that they're not only keeping it in the back of their mind. They're actually breaking it out, this memory, and working with it so that they can shape it, they can understand it a little bit better. And that's the work of Dr. James Pennabaker. On the linguistic side, Dr. Peter Elbow up at Amherst College in Massachusetts has been working on what he calls expressive writing, the same term, for a generation and Peter Elbow's work, while not therapeutic, it looks at how people express themselves and expressive writing is another tool and it really does help people understand how to use language, how to shape their own words. And 15 minutes, 15 minutes, 15 minutes, that sequence seems to be the magic number.
Jo Reed: It's like the old adage, you own the story or the story owns you.
Ron Capps: There's a sign hanging in my office where I've been writing for a couple of years now that says, "Either you control the story or the story controls you." And I think the psychologists and psychiatrists that I've worked with would probably substitute story for memory and that, when you suffer a trauma, your brain, your mind has to determine immediately what it's going to do with that image, with that memory, and most traumas are outside what we understand to be the normal range of human interaction. So your brain doesn't really know what to do with it. Your mind more or less decides, "I'm just going to put this over here on the side and I'll deal with it later because I'm dealing with the immediacy of the trauma right now. I'll deal with the memory later." Well, then it doesn't get mixed up into that stew of other memories that you've got, you know, your third grade teacher's name, the person that you really wanted to go out with in junior high who never responded or all the 15 things on your shopping list when you're on your way home, all that stuff's just in a big stew in your brain. This memory is stuffed over in the corner somewhere and, sooner or later, you have to deal with it. By using creative arts, you're managing it a different way. You're approaching that memory a different way. If you're writing, whether you're writing with a pen, you're using a different part of your brain to access that memory than if you're typing on a computer. So we have people work both ways. If you're trying to express a memory through the use of two dimensional or three dimensional art, through dance, through drama, through any of these other creative arts modes, you're accessing it a different way. You're not just going to think about that memory as it happened to you because, as soon as you do that, you're going to have the exact same visceral reaction. Your brain's going to access it the same way. What creative arts therapies allow you to do is to access the memory, to shape it a different way.
Jo Reed: I have two questions. The first is, how long ago were you evacuated from Darfur? How many years ago was that?
Ron Capps: That was in 2006, May of 2006.
Jo Reed: So fairly recently.
Ron Capps: Fairly recently.
Jo Reed: And I was wondering, if you had to be medically evacuated, was there care for
you at this end?
Ron Capps: Yes, absolutely. I was seeing a psychiatrist and that got me onto proper medication. I was not on proper medication from the time I was in Afghanistan through Iraq into Darfur. I was sort of self-medicating and it wasn't very effective. I was, you know, taking whatever antidepressants I could find and drinking a lot of whiskey. It didn't really help, obviously. So, when I got back, I got the help I needed. It's not an immediate fix. It takes awhile to get the medication to work, to get the talk therapy to work, to get whatever you're going to do, the writing therapy, to work. I stayed in government for about two more years. I left government at the end of 2008. I went to graduate school and just graduated from the Johns Hopkins University's writing program, studying fiction and non-fiction.
Jo Reed: Now, with your own writing, you found the way to control those memories, to own them and shape them, I guess, is that a fair way of saying it?
Ron Capps: Yes, that's right.
Jo Reed: And that helped you work through the trauma of the experiences that you had.
Ron Capps: Right.
Jo Reed: Are your wartime experiences something you need to keep writing about or at a certain point can you put it behind you?
Ron Capps: Well, personally, I don't think I'll ever put it behind me. This is what I do now. I'm a writer. Professionally, I'm working on, you know, having a career as a writer and as a teacher but there are still a lot of stories to tell. I mean, I've written about my experiences in Kosovo but I'm not done writing about them yet. I've written about my experiences in Afghanistan but I'm not done yet. I'm writing currently about my experiences in Darfur and there is much, much more to say. Some of the work that I've done has already been published, some of my essays. Generally well received. I think that I'm able to talk about the human experience, not so much the military experience of going into combat but the experience of surviving different wars in different capacities, both taking part in and observing a lot of violence over a period of about ten years.
