Written & Spoken Word

Brothers and Sisters Like These - Part Two

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 2014 with the blessing of VA leadership, grants from the North Carolina Arts and North Carolina Humanities Councils, and support from the community, Professor Joseph Bathanti was named Writer-in-Residence at Charles George VA Medican Center in Asheville, North Carolina. We eagerly began planning a creative writing program for Vietnam veterans with PTSD that we hoped would help restore a sense of their humanity and foster some degree of recovery. 

As I recruited men during routine medical visits, I began to see more deeply how remarkable each of them was, all heroes in their own right who needed to unburden themselves in ways they may or may not have yet recognized.

They told me they were reluctant to bring the war back up, that creative writing or poetry seemed like a cockamamie idea, that they couldn’t write, had trouble with spelling, bad experiences with groups, and more. But they, too, gradually spoke more about the wounds that haunted them and were often ready to try anything that might help.

I was able to tell them there are writing programs at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland], and is the standard of care at the affiliated National Intrepid Center of Excellence. All veterans with PTSD and TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury] from the recent wars participate in arts and humanities programming there. I was able to tell them that work in these fields had been successful enough for Congress to appropriate over 2 million dollars to develop similar programs at 12 military bases around the country, Camp Lejeune [Naval Medical Center in Jacksonville, North Carolina] being one of them.

Professor Bathanti, the veterans and I were all nervous when we met at the VA for the first time in Classroom B. It was new and untried for all of us. As these men’s physician, I was maybe more uneasy than any, knowing how hard they worked day in and day out to control what haunted them. I knew they were anxious not only about the writing, but about opening up in very personal ways to a group of strangers.

There’s an image from the first evening I’ll never forget.

After my introduction I turned the session over to Joseph and went to the back of the room where I could watch the men’s expressions and body language to gauge how they were doing, ready for anything, including some getting up and walking out.

You could sense the apprehension among us. Yet, when the men were finally asked to begin writing it was as if it had been choreographed … all of them without a moment’s hesitation, in unison, picked up their pencils, opened their notebooks, put their heads down, and immediately started to write. We knew then we were going to be ok. Though they might not all be storytellers they were all ready to tell their stories.

Thanks to ongoing Charles George, grant and community support we held five 8-week sessions involving 51 veterans. We met monthly at the VA with 25 of the men, halting only due to the pandemic. We stay in constant email, phone and personal contact to support them wherever they are in their journey.

The time together hasn’t always been easy. There have been difficult sessions. Not all the men have continued. There have been tears at some point for all of us. Mine come often in feeling their pain, hearing their losses, in admiration for the courage and clarity of their writing, and from gratitude in watching their healing unfold. For most of the men, and many of their spouses, it’s been transformative in ways we never could have imagined.

Though those of us who’ve led the work didn’t see their courage in country, we have seen it in Classroom B. Their commitment, honesty, and writing has taken our breath away again and again. It often feels like church from the work of the soul they’re engaged in and reverence we all feel for service, sacrifice, and one another.

Each of them has found an ability to articulate memories, losses, and triumphs in their own unique voice. We’ve watched a sense of brotherhood evolve and been witness to the men reclaiming a sense of the humanity that was taken from them in an increasingly forgotten war.


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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