Example poetry

For these veterans, poetry and prose help heal the moral damage of war

At the end of a maze of booths on the top floor of VFW’s Kansas City headquarters, Nick Lopez read a script for a veterans event he’s been working on for months. The theme was “Heroism in Service”.

“The classic hero’s journey involves sacrifice first and foremost,” Lopez began. The Navy veteran and VFW Youth Programs Coordinator read what characterizes this journey: a call to adventure, a refusal to leave, cross a threshold, or fight internal and external monsters.

The event Lopez was planning – The Veteran Reader’s Theater – is in its fourth year. This summer, the current group of participants began working to smooth out the wrinkles in their personal stories of battling these monsters. Many are trying to heal from a moral wound, a kind of cousin of the better known post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They wrote about their experiences and read their poems and stories at a virtual event in November.

Lopez leads the Kansas City Vet writing team, which is part of the Moral Injury Association of America and sponsored by the Missouri Humanities Council.

“The biggest challenge with veterans is probably sharing those experiences with their loved ones,” he said. “They believe it’s hard for others to relate to what they’ve been through”

At the end of his script, which showcased the event online, Lopez said that when the adventurer returns home, “he might have a story to tell.” This is the signal for the procession of nine readers to begin.

One of the readers was Air Force veteran Heather Smoot, who wrote of the suffering inflicted by other servicemen:

My enemies wore the same clothes;

My career, they managed to get rid of.

It was a most disappointing story

and even if I often felt fragile,

I faced the inner strength,

despite the extravagant lengths

they went and ruined my life.

The poem is streaked with anger, depression and shame, but at the end the voice is in a place of power:

I never wanted to be an unsung hero

but, enduring my trials, I grew.

I swore never to give up on my life.

With my destiny; I would have the last word.

PTSD and hurt feelings share certain characteristics: anger, depression, anxiety, nightmares and insomnia.

“At worst, it’s self-medicating with alcohol or drugs,” said Cindy McDermott, a Navy veteran and co-founder of the Kansas City-based Moral Injury Association of America.

However, McDermott said people with PTSD experience a startle reflex, memory loss, fears and flashbacks.

“When you look at the moral wounds, that’s when you see the conscience, the empathy kicking in, and that’s when the veteran would suffer grief, grief, regret, shame and alienation as well,” she said.

Unlike PTSD, hurt feelings are not an easily diagnosable disorder, or a disorder at all. It is caused by an action, or lack of action, that goes against a person’s core moral values ​​and results in great guilt or shame.

Rita Nakashima Brock, senior vice president and director of the Shay Moral Injury Center of Volunteers of America in Virginia, worked with McDermott to create the Kansas City Writers’ Group.

Brock gave the example of a young man she knew who joined the military. While in Iraq, the man and several of his teammates were ordered to shoot an Iraqi who was threatening to throw a grenade.

“He doesn’t remember shooting, but he does remember seeing this young man with a grenade in his hand and then seeing him lying in a pool of blood that was clearly dead,” Brock said.

Later, when the soldier looked at his magazine, he saw that he had fewer bullets than the last time he checked. Brock said the soldier was suddenly certain he had killed the man.

“He was just devastated,” Brock said. “He realized he had crossed a moral line in his life that he could never cross.”

Moral injuries also affect civilians, such as health professionals during the pandemic. Doctors and nurses found themselves in battlefield-type situations to decide who will receive ventilators or other equipment, and who will die.

“They’re not prepared for this in medical school,” Brock said. “And they can feel like they’re failing as doctors because they’re not saving anyone.”

Because hurt feelings are not a medical condition and can go undetected for years, they cannot be resolved by filling out a prescription. But Brock said the writing helps because once the story is on paper, it gets outsourced.

“When they write it down, or speak it, or describe it, they can see it for the first time in a way that makes it something they can actually manipulate and work with,” said Brock said. “And this is the time when recovery is possible.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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