Jo Reed: I would think there would have to be such a shift between what's considered normal. What's normal in a war clearly is not what's normal in a place without war and negotiating that back and forth, I can't imagine how difficult that must be. But also especially so many soldiers now are so young. I mean, for a kid that must be incredibly confusing.
Ron Capps: I'm certain it is. I mean, I went to these wars as a grown man and, over a period of, you know, ten years, I went from my mid-30s to my mid-40s. But, for a 19, 20, 22-year-old, the psychiatrists all say that their brains aren't fully developed yet. They're not completely mature physically and certainly the emotional challenges I think are considerable. I think that, in past wars, what we've seen is soldiers, marine, airmen, sailors, they'll go and they will spend a fixed period of time and then they'll come home and that's their war. But what we've seen in these wars over the past ten years, since we went into Afghanistan, is repeated iterations of go to war, come back, go to war, come back, go to war, come back. And you can only do that so many times. You can only turn it on and turn it off so many times before there really is some permanent change. And I'm hearing of cases of guys in special operations units that have gone seven times, you know, six month tours for seven times. And soldiers that were in conventional forces going to Iraq during the surge, were there for 15 months. That's a really long time because you're being shelled when you're inside the fence. Every time you go out the gate, it's war. Every conversation's a political act. There's just no down time. It's really, really hard.
Jo Reed: The other thing that is very different about these wars is that people are surviving more and more heinous injuries and more and more head injuries. Now, clearly that’s a good thing but there are also consequences with badly injured and traumatized service members.
Ron Capps: Right. I think that there's a phrase that's being bandied about these days. It's called the signature wound of these wars is traumatic brain injury and also post traumatic stress disorder. We have a really high survival rate in combat for wounded these days. It's above 90%. People who are wounded have a 90% chance of surviving. Some of it has to do with the medical technology and some of that has to do with the ability to get them to really, really effective medical care quickly. You know, in the turn of the 20th century, in the First World War, all of the technology adaptations were towards destroying things. It was, you know, the submarine, the aircraft, gas, the machine gun. All the things that changed the war was fought. And I think, after Vietnam when the helicopter became just ubiquitous on the battlefield, it allows us to get people in and out of combat but it also allows us to get people in and out for medical care. Since then, I think some of the biggest advances have been in technology, bringing computers onto the battlefield, but also in medical care. We have just learned so much. In ten years of combat, since we've been in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, we, the medical community, and I'm a writer, not a doctor, so let me rephrase that. The medical community has learned so much but there's still so much to learn about brain injuries and psychological health. It's just the last frontier. We really just don't know that much about it.
Jo Reed: But there are ways in which the Defense Department, your program, the NEA were looking at the arts as one way to begin to unpack those traumas.
Ron Capps: Absolutely. And that's part of the program at NICoE is that NICoE is not just a treatment facility. It's a research facility. And one of the things we're looking at is how do the arts help? People express themselves through the use of metaphor. How do we get people to shape their own narrative, whether it's, again, through the two-dimensional, three-dimensional art, through dance, through music, or, in my program, through writing? That ability to bring to bear the arts and art therapists to NICoE's patients I think is just tremendous.
Jo Reed: I would also think it's very helpful in providing perhaps a bridge to their families.
Ron Capps: Absolutely. And not just their families but also to the 99% of the American population that's not participating in the wars. We have less than 1% of Americans are actually in the military, 2.3 million people out of a population of about 310 million. And so, by transferring these skills and confidence, and just being able to tell their own stories, hopefully we can start to bridge that divide and talk about the human cost of these wars. At the Veteran's Writing Project, we actually try very hard to bring family members in. All of our seminars are open to family members as well as veterans and, you know, active and reserve service members, but I think, at NICoE, part of what we're doing is, on the research side, this expressive writing component works with the patients, the service members. But, after that, in the afternoon, we actually go and sit with the family members and the service members and work with them just on straight creative writing workshops. And that's been really helpful and I think the family members appreciate it because it helps both sides of that marital equation understand each other a little bit better.
