Vietnam veterans find peace through creative writing program
David Rozzell’s world changed forever on June 10, 1969. The Owen High School graduate had just returned to his home in Swannanoa after earning his bachelor’s degree from N.C. State University when he learned he’d be going to war.
“It was awful,” he said of that day nearly 50 years ago when he was selected to serve in the Vietnam War. “It completely consumed everything about your life; it forced you to put your life on hold."
Rozzell was one of millions of Americans to leave their homes for foreign soil, where they were engaged in a brutal 20-year conflict which claimed the lives of over 58,000 U.S. troops. The polarizing war left many of the veterans who served unable to talk about their experiences abroad, or the often-hostile reception that awaited them when they returned home.
That started to change for Rozzell and a group of fellow Vietnam War veterans when they entered Classroom B in the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, where they began meeting regularly for a pioneering creative writing program.
When Joseph Bathanti began his two-year appointment as N.C. Poet Laureate in 2012, he declared that his signature project would be harvesting the stories of the state’s veterans.
“I started noticing young men and women leaking their military service into their writing,” said the creative writing professor at Appalachian State University. “That was the first time I’d learned about their service and it became clear that a lot of veterans don’t often identify themselves as veterans."
Bathanti organized a creative writing class for veterans after a friend’s son approached the professor about helping him write about his experience.
“I came of age during the Vietnam War,” Bathanti said of why he chose to focus on collecting the stories of veterans. “I learned that people go to war so that others can stay home, and I wanted to repay that debt.”
In 2014, Dr. Bruce Kelly, a primary care physician at the Asheville VA, emailed Bathanti about launching a program for Vietnam veterans who were battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Kelly had already been working on medical humanities at the hospital.
Dr. Kelly and Bathanti worked together to develop the program and received grants from the N.C. Arts Council and N.C. Humanities Council. The professor was granted leave from Appalachian State and stepped into the role of writer-in-residence at the VA.
“Eighteen Vietnam veterans showed up in that classroom in the basement the first time we gathered,” Bathanti said. “They were all patients of Bruce.”
Rozzell, who spent 11 months in Vietnam as a combat medic in the U.S. Army, was one of them. Although the men who joined the group had never met, they found comfort in their shared experiences.
“Those were dark times,” Rozzell said of the war and its aftermath. “This community sent so many people and we lost a lot of them. The experiences aren’t really something that you can understand if you weren’t there.”
Bathanti eased the group into the creative writing process.
“We didn’t start out writing about trauma,” he said. “In fact, our first exercise was based on the poem 'Where I’m From,' by George Ellen Lyon.”
As the veterans began to feel more comfortable in the setting, they were empowered to share more of their thoughts and feelings.
“Some of these guys had never uttered a word of any of this in 50 years,” Bathanti said. “But by their brothers being there with them, sharing many of the same experiences, they gave one another permission to tell their stories.”
That’s had a powerful impact, he continued.
“When people write about trauma it helps them deal with it,” Bathanti said. “They begin to understand how that event continues to impact them in ways they may not have realized."
Rozzell’s grandfather fought in World War I and his uncle fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. His father flew missions on a B17 Flying Fortress bomber.
“My grandfather fought that war from the first battle, and he never got over his PTSD,” Rozzell said. “His son just missed D-Day by a week, and he died young and was never over his (PTSD). My dad flew 35 missions out of London he died at the VA about 10 years ago, diagnosed with PTSD. It’s something I’ve known my whole life, but until you look back at it you can’t see it.”
It's hard to talk about his experiences as a soldier and veteran to civilians, he said, "because nobody really wants to hear about that kind of stuff, nor should they."
Confiding in his fellow veterans has helped him manage the symptoms of his diagnosis.
“It’s still there, and I’m still dealing with it,” he said. “It all comes down to a lot of anger and there is an awful lot there, scientifically, that is over my head. But the way it looks for me is just being ready to blow up at anything. A backfire or a helicopter or so many things just bring it all back.”
The creative writing group has helped him find peace, according to Rozzell.
Bathanti calls the impact the program has had on the participants “miraculous.”
“These men have taken the very stories that ruined them for years and turned them into truly amazing work,” he said. “They’ve found language for something they never had language for.”
Despite the initial reluctance of many members of the group, “we’ve become a family,” Bathanti said.
Family is a theme in the book “Brothers Like These,” a collection of writing from the group, which was published by St. Andrews University Press in 2017.
The veterans in the writing group staged a reading of the book in the summer of 2016 at the Asheville Community Theater. In April of 2017, they held a reading in front of a packed house at Appalachian State University. Last year, the read from the book in Franklin and Old Fort, where Rozzell has lived for over a decade.
“These guys are all from Western North Carolina,” Bathanti said. “So it’s meant a lot to them to be able to share their work with their local communities. More than one of them have told me that they feel like they’re being welcomed home for the first time.”
Rozzell was featured in a documentary by Swannanoa native Brenda Hughes, who produces a series on YouTube called “actTWO,” which focuses on seniors across N.C. who have reinvented themselves in their “second act of life.”
Hughes featured Rozzell and the writing program in “Healing Words: A Vietnam Veteran Finds Peace.” The six-minute film examines the impact the writing program has had on Rozzell.
“David is all about helping other veterans, so he’s really excited about the potential of this program,” Hughes said.
In the video, Rozzell recalls the day Dr. Kelly approached him about participating in the program.
“I was ready,” he said. “Of course he looked at me like he was surprised.”
Hughes selected Rozzell for the project because his story is not only one of reinvention, but one of overcoming tremendous adversity.
“He served his country, witnessed and endured things that the average person couldn’t possibly understand,” she said. “And now, through this writing program, he’s able to talk about those experiences and help other veterans do the same. It's truly an amazing story.”
Rozzell and many members of the group have traveled around the state with Bathanti and Dr. Kelly to encourage other VA facilities to develop similar programs. Their goal is to inspire creative writing programs geared toward veterans of recent and current wars, as well as women who served.
“It’s been extremely worthwhile and helpful,” Rozzell said of the program, in which he is still a regular participant. “Until you converse about these things that you’ve got buried deep inside you, they’re still there.”
Family members of the veterans have expressed their support for the program as well, Bathanti said.
“It’s had a profound impact on diminishing their anxieties and it’s really helped many of these veterans open up the channels of communication between them and their kids and grandkids,” he said. “They’ve been invisible for 50 years, even to themselves.”
While the safety of Classroom B is a stark contrast of the Vietnamese jungles that these veterans’ bonds were forged in, the program provides those involved with an opportunity to get back the one thing that helped them make it home.
“Soldiers' bonds are unshatterable,” Bathanti said. “But once they come back home and return to their lives, civilians can’t understand what they’ve experienced. These guys now have a band of brothers again.”