Writing is powerful medicine when it comes to healing psychic and emotional wounds. Spoken word artist and Vietnam veteran T-Poe Varnado is partnering with Heart Warrior Project founder and performance artist Candace M. Younghans to facilitate a writing group for local veterans that aims to create that medicine.
The Heart Warrior Project is a service that helps integrate veterans by fostering creativity and communication. Varnado and Younghans are inviting veterans to their free and informal writing group, which will meet from 6 to 8 p.m. March 3 at the Medford library in the Carpenter Room.
Varnado says he chose to help facilitate a veterans' writing group because writing helped him through some very difficult times.
“I didn't write a single thing about my Vietnam experiences until after Sept. 11, when the U.S. sent troops into Iraq and Afghanistan," he says. “After Vietnam, no one wanted to hear our stories. I carried around a lot of hurt.”
Varnado began writing about Vietnam during treatment at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center for veterans. “I have found so much healing in writing about my war experiences and feelings related to it. Writing really just removes it from your head and gets it on paper."
Using writing prompts or free association, veterans can put thoughts and feelings to paper and creatively explore issues connected with their war experiences.
“The group is very loosely structured,” says Younghans, who also volunteers as a teacher of storytelling and performance at the rehabilitation center. “We're not going to dive into traumas right away. We'll do some introductory exercises, get to know each other and shape the group together, including discussing logistics about future meetings. This will be a space to let creativity flow and leave your critical mind at the door."
Varnado adds that writing with a group is an especially powerful experience.
“It does wonders to know you are not alone. Though there is more awareness about the psychological damage of war these days, it is still isolating to return home to people who haven't been through what you have. It's hard to go it alone.”
Varnado recalls feelings of fear and shame after returning from Vietnam.
“When I came back from Vietnam I felt kind of worthless, like I had been the bad guy,” he says. “All those stories people hear about Vietnam veterans getting shouted at and spit on are all true. I wish we had been treated with more compassion."
Though younger veterans are treated better when they return from the Middle East than those who served in Vietnam, Varnado says they are still scarred by their experiences.
“These kids are carrying around so much pain and have so much stuff pent up, they need to release it,” he says. “You can't not be damaged by war."
Younghans says the writing group is only one part of the Heart Warrior Project's ongoing mission to help veterans heal and create a community that supports and nurtures veterans and their loved ones. “A major goal is to build wilderness retreat centers for veterans and their families. I'd like to see local practitioners of healing arts such as massage, meditation or acupuncture, offer their services.”
She also plans to start a writing group for civilian friends and family of veterans “There's a lot of trauma that is passed on to civilians, and writing is also a way to bring about truthful conversation,” she says.
Varnado says he is excited about the group. “I'm looking forward to working with other veterans. I'd be happy if we could help at least one veteran to just get it out and on paper and start to heal.”
The Medford library is at 205 South Central Ave. For more information, call Younghans at 541-816-0382.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at email@example.com.