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Veterans Writing Project – “Every Veteran has a Story’

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

As a soldier in Afghanistan, Ron Capps regularly saw the dead.

For many soldiers it’s an unavoidable consequence of combat.

But for Capps, in 2002 as the director of human intelligence operations, Coalition Joint Task Force 180, XVIII Airborne Corps, it wasn’t the dead of Afghanistan that confronted him. It was the dead from previous wars – in Central Africa and the Balkans – that haunted his dreams and eventually his waking hours.

In his third war, Capps was suffering from PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – from those earlier combat tours.

As a senior leader in a unit filled with paratroopers and rangers, Capps feared that despite having two Bronze Star Medals and multiple tours in combat arms and special operations units, seeking help for his PTSD would be seen a weakness, as breaking.

But he also knew that to continue hiding his symptoms would mean risking the lives of the soldiers he was sent to lead. So he sought and received medical care in theater, and completed his tour in Afghanistan.

Fast-forward four years to Sudan in 2006. Capps, after serving in Iraq in 2004, was on his second tour of duty in Darfur – during the genocide there.

Without proper health care, his PTSD again took over his life: He was interrupted during an attempted suicide. Medevac’d home, he eventually lost his security clearance and left service in 2008, marking what he felt was an ignoble end to a 25-year career.

He re-entered treatment, but neither therapy and medication, nor therapy alone, nor medication alone, nor too much alcohol seemed to help.

So he started writing.

He wrote about his experiences in Central Africa, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Darfur. He wrote about his struggles with PTSD and his failed suicide attempt. He wrote about his marriage collapsing and his lost career.

He completed the graduate writing program at the Johns Hopkins University. In time, he began to heal. Then he decided to give away what he had learned to others.

In 2011, retired Lt. Col. Ron Capps founded the Veterans Writing Project (VWP), a 501(c)(3) non-profit based in Washington, D.C., that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans and their family members.

He recruited a few other writers to help him – all veterans.

Today, the project runs its no-cost writing workshops around the country in partnership with local sponsors and with organizations like the George Washington University, Wounded Warrior Project, the Writers Guild Initiative, the Wilderness Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others.

To date, the project has run seminars in D.C., North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, Iowa, and Kentucky, with Arizona, Virginia, and Massachusetts on the near horizon.

The VWP’s motto is: "Every Veteran has a Story," and the mission is to provide all veterans and their family members the skills and confidence to tell those stories. All VWP instructors meet three strict criteria: working writer, graduate of an MA or MFA writing program, veteran. Instructors represent all four branches of the service and most have recent combat experience.

Primary level Veterans Writing Project workshops usually run for two days and focus on the elements of the craft involved in creative writing including scene, setting, dialogue, narrative structure and plot.

Secondary programs focus on fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and playwriting.

The VWP is also involved in helping wounded warriors recover.

Capps created a specific curriculum for working with wounded and traumatized service members that VWP instructors present weekly at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence and the DoD research and treatment facility at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

The VWP is also a publishing organization. They began publishing an online and print literary journal, O-Dark-Thirty, in 2012, and just published the sixth edition. The journal has been featured in NPR’s "All Things Considered," and features fiction, non-fiction, and poetry created by service members, veterans and their family members.

As for Ron Capps, since leaving service in 2008, his work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Time magazine, the New York Times, and has been featured on NPR, the BBC, and numerous other policy and literary journals.

He has won numerous awards, and has a memoir coming out from Schaffner Press in the spring of 2014 titled "Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years."

Above all, the VWP is a group of veterans helping other veterans.

For more information about VWP seminars and workshops, visit www.veteranswriting.org.

To read or submit your own work to the journal, visit www.o-dark-thirty.org.