Stories from war: a writing workshop for military veterans

Stories from war

By MIKE KILEN • • February 8, 2010

A writing workshop for military veterans was a tough sell. Grants were denied and help was hard to come by.

Maybe Emma Rainey’s idea was pie-in-the-sky.

But she had been a military kid who moved every year and didn’t know what was buried inside her war veteran father.

She had discovered writing later in life. The tiny, lithe former dancer enrolled at the University of Iowa and commuted from Fairfield, where she and four daughters moved with her husband from the West Coast so he could engage in Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation. She lost the child custody battle after their divorce five years ago; it shattered her.

“Writing kept me sane,” Rainey said. “Writing is the space between holding it in and speaking.”

Then 18 months ago, during her commute to her graduate non-fiction writing classes, Rainey heard radio reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, already heartbroken by endless print stories on returning veterans’ struggles.

“One day I read one too many,” she said.

Few were interested in her idea: Writing could help the vets and studies show its positive therapeutic effects. She plowed ahead, anyway, and decided to pay for the free workshop out of her own pocket.

But John Mikelson, an advisor at the University of Iowa Veterans Center, was sold.

“A writing workshop in the city of literature seemed like a no-brainer,” he said. “Most vets have wonderful stories bottled up inside them. But getting them from their head to a pen is difficult.”

He helped get the word out to vets; one whom helped put up a Web site. UI’s Distance Learning Site offered space for the weekend workshop. Teaching assistants and professors offered to help teach writing.

Rainey’s 82-year-old father heard about it and wrote her an e-mail the week before the Jan. 15 Vets Midwestern Writing Workshop.

“Would you be interested in what an old Korean War vet had to say?”

“He tried sending the attachment 10 times before finally sending it snail mail,” Rainey said.

She opened the two-page piece. It was the story of his ship, blasting the coast of Korea and the backfire in turret number one. The siren. The 30 men lying dead. His men.

“He wrote about going back in the room with the body parts everywhere,” Rainey said.

She picked up the telephone to call him. He didn’t want to talk about it. Writing was a gap that was safe.

“Writing is the space between where they can get this out,” she said.

Any lingering doubts that the idea was good were over.

Forty men and women from all over the country, ages 20s to 70s, showed up for the workshop in Iowa City. They had questions and doubts, too. One said he wasn’t up to any “pissing contest” for most horrible story. Another wondered if it was just going to be a group therapy session.

But as they broke up into classes on style and characterization, poetry and point of view, description and dialogue, the weekend unfolded in a unique blend of sharing deep emotions and the art of communicating them well. The time flew by.

Eddie Allen, 64, of Iowa City arrived with no writing experience and little contact with veterans. After ruminating over his own experience for years, he wanted to hear others.

Events long buried surfaced, both big and small. Refusing a drink from his best buddy in Vietnam on the last day he would see him. What the war did to him over the next 38 years.

“I grew up in Oklahoma and went to Sunday school. All the sudden you are a soldier and then a warrior,” he said. “It’s a different mindset and even though you are not a warrior anymore it affects the way you do things for the rest of your life.”

He found poetry there. Writing instructors, counselors and other vets helped.

“It was like liquid love. There were no barriers between ages or professions,” Rainey said. “The most shocking thing to me was how uplifting it was. I thought it would be sad.”

It lifted her spirits to see a Vietnam vet sit for an hour with a published poet, talking words.

In the process, Rainey said, they could unburden themselves from the stories.

“The physical act of writing it down gives them permission,” she said. “Their story takes on its own energy and they can let it go without being bitter or shattered.”

Some moved from writing nothing but a grocery list to writing poems or essays. Given the tools, they could now find the right words.

The hum of the helicopter was still in their heads.

Or the shouting. Army veteran Mary Chavez of Reinbeck remembered the shouting. She grew claustrophobic on an overseas truck convey, which was forced to stop and let her out. Her superior screamed in her face about the danger she could cause.

