Written & Spoken Word

Brothers and Sisters Like These - Part Three

A Creative Writing Program for Veterans

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TITLE: Brothers and Sisters Like These: a creative writing program for veterans

AUTHOR: Bruce Kelly

SOURCE: American Osler Society website. The American Osler Society is a group of physicians, medical historians, and members of related professions united by the common purpose of keeping alive the memory of William Osler, and keeping its members vigilantly attentive to the lessons found in his life and teachings. The course of William Osler's life (1849-1919) took him from a parsonage in the Canadian wilderness, the youngest of a clergyman's children, to a prestigious post at Oxford University, a baronetcy, and the reputation of being the world's greatest living physician.

PERMISSION to publish granted by Bruce Kelly and the American Osler Society

In August 2016, 18 of the men agreed to participate in a staged reading of their work titled Brothers Like These at Asheville Community Theatre. We shortly after did a second at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina to a standing room only crowd of students and teachers, and again at the community theatre in 2017 and 2019.  

On each occasion the audience was deeply touched, many at some point in tears but always leaving with a new understanding and respect for all who served in Vietnam, and by proxy in combat zones wherever they may be. The men have felt honored, empowered, and a long overdue sense they are indeed heroes of their own stories. The readings have provided a platform for the welcome home they never received.

Many of the men have read at countless local and regional events and been interviewed on the radio. Their writing has been published as a book entitled Brothers Like These, now St. Andrews Press's all-time best seller. We’ve had readings in Franklin, Old Fort, Durham, and the Outer Banks.

A local elementary school used one of the men’s stories as the basis for a skit that won a state, and then national “Torchbearer” award. They’ve presented their skit at the VA. Videos of five of the men reading one of their pieces and interviewed for Veterans Day by the Asheville Citizen-Times was picked up by USA Today for national distribution. The Memorial and Veterans Day celebrations at the VA and in the community always now include several of them reading.

In 2020, by then considered a ‘best practice’ by VA leadership, we reached out to VA’s across the country to elicit interest in spreading the work. 17 facilities across 12 states signed on to participate in a funding proposal to the VA’s Innovation Network. We were funded for 5 in North Carolina and Virginia. A ‘primer’ based on lessons learned was created to support these and has been shared with several other VA’s. Regrettably the pandemic prevented completion of the 12-week groups intended to help build the first-ever evidence base for the work.

The veterans themselves have become passionate emissaries for the work. Some have formed a non-profit, the North Carolina Veterans Writing Alliance, to lead education, advocacy and fund raising in support of programs locally and beyond. They’ve raised funds to hold additional writing groups, reaching out to Post-9/111 as well as women veterans, evolving to Brothers and Sisters Like These. They’ve held monthly Zoom calls, created a series of podcasts, their own website, with additional fundraising and outreach underway.

A mini-documentary about our program has been completed as part of a national Take Care initiative. Go to https://takecare.org/inspiration/brothers-like-these/

What carries us all are the relationships we’ve been privileged to build with wounded veterans who’ve been willing to write and share their remarkable stories, building ‘community’ in so many ways. Their courage and dedication have captivated and inspired thousands. It’s catalyzed change not only in their lives but the lives of their families, locales, region, and beyond.

We collectively remain committed and want all all veterans with PTSD to know you’re not forgotten, and that your stories matter. Through them we hope to support your healing journey.


About the author:

Bruce Kelly is a retired physician after 42 years of practice in Asheville, North Carolina. He's worked in a wide variety of settings including private practice, hospice/palliative care, and adult developmental medicine, among others. He completed his career at the Charles George VA Medical Center as Assistant Chief of Primary Care. He led a host of arts and humanities initiatives locally and beyond at Charles George, steadily referencing Osler's strong belief in their value to the practice of medicine. In 2014 he created and co-led with Joseph Bathanti, former North Carolina Poet Laureate, a creative writing program for Vietnam veterans with PTSD.

His only regret is not being able to implement his (approved) proposal for a formal Charles George Medical Humanities Program before retirement, one of countless casualties of the pandemic. The launching point was to have been monthly literature-based "Osler Rounds" for the medical staff to honor Osler's legacy and help reclaim the soul of our profession. If interested in helping start a medical humanities program in North Carolina, reach out to Dr. Kelly at brucekelly52@gmail.com.

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