The numbers vary, but the problem is huge.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 12 percent of Gulf War veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome in a given year. That number rises to 15 percent for Vietnam War vets—with about 30 percent having PTSD at some point in their lifetime, says the VA.
Annie Ginder sees the written word as a powerful tool in battling the condition. She’s co-founder of Writeface, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans who are experiencing readjustment issues.
“We believe we can provide safe space for veterans within the comradery of other veterans as they explore their own inner landscape by facilitating journaling and expressive writing workshops.”
During a recent five-week period of workshops, Writeface had the participants—all veterans—address the subject of “creating space.” The session began with a short meditation. Then vets each wrote on what space meant to each of them—too tight, too many people and so forth—with a discussion to follow to bring out their feelings.
In addition to writing workshops, Writeface provides assistance as requested to veterans who are enrolled in the Veterans Treatment Court System as well as those who are in hospice. I attended a session of the Veterans Court with Ginder and her co-founder, Scott Hower.
“Lancaster County’s Veterans Treatment Court provides treatment while the veteran is dealing with legal problems,” Hower explained. “Writeface can provide tools to help them.”
When an individual is arrested, if he or she can show veteran status with an honorable discharge, the district attorney may recommend them to the Veterans Treatment Court. To enter the program, the veteran must plead guilty to all charges, but if he or she successfully completes the program, the charges are normally reduced or eliminated.
“Veterans enter a four-phase program,” says mentor administrator Stephen Shaw. “Each phase is 90 days. For the first two 90-day phases, the veteran must report to the judge once each week, the third 90-day phase, twice each month, then the fourth phase once each month.”
The program is based on direct court supervision in the early phases, then individual accountability later in the program. Veterans are assigned a mentor to help them through the court program and treatment. Mentors can help the veteran with housing, benefits, social and recreational needs.
“During each of the four phases, the veteran must undergo drug testing on a regular basis,” Shaw said. “Should they flunk the test, the veteran returns to the beginning of that phase.”
At the end of the four phases, the veteran must develop an 80-hour community service plan. The mentor can assist the veteran in developing and completing the program.
“There is an alumni group of veterans,” Shaw said. “The veteran meets with the group once each week and the results are confidential. This group is helpful as these veterans have successfully completed the program—a peer program, one veteran helping another.”
The court may require anger management classes or other emotion-based programs for a participant. Many of the veterans have emotional problems that Writeface can help by conducting writing workshops.
“We believe our program is a hand up, not a handout,” Hower said. “Addiction covers up potential, and once that is removed, we see the veterans getting their lives in order—going to school, working at jobs and becoming a useful member of the community.”
Writeface partners with the Caring Hospice of Lancaster by helping the veteran create a legacy poem to give to loved ones. Ginder told me she believes it’s an honor to be at the bedside at this stage of a life and able to hear their words and see their smiles.
“As a community, it is important to bear witness to these stories and to heal the individuals and families who live with the aftereffects of war on a daily basis,” Ginder said.
Writeface, in conjunction with South Central PARTners, will present “Veterans, Values and Voices: Words in Search of Our Missing Peace II,” on Sunday, Nov. 10, at the Ware Center, 42 N. Prince St., Lancaster, 2 to 4 p.m. Poets, storytellers, musicians and artists will gather to honor the memory and experience of veterans in a unique live performance. For more information, visit www.writeface.org.