Jo Reed: If you don't mind let's go back to the Veteran's Writing Project that you began at George Washington University. This preceded with Operation Homecoming at NICoE. What led you to begin the Veteran's Writing Project?
Ron Capps: The Veteran's Writing Project, I was driving home from class one night and it had just been a really good class. I had learned so much from one of my instructors and I thought, "Wow, I need to be able to do something with this other than just write my own stories." I wanted to be able to share that and it struck me that I was using my veteran's benefits to go to graduate school so the taxpayer had a stake in all of this. So I thought, well, I need to be able to give this away. And it just struck me that I should do exactly that, just give it away, give away what I've learned as a working writer, as a graduate of a master of arts and writing program and as a combat veteran. And so I wanted to tie all three of those things together and the idea just came to start a veteran's writing project, to form seminars and workshops for veterans for active and reserve service members and for their family members. It took me a couple of months to sort of put all the ideas together and that was January, 2011, and we've been moving along gradually ever since. We hold seminars every semester at different colleges around the area. We also work with other nonprofit arts groups. We're working with other veteran's writing projects and programs across the country, trying to work as a clearing house for information. And the real goal is simply to transfer the knowledge and there are several of us that are combat veterans and graduates of writing programs that work as instructors in the different seminars.
Jo Reed: How do you begin a typical seminar?
Ron Capps: We ask one question and, well, we ask two questions. The first question is, why do we write? Why do we even bother putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard? And, I mean, the simple answer is because we want our ideas to have a permanence and we want to share our ideas about the human experience. And the second question is, what's different about writing the military experience? And it is in very many ways no different than writing about any other experience but there are some differences. I mean, we're writing about, in many cases, the most primal of instincts, survival, death, trauma, but we're also writing about love and honor and duty. And the thing that really makes a difference is that the vast majority of the American population has no experience in the military so we have to find a way to explain things to them simply without falling into using jargon or, you know, the patois of the soldier. And so we start with those two questions and we answer them and then we go onto different elements of craft like scene, setting, dialogue, narrative structure, point of view, and, at the end, we talk about organizing your life so that you can make time to write. We talk a little bit about writing about trauma and then we're done. And hopefully they go off and start writing.
Jo Reed: Do you suggest books that they should read?
Ron Capps: Yeah. The curriculum that we use is a book that I wrote that's called Writing War, A Guide To Telling Your Own Story and it's structured in 13 chapters so that we can have a 14-week semester and, at the last week, we have a public reading of our material. But each example that I use in the book, when I'm talking about scene or when I'm talking about dialogue, is from a book or a story written by another veteran. And when I had that idea, I thought, "Oh, this will never work." I thought it was just too hard. But then I gave it some thought and, I mean, just on the American veteran side, when you can look at Faulkner, J. D. Salinger, Hemingway, Joseph Heller, Tobias Wolff, you've got some pretty big hitters there. So I really did my research and looked at a lot of great writers going back to Guy de Maupassant, who was a combat veteran, and looking at Tolstoy, who was a combat veteran, and those are some pretty good writers and I'm able to cull a piece of their writing and say, "Look at this example of a scene. This is how Hemingway sets a scene." "This is how T. E. Lawrence sets a scene in his memoir." "This is a great scene from Tobias Wolff's short stories." Or this is setting and dialogue. And so, through that, we're able to recommend a lot of books by example.
Jo Reed: Now, I know that Operation Homecoming at NICoE is structured differently than the seminars. How do the service members at NICoE respond to the writing program?
