War of Words - Pacific Standard

War of Words

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From novels to comic books, writing fiction is helping veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan process the unspeakable—though sometimes the horrors that re-surface are almost too much to bear.

By Alexander Huls

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Ross Ritchell. (Photo: Tru Studio)

Sitting safely at the computer in his Chicago home, Ross Ritchell believed he was going to die. The 75th Ranger Regiment veteran didn’t know how or why — he just knew death would come before he could finish The Knife, a war novel influenced by his military experiences during a three-month period between 2007 and 2008.

Dying before finishing was unacceptable, so Ritchell wrote like it was an act of survival. “It was almost like I couldn’t write fast enough,” Ritchell says. “It almost felt like I was possessed.” He wrote every day for four to five hours, fueling himself on sensory memories of nighttime operations with his unit; he worked only in the evening, wearing his wartime combat boots, chewing tobacco, and sitting by an open window.

On many such nights, the war flowed through him. What emerged was the tale of Dutch Shaw, the leader of a special ops team taking out targets in a fictional terrorist organization called Al-Ayeelaa. The protagonist’s wartime experiences — from mundane to traumatic — lead the narrator to observe how Shaw’s “normal was falling apart into something foreign and unknown, like the runoff of a glacier melting into the sea.”

After three months, The Knife was finished and Ritchell wasn’t dead. But something he hadn’t expected had begun shifting inside of him during the writing process. “It woke up a bunch of very repressed emotions that, once they came out, it was impossible to ignore,” Ritchell says. “It was the beginning of an awareness that something wasn’t right.”

Ritchell is one of the 2.7 million United States service members, representing less than 1 percent of the nation’s population, who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014. When he finished The Knife (published in 2015 by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House), Ritchell also became a member of a smaller, but growing, group: veterans trading their swords for pens, and using them to write about their wars.

Since the mid-2000s, veteran authors — whether Army or Navy, intelligence officer or turret gunner — have been producing a growing catalogue of war fiction. Recent short stories (e.g. Phil Klay’s National Book Award-winning collection Redeployment), novels (Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds), memoirs (Brian Castner’s The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows), satire (David Abrams’ Fobbit), and poetry (Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet) recount what it was like to serve overseas and come back. They do not shy from the uncomfortable questions left in the wake of these conflicts: What was accomplished in the Middle East, and was it worth it?

“He finally admitted to himself he couldn’t do it anymore, that all the ghosts had finally caught up with him.”

This year brought notable additions to the wave of warrior fiction, including Matt Gallagher’s novel Youngbloodand Roy Scranton’s War Porn. But 2016 also marked an expansion into a different medium: comics. First, Iraq veteran Maximilian Uriarte self-published the graphic novelTerminal Lance: The White Donkey(later picked up and published by Little, Brown and Company), about a vet who battles post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In January, Marvel Comics launched the series Venom: Space Knight, starring Flash Thompson (a former high school bully of, and now friend to, Peter Parker — better known as Spider-Man). In 2008, Thompson lost his legs serving in the military in Iraq; the current series now features him adapting to prosthetics. To ensure authenticity, Marvel hired Dan Nevins, a veteran who lost his own legs in Iraq and an advocate for the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that helps soldiers who have been injured since 9/11.

Though they take a range of styles, the stories being written by veterans all share an urge on the soldiers’ part to both interrogate, as Gallagher writes in Youngblood, “just what the fuck were we doing,” while helping the general population understand what these warriors went through. Still, for many veterans, writing fictionalized versions of their experiences also presents an opportunity for another kind of understanding: a means to deal better with the psychic pain that followed many of them home.

The proportion of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who return with PTSD is often cited as being between 10 and 20 percent, but it can be difficult to quantify. Dr. Kathy Platoni, a longtime PTSD expert and clinical psychologist in the Army, believes that number is as high as 50 percent, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has found 48 percent of those who seek their services were diagnosed with mental-health problems. For many of these soldiers, writing has emerged as a therapeutic way to engage with the extreme circumstances they lived through. Those therapeutic benefits come with associated risks though. When you read warrior fiction, which often features violent and traumatic events, it’s hard not to wonder: When is it healthy for veterans to write about their own wars?

