On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story

September 2, 2015OnPointCover

By

Tracy Crow

In her poignant memoir, Losing Tim, iconic writing instructor Janet Burroway writes about the death of her son, a former Army ranger and government contractor. “Every suicide is a suicide bomber. The intent may be absolutely other—a yearning for peace, the need to escape, even a device to spare family. Nevertheless, the shrapnel flies.”

A few years ago, I was struck by shrapnel, and I’ve been carrying a heavy chunk of it inside me ever since.

We’re all aware of the startling statistic, twenty-two veteran suicides a day, but the statistic never hit a personal note until the violent suicide of a Marine Corps friend. In the wake of that tragedy, my friend left behind two teenaged daughters and a slew of Marine friends who wondered what we could have said or done that might have made a difference to a friend who had become so disillusioned with his civilian life he ended it with a gunshot.

Eyes_RightHis suicide came shortly after the release of my memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine. For several months, I’d been answering a number of emails and Facebook requests from veterans who were eager for writing advice. Everyone has a story, and every story matters, whether that story is written for self-reflection, a family legacy, or for publication.

But after my friend’s suicide, I stopped the cutting and pasting of advice snippets from one email to another and began to develop On Point, the first writing guide for veterans and their families. Frankly, I was searching for a way to make a difference—for a way to reduce that 22-a-day statistic that sent shrapnel flying into the hearts and psyches of twenty-two families and countless friends every, single, day.

It’s no secret that getting an appointment with a health professional at a VA can sometimes take so long that a veteran gives up. It’s also no secret that transitioning from the military into civilian life is more difficult for some. But could a writing guide, I wondered, written by a veteran for fellow veterans and families, fill a gap? After all, most mental health professionals use writing, and other forms of art, in their programs for cognitive processing therapy.

My gut said yes, and here’s why. Writing about our military experiences, even if we decide to turn our true stories into fiction, helps us develop a deeper understanding about our life, our decisions, and the motives behind our decisions because meaningful writing comes from identifying meaningful patterns. Meaningful writing requires a self-awakening. When we write, we’re training ourselves to search deeply for motive behind choices, whether we’re writing about ourselves in a memoir or essay or about the characters within our military short story or novel.

In On Point, Brooke King, a soldier who served in Iraq and who admittedly suffers from post-traumatic stress, shares how writing helps. “It helps to make sense of what is happening to you,” she said. “In Cognitive Processing Therapy, a veteran with PTSD is asked to confront their traumas head-on by writing down the incident, and then connect the feeling associated with it. I didn’t think writing was helping at first, but I kept doing it because it was the only way I knew how to express myself.”

Spring 2014 MWSA Recommended Reading List
Spring 2014 Military Writers Society of America Recommended Reading List

Over time, she said, the nightmares decreased, and the feelings of guilt and shame lessened. “I began to understand that surviving the war was a blessing and not a curse.” Today, King is the author of a chapbook of poetry about her war experiences. Additionally, she has published a short story in the military anthology, Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53, 2013), and in my anthology, Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, WWII to Present (Potomac Books, 2014).

When I first shared the premise for On Point with friends and fellow writers, most assumed On Point would be a guide exclusively for the military veteran with a war story. Not so. Not every military story is a war story. I never saw combat in the 1980s, but my story of overcoming self-limitations, gender bias, and abuses of power still found its way into the world.

Crow-RedWhiteTrue_high_resOn Point is a guide for writing the military story. If you are serving in the military today, or have ever served, On Point is for you. If you are, or have been, a member of a military family, On Point is for you. In Red, White, and True, I included a number of true stories from spouses and grown children, and their essays are just as compelling as the essays from Iraq War veterans. And if you are the parent of a military son or daughter, you, too, have stories about how military service has affected you; at times you have probably felt pride, worry, fear, betrayal, resentment, anger, and other strong emotions.

On Point may have been born out of grief over losing my Marine Corps friend, but over time, the book grew as a wish to inspire a cross-generational sharing of the military experience–and where needed, a healing.

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Tracy's bio photoBio:

Tracy Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and an award-winning military journalist. While assistant professor of journalism and creative writing, her essays and short stories were published widely and nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. She is the author of the first writing text developed for military veterans and their families, On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story (Potomac Books, 2015); the award-winning memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine (Nebraska, 2012); Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, WWII to Present (Potomac Books, 2014); and An Unlawful Order under her pen name, Carver Greene. She can be reached through her website.

