Because of the gravity of the war-related experiences many veterans face, one struggle for veterans living with PTSD is the willingness and/or ability to tell their own story. To tell the story means to face it again, and that can be terrifying. But from Washington, DC, to Seattle, Washington, to the Navajo Nation in the southwest United States, story-telling is proving to be a key means of healing from the very trauma the memories of which veterans have strived to keep at bay.
In the year 2000, The Library of Congress American Folklife Center in Washington, DC, established the Veterans History Project. At this site, recorded interviews, correspondence, and visual artifacts are archived and made available for the public to view, listen to, and learn from. A person can select any configuration of criteria (war, branch of service, gender of interviewee) to find a recorded interview of a war veteran’s experiences in the service. The reader can find stories that specifically address veterans’ experiences with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Interviewees on that page range from those who served in World War II to the Korean War to the Cold War Era to the Vietnam War to The Persian Gulf War to the Afghan War. This project is supported by the United States Congress.
In 2012, a smaller but equally committed project was established in Seattle, Washington, by actor and Air Force veteran Tom Skerritt and former Army Captain Evan Bailey, called The Red Badge Project. The mission of the Red Badge Project, as stated on its website, is to support “Wounded Warriors in the journey to reconstruct their individual sense of purpose, understanding of self-worth, and place in community, as they discover and give voice to their unique stories.”
With courses offered at the University of Washington Tacoma campus, Red Badge Project teaches storytelling skills to veterans and those currently serving in the military. Courses are divided into three categories: the main course, which includes “poetry, photography, song or filmography, multimedia writing, oral history and documentary production;” In Your Voice, which helps veterans “learn introductory storytelling skills, and expand to more advanced storytelling techniques, delving deeper into the understanding of their own stories;” and Women’s Voices, where “female veterans, in a safe environment, follow their desire for the story as a woman writes, oriented to their own inclinations, subjects and craft.”
These are just two examples of how storytelling can be a healing process for veterans. But of course the tradition of storytelling goes back centuries, if not millennia, and one of the longest lasting traditions of storytelling as a means of healing and learning comes from Native American teachings. The PBS program, Circle of Stories, documents Native storytelling traditions, noting that, “Indigenous storytelling is rooted in the earth. Years upon years of a kinship with the land, life, water and sky have produced a variety of narratives about intimate connections to the earth.” The Circle of Stories website goes on to say, “Prayers, songs and dances are all types of stories, which can be offered to honor the earth.”
Experiences of war often create a sense of disconnect, not only from other people, but from the earth itself. A 2013 video produced by the Institute of Traditional Medicine documents how Navajo Native war veteran Albert Laughter has used storytelling and ceremony in exactly this way to heal from his war-based PTSD. In the video, Laughter explains how it was his own father, Hubert Laughter, also a war veteran, who guided him through the tradition. Laughter has since used the traditions of prayer, song, drumming, and ceremony to help younger war veterans enter the world of healing from PTSD, and return to their sense of place on the earth and in their own bodies.
Whether through poetry, as has been shared in this blog’s previous two entries, or through formal recorded interviews as are being done at the Library of Congress, through courses at places like the Red Badge Project, or through ceremonial song and prayer, storytelling is a valuable means of healing. Veterans need the opportunity to tell their stories—safely, in spaces and with people who hold their stories and their lives as sacred.
Eli Addison, QMHA, is an individual continually seeking to better understand the human experience and explore our diversity. He serves as Veterans Housing Specialist at Medicine Wheel Recovery Services. His passion and careful persistence drive his advocacy and support for those in need.
Eliza Galaher, QMHA, has lived all over the country, especially the Northeast and the Southwest, working in publishing, education, liberal religious ministry, and many others. She is back in her native Oregon, serving as a Veterans Housing Specialist at Medicine Wheel. Addiction and recovery have always been a part of her life and she now offers her lived experience in service to all seeking healing.