Thursday, June 14, 2018
In the Spring of 2014, Dr. Bruce Kelly, a primary care physician at the Charles George VA (Veterans Affairs) Medical Center in Asheville NC, began working on initiatives to introduce the arts and humanities to the VA and in a community-based Arts in Medicine Program. The writing programs that followed have transformed the face of healing for veterans suffering the physical, mental, and moral injuries of war. Through a partnership with the North Carolina Arts Council and the North Carolina Humanities Council, Dr. Kelly’s writing program was able to include a Writer-in-Residence, Joseph Bathanti, former North Carolina Poet Laureate.
Together, Dr. Kelly and Bathanti met with a cohort of Vietnam veterans in Classroom B, an out-of-the-way room in the basement of the VA. The veterans admittedly were reluctant to write, but the journey proved powerful as they finally found a safe place to tell their stories and express the emotions that had haunted them for decades since their service in Vietnam and the painful homecoming they all endured.
By finding their voices, the group is a testimony to the healing power of the arts and humanities. As Ron Capps of the Veterans Writing Project says, “Either you control the memory or the memory controls you.” The veterans in Classroom B at the Charles George VA found a new brotherhood and community through their writing classes.
In community, one of the Brothers is a bus driver for a local elementary school. The 4th and 5th graders interviewed him about his experiences in Vietnam and were so touched by his stories set in the 1960s Appalachian Mountains that they chose to perform a play based on his writings for their “Destination Imagination” project, called The Day Before I Left Home. They performed the inspirational play for the community, won the statewide competition, and also won at the Global Competition, performing in front of 17,000 people. The students closed the school year with a performance at the Charles George VA, where all 30 of the original Vietnam veterans in the program were present. Audiences everywhere are changed by the students’ play and the readings that the Brothers have staged since their book, Brothers Like These—a collection of stories and poems by Vietnam Veterans—was published.
The writing programs of Dr. Kelly, Joseph Bathanti, and therapist/writer Elizabeth Heaney are indicative of the movement by the VA’s Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation to include the arts and humanities in the Whole Health for Life plans for our veterans. Whole Health addresses the need for additional programs that can provide a deeper exploration of the wounds of war including visual arts, music, and therapeutic writing programs.
Learn more about the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation’s programming and progress here.
Watch a 2016 staged reading at the Asheville Community Center by the Charles George VA pilot writing program participants, introduced by Joseph Bathanti, here.
More information about The Veterans Writing Project can be found here.
The Charles George VA in Asheville, NC, North Carolina Arts Council, and the Veterans Writing Project are listed in the National Initiative Directory, an online resource of the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military at Americans for the Arts.