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A version of this story first appeared in the

September/October 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

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When Ritchell began The Knife, three years after leaving the service, he didn’t know where he fell on the spectrum of the larger PTSD epidemic. The usual symptoms were there: He had frequent stomach pains and trouble growing his hair. He largely gave up alcohol because he feared he’d start a fight while drunk. Once an outgoing, social person, he now retreated from life and rarely saw friends more than once a year. He struggled to go out because he kept imagining danger everywhere: He believed a restaurant window would shatter from a bomb blast, or an old woman on a train was hiding an explosive. War had changed him — not that he could trace these new anxieties to a source or necessarily know when he was emotionally struggling. In fact, he could barely connect with any of his own feelings. “You’re just so used to hurting, you don’t feel it anymore,” he says. “Part of the reason I didn’t realize that I had PTSD was because it was very easy for me to push the war away whenever I thought about it.”

While Ritchell was writing The Knife, the PTSD started to push back. The experiences he drew on to flood his pages began to spill over into waking nightmares. “When I sat down to write for hours on end about the war, it was impossible to escape,” he says. “There’s so much hurt that doesn’t necessarily know how to be confronted or addressed, and when you start writing it just comes out.” He pauses. “Layers of your subconscious start peeling back.”

Without knowing it, Ritchell had stumbled upon the therapeutic power of writing, and also its risks.

Trauma is chaotic. Memories and feelings associated with a traumatic event become entangled and formless. Without order, trauma becomes difficult to process. That’s why the goal of many therapeutic approaches is for the patient to confront their trauma, explore it, gain greater control over it, and then accept it with a new perspective, such that it begins to lose its power. To overcome trauma, one must first understand it.

“The written form is one of the best ways to come to terms with your experience, to … take a long, hard, painful look at it and just de-escalate from your trauma by using something creative to put it into a healthier perspective,” says Platoni, co-editor (with Raymond Monsour Scurfield) of Healing War Trauma: A Handbook of Creative Approaches. The reason writing is so effective for veterans is that it creates order. Accessing a traumatic memory and putting it into words can improve physical and mental health. Writing changes how trauma is organized.

Storytelling is especially effective because it’s a fundamental part of how we understand the world. As Travis L. Martin, a veteran and editor of The Journal of Military Experience, told the New York Timesin 2013: “If you can put those emotions and the traumatic event in a narrative that makes sense to you, it makes the trauma tangible. If it is tangible, it is malleable. And if it is malleable, you can do something with it.” Once that happens, the brain can re-organize and disarm a traumatic experience.

“Writing therapy has a particular benefit for veterans: It doesn’t involve talking out loud.”

Writing therapy has a specific benefit for veterans: It doesn’t involve talking out loud. “It’s very difficult as a soldier, and as a veteran, to speak about your experiences verbally, because they are often so powerful, and so horrific, it’s hard to verbalize,” Platoni says. She’s right. In 2003 alone, during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, over 90 percent of service members saw dead bodies or were shot at. Over 80 percent knew someone who had been injured or killed. Many veterans also struggle to talk about those experiences because of fear of judgment — so much so that a PTSD-related VA pamphlet called “Returning From the War Zone” anticipates soldiers may be “embarrassed to talk to someone about it” and assures them that “mental health problems are not a sign of weakness.”

Still, self-consciousness and shame prevent some from seeking support at the VA, which offers health facilities where those with PTSD can receive counseling and psychotherapy. Even when soldiers do go, they can be at risk of what a 2008 Rand Corporation report called “Invisible Wounds of War”: “Roughly half of those who need treatment … seek it, but only slightly more than half who receive treatment get minimally adequate care.”

Which is one reason so many veterans have found help in writing. Not just those who publish their fiction, but also those who fill workshops such as Warrior Writers, or Syracuse University’s Veterans’ Writing Group, or the Veterans Writing Workshop and other such groups, which are appearing nationwide to assist veterans in writing about their experiences.

