ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Creative writing helped Stephen Henderson process Vietnam. It taught him to manage his PTSD, allowing him to feel comfortable again. The former-marine could now enter a room and sit with his back to the door. He could be vulnerable and confide more in his family, revealing his love and pain to them. Henderson contributes this transformation, which he has undergone over the past five years, to creative writing.
“It changes your whole perspective,” said Henderson, 69, who from 1969-70 fought during the height of the Vietnam War. “These things have been stored in our heads for the last 50 years.”
Henderson was one of 38 original participants of the Creative Writing Program at Charles George VA Medical Hospital in East Asheville, which helped Vietnam War veterans cope with their past and present traumas. Over an eight-week course, classes of between 12 to 16 veterans convened to craft memoirs, third-person narratives and poetry. With strong results and low costs, the course has generated widespread interest from other VA facilities across the country to jump-start their own writing initiatives.
Within the last few months, VA medical centers in North Carolina — including in Durham, Salisbury and Fayetteville — have joined Asheville to submit a proposal to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Centers in 11 other states, from Virginia to California, have signed on to the proposal.
Last year, Congress passed legislation which lead to the creation of the VA Innovation Center. The VA, a department beset in recent years by claims of mismanagement, hopes its Innovation Center can provide modern, effective initiatives. The creative writers at the Asheville VA Medical Center believe they have already found one.
“The simple act of these men crafting and telling their stories has been transformative in their lives,” said Bruce Kelly, Assistant Chief of Primary Care at Charles George and lead of the center’s Creative Writing Program.
In 2014, Kelly co-founded the writing program. He was unaware of any other VA program using creative writing to help Vietnam veterans confront their PTSD. “It didn’t take me long working here to realize how many Vietnam veterans were still carrying the burdens of that war with them,” Kelly said. “I feel we have a moral obligation to these men’s healing.”
IN VIVID DETAIL
Henderson grew up in Asheville and graduated from Erwin High School before enlisting in the Marines. The sensory details of his time prior to and during the war — the sight of his pregnant wife the day before he left, the feel of elephant grass in the overgrown jungles of Vietnam, the smell of fired ammunition — remained vivid long after Henderson returned home.
He settled in West Buncombe, raised four children and built a career in rayon manufacturing, but never left the war behind. Nightmares persisted for decades.
“I was probably the weirdo in the room,” Henderson said. “It was hard for me to show care to my family. In Vietnam, you had no time to show concern for those you cared, especially if they died. You learned quickly to move on.”
In 2014, Henderson participated in the inaugural writing class at Charles George. His instructor was Joseph Bathanti, the other founder of the Creative Writing Program and the seventh Poet Laureate of North Carolina.
For Henderson, each prompt Bathanti gave felt like therapy. He wrote, in exacting detail, about his last day before deployment. He centered another story on his flak jacket and a third was dedicated to a childhood friend who died in combat.
“I couldn’t read through it without crying,” Henderson said.
Since that first class, the veterans have staged seven live readings titled Brothers Like These. Each one has drawn tears, from both readers and audiences.
“The writing lets them begin to regain control of the story,” Kelly said.
A WEIGHT LIFTED
Today, more than half of the men who participated in the creative writing course return to the VA center monthly to share new writing and advocate for new writing programs. Many now work to grow writing programs for younger generations of veterans.
Currently, the VA prioritizes funding of writing programs for Vietnam veterans. Last March, a cohort from the writing classes started the NC Veterans Writing Alliance Foundation to raise awareness and money to develop writing programs for those who went to Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to building on services to Vietnam veterans. Henderson is the foundation’s president.
“It has helped us so much to deal with PTSD, I think it would help anyone learn to manage it,” Henderson said. In October, a group of women veterans from the Afghanistan War will begin a Creative Writing Program at Charles George. “Women went through the same stresses over there,” Henderson said. “And when they came back, they often had more responsibilities than the men.”
Beyond himself, Henderson sees benefits from his creative writing on those around him. “Putting part of my life on paper lifted a weight I didn’t know how to let out,” he said. “Before I started writing, I could never enjoy time with my family. I was always preparing for something bad to happen. Now, we all can enjoy each other.”