 

 

Silence May Not Always Be Golden

Guest blogging today, 8/20/13

by David B. Seaburn, Ph.D, L.M.F.T. Dave_Seaburn_portrait_09_web

In 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened for traffic. Since then, approximately 1,500 people have jumped from the bridge, falling 220 feet to the water below. Of those who have survived, less than 50, almost everyone has reported regretting their decision as soon as their hands had slipped from the railing. One man said that in the foursecond fall to the water, he was tortured by the thought of not seeing his threeyearold daughter again. The despair that brought him to the bridge had been immediately replaced with regret that he would no longer be part of this world.

In my first year working as a full-time outpatient psychotherapist in a community mental health center (must have been 1983), I had the first and thankfully only patient suicide of my career. He was a young man, my age, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He heard the voice of a young woman urging him to join her “on the other side.” On the morning when I got a phone message to call his parents, my stomach knotted immediately. I met with them, two older adults (probably the same age I am now), blank-faced, arms limp, their bodies folded over in my office chairs. Their son had been adopted, the history of family mental illness unknown to them. The father stretched out his hand to show me how tall his son had been when he came to live with them. There was a faint smile on the father’s face, as he, no doubt, remembered a happier, more innocent time. On the day their son killed himself, the father and mother had gone shopping for a few hours. Their son had declined their invitation to go along. Instead, he stayed home and consumed every pill he could find in the house. He was later discovered along the road. Some neighbors reported having seen him running from house to house, likely regretting his decision and hoping to find someone to help him.

I am amazed at the frightening clarity that people often experience when they have made the decision to take their lives. Every other option fades into the background and suicide emerges uncontested as the only thing to do, and the best thing to do. I have also seen how the spell of suicidal intent can be broken when someone asks the right questions, when someone listens. People who are thinking about suicide often show signs, give hints, and even talk specifically about wanting to die. The notion that talking about suicide means a person isn’t serious is a myth. So is the idea that asking someone if they are suicidal will somehow “give them ideas.” Silence is the biggest problem we face regarding suicide prevention.

In the last job I had before I retired, I directed a free family counseling center in our local school district. During my time there, we partnered with former colleagues of mine at the university medical center to train teachers, administrators, bus drivers, and others how to recognize the signs of suicidality and what to do when they were in evidence (you can easily Google such information). Part of the project involved simulated role plays with individuals trained to behave like suicidal adolescents. Participants were anxious about interviewing these “actors,” mainly because they feared asking one particular questionAre you thinking of committing suicide?

In the preparatory training that lead up to this exercise, participants became red-faced and short of breath as they inched closer to the question, often succumbing to an unhelpful variationYou’re not thinking of hurting yourself, are you?which screams “Don’t tell me! Don’t tell me!”

After they successfully completed the role plays and had asked all the appropriate (though difficult) questions, participants reported feeling relieved. They now felt confident that if a reallife situation arose with a student, they would know what to do, how to respond, what to say.  As you might guess, in the weeks after the training we often received calls from teachers who had talked with a troubled student and were referring him or her (as well as the parents) to our counseling center for additional help.

I am not naïve. There are suicides that can’t be prevented. And simply asking a question is not the whole solution. But silence never works. Silence allows the individual to remain in the dangerously intoxicating position of thinkingThis is the only way out; this is the best way out; it doesn’t really matter.

As the man on the Golden Gate Bridge discovered, the distance between desperately wanting to die and desperately wanting to live can be a matter of inches or seconds. If we are bold enough to ask the question, to listen, to be present, we may be the ones who give someone the time they need, the caring they deserve, in order to step back from the edge and return to living.

 Bio:

David B. Seaburn, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., served a rural country parish, worked in community mental health, was an assistant professor of psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center for twenty years, and directed a public school-based free family counseling center. He co-authored two professional books, Family-Oriented Primary Care (1990) and Models of Collaboration (1996), over sixty articles, and four novels: Chimney Bluffs (2012), Charlie No Face (2011—Finalist in General Fiction, National Indie Excellence Awards), Pumpkin Hill (2007), and Darkness is as Light (2005). He and his wife live near Rochester, NY. They have two adult daughters and two wonderful granddaughters.

Read David’s blog “Going Out Not Knowing: Reflections on life’s uncertainty and wonder” at Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/going-out-not-knowing

 

Resources:

The above two sites include reading material, direct advice, links to support groups, etc.

 

  • Chimney Bluffs