Learning How To Heal

By Guy Spriggs

When UK English doctoral student Travis Martin returned from military service in 2006, he found himself dealing with avoidance issues and concerns about assimilating into life after deployment. Martin says he didn’t know how to answer questions others had about the war. “I didn’t like being reminded of it all the time. I started avoiding situations and people altogether,” he said.

Then, in his last undergraduate semester at Eastern Kentucky University, Martin read a book by an Iraq war veteran when taking a course on memoirs. Martin was nervous about the assignment at first, but this exposure to another veteran’s story became a formative experience for him as both a scholar and a returning soldier.

“I found that the more I read, the more I’d grow comfortable talking about war both intellectually and on a personal level. It wasn’t like the exposure therapies I took part in where I couldn’t control the pace. With reading and writing I was able to control the intensity,” he explained.

After earning his B.A., Martin was given the opportunity to design a class for returning veterans. The program he put together combined information about study skills and university resources with personal essay writing, allowing veterans to explore their skill sets and apply their life experiences to their coursework.

“I learned that the writing process is healing for a lot of veterans,” he said. “Traumatic memories are fragmented, a jumbled mess of memories and emotions that is hard to make sense of. The process of writing them out or representing them through art allows a person look back at his or her trauma and put a coherent story together.”

“If veterans can learn how to tell their stories and have them heard by society, it shows them they can have a post-war life. Acceptance is an importance part of the process,” Martin added.

These experiences encouraged Martin to engage in further outreach, both to help his fellow veterans and to pursue his academic interests in memory and trauma. The results of this outreach were so positive that Martin collected and published the work produced by his students, leading to the creation of “The Journal of Military Experience” (JME).

Currently, Martin and nearly three dozen volunteers – professors, graduate students, clinicians and veteran writers – are working with nearly 200 veterans in online workshopping groups to produce the third volume of the JME. They have also expanded the umbrella to include three additional journals: “Blue Falcon” (military fiction), “Blue Streak” (military poetry) and “The Veterans PTSD Project” (stories of post-traumatic growth and resiliency).

Martin has used these publications to reach out to veterans and writing communities, and last summer organized the Military Experience and the Arts Symposium with a grant from the Kentucky Department of Veteran Affairs.

“We invited 100 veterans to participate in free workshops for three days. What I found is that I’m not the only one doing this kind of work. Writing and arts communities are springing up all over the country in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. People are latching onto the arts because of their therapeutic benefits,” he said.

Those who have participated in Martin’s workshops or published work in “The Journal of Military Experience” have a lot to say about the benefits of writing about their time in the military. Their comments reflect the therapeutic value of writing, giving veterans the opportunity to confront traumatic – and even forgotten – experiences.

Jennifer Childress, an Air Force veteran who runs the Facebook page for “The Journal of Military Experience,” was first drawn to the JME after seeing videos from the Military Experience and the Arts Symposium.

“I was interested in the healing of wounds from war using art, writing, music and other therapies. What kept me engaged was the comradeship that seemed to flow from writer to editor, veteran to civilian,” she said.

“This association has kept me involved with many different veterans’ groups and has fostered online friendships, mainly those involved with healing through writing and individual learning through many kinds of artistic expression,” Childress continued.

“Writing is a form of therapy. Perhaps not to all, but many, including myself,” said veteran Eric Hannel. “I appreciate ‘The Journal’ for being a creative outlet that allows me to express myself and minimize some of the baggage I carry related to my experiences.”

“I have published three stories and it has been medicinal. It has been a good way for me to describe my experiences, like elements of the human condition,” he added.

Nurse and Vietnam veteran Sarah Blum used one the JME workshops as the springboard for writing about her military experiences for the first time.

“I was delighted to find out I could get help through ‘The Journal of Military Experience.’ I sent my article about my healing journey back to Vietnam, and editor Katt Blackwell-Starnes responded with a message that was so compassionate, welcoming and healing for me,” she said.

“I have had a wonderful experience with the JME. Travis has always listened to my problems and I have had great assistance from the editors,” added veteran Richard Combs. “Knowing that someone is interested in my work is a big boost.”

Martin’s outreach is about more than outreach to his fellow veterans: it also occupies a central role in his doctoral work. His goal is to map these growing arts and writing communities and discover the philosophies that are guiding the literature being produced.

“I want to start forming a proto-canon of the people that are going to form the great Iraq and Afghanistan war writers 50 years from now. I want to see how those different healing philosophies influence their works,” Martin explained.

For Martin, writers like those published in the JME are changing the conversation regarding military experience and veteran identity. He hopes his work will continue to open therapeutic doors for veterans.

“I’ve seen that vets want control and coherence, that they are willing to go through the same growth I did. They’re doing away with the notion that they won’t talk about their experiences, and they’re making non-veterans aware of what’s happening in their name,” Martin said.

Martin wears many hats: researcher, budding scholar, teacher and more. But his role which gives veterans the opportunity to express themselves creatively, and scholars a space to discuss important issues related to the military and veteran communities, is becoming a powerful and poignant legacy.

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