Some organizations place a greater emphasis on writing than on healing. Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Brandon Willitts is the co-founder of Words After War, an organization that aspires to do just that. “It’s much more about channeling our literary voices, and then allowing people to take us as serious artists and as serious thinkers, versus just as veterans,” he says. That’s not to say he doesn’t believe writing can help — though he prefers to stress its abilities to bridge the military-civilian divide — but he believes it can only do so much. “It takes forever to write a short story or a novel. If we’re balancing our moods on whether or not we have a good writing day, that to me seems risky,” he says.*

It’s not the only risk. A 2004 article in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association noted some studies that found writing can initially amplify the very symptoms it’s meant to diminish — sometimes for up to three months. “When we start telling a story, what comes out is these images,” says Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy, author of The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing About Trauma, a retired professor and chair of the writing department at Ithaca College, and currently a visiting professor at University of Massachusetts–Amherst. “When they fall out like that in writing, we feel them again … almost as if we were there.” For those exploring personal trauma on their own, that task can be perilous because they may not be prepared for, or know what to do with, what gets uncorked.

That’s why MacCurdy reinforces Willitts’ point. For all its healing powers, writing alone is not a cure. “You need a therapist to help with how this is going to be integrated into life,” she says. If soldiers and therapists together anticipate these initial complications, and if they couple writing with other treatment, you’re looking at a powerful therapeutic tool for trauma.

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Ross Ritchell. (Photo: Tru Studio)

“They’re in the midst of a process, and in the process it’s difficult,” MacCurdy says of these warriors. “It can feel like you’re in a tornado, you’re flying around all over the place, but you will land, and you will land softly because you’re the one in control of this.”

After he began writing The Knife, Ritchell’s PTSD got worse. He started having panic attacks, lost 30 pounds, and became more deeply depressed.

His worst moment came one evening when he went to check on his sleeping son. His novel includes a scene where his protagonist’s unit kills a child they believe to be a threat. It’s a scene Ritchell wrote by summoning the memory of seeing the body of a young child overseas — the same image that suddenly came to mind as he watched his son sleeping in the same position as the dead body. “That really fucked with my head a lot,” he says. It was one of the moments that made him realize he had PTSD and set him on the path toward help. To borrow a line from The Knife: “He finally admitted to himself that he couldn’t do it anymore, that all the ghosts had finally caught up with him.”

In the fall of 2015, nearly eight years after he left the service, Ritchell went to the VA for a psychiatric evaluation. As he sat in the waiting room, nervous thoughts ran through his head: “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to do this. I don’t have this condition. I don’t want this condition.”

Ritchell was assigned the VA’s second-highest PTSD rating category: 70 percent.

When I asked him what qualified him for that percentage, he offered to share his symptoms, what he called his “résumé of struggle.” He read the VA’s diagnosis: “suspiciousness, depressed mood, near-continuous depression affecting the ability to function independently, appropriately, or effectively, disturbances of motivation and mood, anxiety, difficulty in establishing and maintaining effective work and social relationships, chronic sleep impairment, near continuous panic affecting the ability to function independently, appropriately, and effectively, occupational and social impairment with reduced reliability and productivity.”

When he finished, his voice got low and quiet. “That’s who I am,” he said. It sounded like resignation, but, after a moment, it struck me how much courage the recitation must have required: to read, out loud, a list of every part of himself that he had once denied. It wasn’t resignation. It was acceptance.

Ritchell is careful to emphasize the healing powers of writing for other veterans — and its limitations. “It would be difficult to just go ahead and say: ‘Oh, you’re having problems? Why don’t you just write about it and you’ll get better,’” he says. But, he adds, “I think you’re putting yourself into a great position to get better. It’s a step in the right direction. I’ll stake my life on that.”

Ritchell still believes he is going to die; that conviction, he discovered, is a symptom of PTSD. But that belief, like a growing number of his symptoms, no longer controls him. He’s becoming free of them. Which prompts the question: Will he continue to write about his war, or is that, like his PTSD, something he’s starting to leave behind? “I think that story is written,” he says. “The book is just like a dream that I woke up from. I don’t need to go back to sleep.”

*Update— October 4, 2016: A previous version of this article misstated the organization’s name as “War After Words”; in fact, its name is “Words After War.”

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