She remembered the scream back home when her boss at work did the same after she made a mistake. She ran to the supply closet and sat there for hours.

“Writing it down helped detoxify some of the trauma,” Chavez said. “I was able to see it from a different perspective and it weakened the strength of it from my memories.”

Jon Kerstetter of Iowa City was already working on a book.

He was deployed three times to Iraq from 2003 to 2005 as part of a medical battalion with the Iowa National Guard.

He broke his ankle, then dislocated his shoulder. The injuries were worse than he first thought and he had 10 surgeries. One caused a debilitating stroke that required extensive cognitive therapy.

He had to give up his job as an Iowa City physician.

“I’m using writing as one of my vehicles for rehab,” he said.

“The telling of it is not so simple because they are complicated emotions. When you are writing something as tragic as war, you have to get involved. You have to relive the story.”

But it helped him purge. It helped him understand the complexities of combat.

“Soldiers have a predefined task and you keep your eyes on the task,” he said. “When you come away and have time to reflect, you understand how complex it is. You realize you are not all that powerful. It’s a machine that all has to work.”

Rainey had even fewer doubts after the weekend was over.

“Poetry amazed me,” a vet wrote on her workshop evaluation. “My pen writes poetry!”

She hopes to take the workshop to other cities, maybe even now land grants. Distance Learning officials were so impressed they kicked in the $1,500 of expenses for the weekend.

“There is a gap in understanding between vets’ experience and the population,” Rainey said. “That gap needs to be closed. We don’t know if we don’t hear their voices.”

A check arrived in the mail one day to go toward workshop expenses. It was from her father.

“He knew why I was doing it,” she said.

Register reporter MIKE KILEN tells the stories of Iowans across the state. Contact him at


Writing instructor Emma Rainey (top right corner) goes over a paper as she meets with armed services veterans.
Writing instructor Emma Rainey looks to Luke Huisenga as he talks about his poetry with (left to right) Brian Smith, Dr. Jon Kerstetter and Luke Sheperd. She meets with armed services veterans to help them write creatively about their experiences at an Iowa City coffee shop.
Rainey talks with Luke Huisenga (foreground) as Luke Sheperd listens. “Writing is the space between where (vets) can get this out,” she said.

‘This is my aircraft, my office’

Following is a sample of a book worked on during the workshop by Jon Kerstetter, MD, COL, Iowa Army National Guard, retired.

Often, just before sunrise, I used to walk the flight line where the aircraft were waiting just at the edge of the runway, perfectly aligned, standing at attention. The rising sun would paint colors on their shapes. I would smell the JP-8 jet fuel, smell the hints of metallic oil and let my eyes feast on all that is military; on all the sun-colored, olive-drab, gray-green shapes, the dark browns and the dusty whites of military markings. The colors were like flowers in the desert. I could name each aircraft by the pattern of its colors, its faded spots and stains, and by its scattered chips of military CARC (Chemical Agent Resistant Coating) paint. I used to love to watch the morning pre-flights of the crew. Watch the checks and movements about the aircraft. Soldier ants at war. Occasionally, I would walk up and just touch one of the helicopters and let my hand move across the skin, feeling the rivets, the sand-scarred paint, feeling the door handle or the cockpit seams. I would breathe in the morning smells, the aircraft smells, the war smells, and be taken on a sort of mental excursion that drew me close to the familiar and nearer to the battle: the sights and sounds of army aviation, military medicine, rescue, resupply, interdiction, attack and medevac. This ritual would function like a liturgy of sorts, so that when I was finished I felt restored in faith, restored in my role as a soldier and as a flight surgeon. It made me bold to the point that I would lay claim on the aircraft – on the mission. This is my aircraft. No other doc in the entire Army has this aircraft. It belongs to me. It’s my office. It’s where I go to war.

Comments for

Stories from war

kennyji wrote:

Powerful article, Mike, on the cathartic effect of writing. Thank you. Reminds me of something Jesus said in the Gospel of Thomas. “If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is inside you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.”

2/9/2010 12:10:18 AM

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