Veterans Find Release Through Writers Workshop

SALEM, Mass. — Vietnam veteran Marc Levy of Salem stood up before dozens in Abbot Hall in Marblehead, and read his essay called “The Quiet Time,” which describes the drinking of morning coffee on the battlefield in an act akin to salvation.

“Tear open and pour in one or two packets of non dairy creamer. Repeat with sugar. Use the white plastic spoon to mix and stir. With eyes closed, inhale the savory vapors; cup to your lips, feel the hot inky brew flood your mouth, scourge your tongue, roll down your willing gullet. The taste is awful, but it will do,” said Levy, 67, who was a 19-year-old Army medic when he arrived in Vietnam.

Levy, an author, was taking part in Salem Congressman and Iraq War veteran Seth Moulton’s Veterans Town Hall. The idea of a veterans town hall was conceived by author Sebastian Junger, based on the tradition of warrior storytelling.

“Warrior storytelling brings together veterans and the communities they serve so they both can be supportive of each other,” Moulton said in an email.

Some North Shore veterans like Levy who want to share their stories are now learning how to better write them.
On a cold night in mid-December, about a dozen North Shore veterans, including Levy, met at Salem State University for a veterans writers workshop, led by Army veteran Tom Laaser of Salem.

It’s not an official class. There are no grades. The group of about 15 to 20 alternates between meeting on campus and at the Salem VFW Post on Derby Street, where they are joined by some older veterans.

They not only learn about the craft of writing, but they share stories and get an outlet, something they may not be able to do otherwise.

“I’m supporting Tom and his writing group because he’s been really supportive of everything we’ve been doing on campus,” said Army veteran and former explosive ordnance technician Alexander Tilkens of Beverly, who is also a member of the Salem State Student Veterans Organization. “I’ve been here supporting Tom Laaser and all the other guys are my friends, too. So … it’s almost like therapy, I’ve noticed, for some of the guys here.”
During the workshop in a classroom in Meier Hall, Laaser urged the group to be authentic.

“Don’t try to be something, you know, I’m not grading you. This isn’t a class,” Laaser said. “If you want to say (expletive) every other word, please, say it. Because we need to talk the way we are inside.”

It was important for veterans to be able to tell their stories and include their diversity of experience, Laaser said.

“And if you don’t tell your story, others are going to tell the story for you,” Laaser said.

The group grew out of a veterans learning community at Salem State last year. First-year veteran students take two classes with other veterans to help these non-traditional students get used to college life.
“A few people just wanted to keep writing, so we meet monthly,” said Laaser, an English major.

Laaser led the workshop with some faculty from Salem State acting as informal advisers, including visiting lecturer Julie Batten, who teaches a class called foundations of writing for the veterans learning community. She also brought pizza for dinner. Laaser said Batten was a tough professor, and was the inspiration for continuing writing which led to the veterans writers workshop. He said she made them feel as if “I can talk and I have a voice and this is important.”

Under Batten’s guidance, the veterans started writing. They liked each other’s writing enough, they decided to continue on their own. This fall, the workshops picked up steam.

“It just took off, and people were just … They want to write. They want to do something that is veteran and also different,” Laaser said.

Laaser was injured in the service and medically retired. He struggles with PTSD. During his long recovery, he found his love of reading, and then writing. He wants to teach English someday.

During the recent workshop, Laaser gave veterans prompts to write about in the workshop.

One of the prompts the group struggled with was an excerpt from a book called “Company K” by Silent Generation author and World War I veteran William C. March. Each chapter represents every single member of March’s company.
The excerpt Laaser read was about an outpost sentry who was gravely wounded, but who hid the extent of his injuries from the narrator before he died.

The group was asked to write about a moment of deception.

“Do I lie to myself in my own voice,” said Frank Abram of Beverly, who served in the mid-1960s in the Army Special Forces as a medical sergeant; he did not serve in Vietnam. He said he has been diagnosed with PTSD. “How is it that the truth deceives me? Am I in danger? Why is it fear, a gut-wrenching fear comes upon me without obvious cause?”

The group applauded the older veteran’s writing.

“My sense is that this is the tip of the iceberg,” Levy said. “There is stuff right beneath it that comes next, that slowly comes up. And that’s the story.”

When Laaser read about his moment of deception, he spoke about how he tries to hide the extent and nature of his leg injury to others. He was injured in the leg by a mortar in Afghanistan as an Army sergeant.

“Yes, I will say, one leg is shorter than the other,” Laaser read, “or my shoes are new, or ‘really, never noticed.’ Whatever the situation calls for, or I feel at the moment, I will say. Anything but the truth, the real reason why I limp.”

“It’s therapeutic to the veterans to actually be able to write it down, to get it out and put it on paper,” Abram said after the workshop. Writing with other veterans can also combat a soldier’s sense of isolation. “And then, socializing. Other veterans that are exactly the same way, it gives you a sense that you are not alone.”
“It’s a sense of community with all these people and it feels right to be with other veterans,” Levy said.

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