Stories can save us
By David Chrisinger
18 Aug 20

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for The War Horse—a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to educating the public on military service, war, and its impact—about the “original war horse,” Ernie Pyle. One of the ways The War Horse works to continue the kind of storytelling Pyle would be proud of is having me teach writing seminars to veterans and their family members. For the past three years, I have taught seminars in New York and Virginia for veterans of every military branch and to military spouses. In the future, we plan to lead a seminar where we will pair American military veterans with interpreters who worked within Iraq and Afghanistan.

In late October last year, back before the world was flipped on its head, we hosted a writing seminar for medics and corpsmen at Boulder Crest Retreat in Virginia, thanks to generous support from the Wounded Warrior Project and many other partners. The six-day expenses-paid retreat, which also included a tour of The Washington Post newsroom, brought together a dozen veterans with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and bestselling authors. Together, they worked to find and shape the seminar participants’ stories as immigrants, first responders, survivors of sexual violence, and much more.

“Hearing other people say the words that I have about my own experience was ground shaking,” said Gretel Weiskopf, a 2019 War Horse Fellow who has served 20 years in the Wisconsin National Guard. “The lack of judgment and familiar one-upping that you can see in veterans did not live here. I will always be grateful for the environment The War Horse created,” she said. “There is real work that goes into this organization and this retreat, and one of the transformative notions is that someone would do this for me.”

During our third day together, author Karen Stabiner presented to the fellows on using immersive details to make stories more evocative. “I’ve participated in three War Horse Writing Seminars, and each time I ask Thomas and The War Horse team if they’re sure they want a civilian in the mix,” said Stabiner. “When they say ‘yes,’ I switch to wondering how I will connect with fellows whose experience is so different from my own. And each time I am gratified by how quickly we manage to find common ground.

“I’ve come to believe that telling a difficult story requires the bravery to confront it—which in turn requires faith in a future that acknowledges the past but is not defined by it. I shared essays this year about being the mother of the bride, and about my elderly mother’s illness, chosen on purpose because they were so far from the stories the fellows wanted to tell,” said Stabiner. “After my presentation, one medic approached to ask if I would like to see a photo of an engagement ring she liked. Sure, I said, as long as I can see a photo of the guy who plans to give it to you—and we were off on a conversation about weddings and dresses, about happiness and a future she couldn’t have imagined several years ago. She’s going to grow as a writer and a person, and I believe that each year I grow in understanding and compassion as well. I wouldn’t miss these workshops.”

Many of the 2019 War Horse Fellows agreed that our Writing Seminar for Medics and Corpsmen was transformational, both personally and professionally as writers. One vet said, “With the new knowledge and skills I have to work with, I have a deeper understanding of what the process of revision entails. What the construction of story can be, and the value of writing several drafts to get to the bits that make the good one. Reading out loud wasn’t easy but it was an opportunity to grow.”

In the months since the seminar, The War Horse has published several reflections written by the fellows. I’d like to believe Ernie would be proud of these veterans, proud that they found a way to make meaning of their pain and communicate it to the “folks back home” in order to build connection and understanding. If you’d like to see for yourself, here are a few to get you started:

All my medical training came into focus at that moment. I took off the green T-shirt that covered a gash on Sledd’s neck. It was big and wide, but no blood oozed from it. I looked closer; it didn’t look like an entry wound based on my hospital corpsman training. I remembered learning that exit wounds are four times larger than the entry wound. But a voice in the back of my mind kept nagging me, “Where is the blood?” “Where is the blood?”

It’s an old adage among medics, that all bleeding stops. Eventually. I have to wonder now if that’s true. What if some wounds just keep bleeding? What if the thing that doesn’t kill us doesn’t actually make us stronger, but instead just gives us a dark sense of humor and really unhealthy coping mechanisms? Almost eight years home now, and I still feel like I’m hemorrhaging, only no one can see it but me. And it scares the shit out of me. Not because I’m afraid it’s going to kill me, but because I’m afraid it won’t.

I had known that I wanted to be a soldier since I was 14 years old. The only other job I’d wanted up to that point was an astronaut, but I had quickly realized that I’d never be good enough at math to get into space. Growing up, I’d read extensively about hard men doing hard things in hard places, and I knew that I wanted to join their ranks—to be tested and transformed from the meek Jewish kid from the Boston suburbs into a warrior through the crucible of combat. Sept. 11, the Iraq invasion, and the multitude of stories emerging from dusty battlefields only served to strengthen my resolve through college, enlistment, basic training, and combat medic school. But life rarely takes the path you were expecting.


If, after reading these stories, you feel compelled to help us continue this great and meaningful work, you can make a tax-deductible donation to The War Horse. Every little bit helps!

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