Ron Capps: My usual work is with veterans who have self-selected. They've already said, "I want to try writing." Some people come in and they're a little standoffish and they just don't think it's going to work and that's fine because they will find what tool, to put it in their vernacular, what weapon they can use to fight the problems they have. Maybe it's writing and, as long as they're willing to listen and just give it a shot, and they all are, I think it's great. Some of them come in and immediately lock in and say, "Okay, this is something I want to do." They're already writing or they know they have a story that they want to tell or that they need to shape. So the difference is really have they self-selected or are they sort of being pushed in the door? The ones for whom this really could be an answer realize it right away and they start asking a lot more questions and they stick around a little bit after the session and say, "Hey, what about this?" or "Can you read this?" or "How should I do that?" and I love that, of course, and I'm willing to just sit there all day and all night, talk about writing with them. And we actually have a chance to do that in a different forum when we're doing straight creative writing sessions with their family members.
Jo Reed: Are some service members shy about sharing writing with family members?
Ron Capps: I think most writers are shy about sharing with family members. <laughs> That's the sort of courage aspect of being a writer is that you then have to say, "Take a look at this, what do you think?" It's a very, very difficult thing to do. Inside the expressive writing program, we don't read what they write. We tell them, "You're writing for yourself. Be honest. If you want to take what you've written and put it in the shredder as soon as you're done, go ahead. If you want to keep it in a notebook, be careful with it because you're being honest and honesty sometimes scares people." The creative writing sessions are completely different but, inside that expressive writing session, they're writing only for themselves.
Jo Reed: Do they ever say to you, "I'd like to show you this?"
Ron Capps: Sure. And then I'm happy to look at it or comment on it. I don't go in there by myself. I mean, we have arts therapists and there are psychiatrists and psychologists who are available. I'm not playing Dr. Kildare. I'm there to talk about writing and hopefully, you know, my personal experiences can be helpful and I do tell them. I say, you know, "I came from a bad place and writing helped me get home."
Jo Reed: Ron, can you recall how you first sensed that writing would be that key for you to unlock your own experiences?
Ron Capps: I don't think I knew that it would be a key. I think I found that it was a key by doing it. As far back as Kosovo, in 1998, I was writing my experiences down after work. I mean, we would go out into the field, you'd come back and write a report about this is what we did, this is what we saw, this is what happened. And, at night, I wanted to make sure that I remembered. There were things that I saw and things that we took part in that I didn't want to lose those details. And so I started writing them down and they just started becoming little essays and little stories. And so, over time, working with them to make them more coherent instead of just this stream of consciousness line, you know, by making them into something with form, something shaped, I think I began to understand that those moments, those memories weren't as traumatic any more. They didn't haunt me. And, over time, that became my own therapy. My own way home.
Jo Reed: Can you see the impact that writing has had on the service members and veterans you've worked with at NICoE and at the seminars?
Ron Capps: Absolutely. I stay in touch with the veterans and their family members that come to the seminars. And two in particular have already gone on to full-time jobs as writers. Others have started writing their own memoirs, writing their own stories. I encourage them, when they come to a seminar, to, you know, because we spend two pretty intense days or an entire semester together and one of the things I suggest is that they form their own social network, you know, create a Facebook page or something like that where they can share their own stories with each other, create their own workshop groups. And writers are notoriously introverts but you've got to have some sort of community that you build. You can't just sit in your freezing cold garret and write constantly. You have to share that information with someone. That's sort of what it's about. And so I work really hard to get people to build that sense of community among a group that they've already linked with, that they're already bonded with and then, hopefully, you know, those groups become a network of groups. So that's part of the strategy. I guess the best stories are the ones where somebody said, "Really, all I want to do is be able to shape my story so that I can give it to my grandkids and then have them send me parts of it and say thanks." And that's as good as it gets right there.
Jo Reed: Ron Capps. Thanks so much. I really appreciate you coming in.
Ron Capps: It's a real pleasure. Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was army veteran and author, Ron Capps. He's the director of the Veterans Writing Project and head instructor for the NEA writing program at NICoE, Operation Homecoming.
You've been listening to Art works produced at the national endowment for the arts,. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor. The music was written and performed by guitarist Jorge Hernandez used courtesy of Mr. Hernandez.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, playwright Michelle Low.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Ron Capps helps returning service members write their way home. [27:06]