Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wounded Warriors find healing

I wrote this feature for the Jan. 25 issue of NCR. Hope you enjoy it.

Linda Ysewyn didn’t realize she needed healing. A minor jaw injury sustained while she was in the army was now just “a nagging injury” and she had moved on into a life as a middle school math teacher. But when she saw a tiny press release in The Army Times for a theatre school’s writing program for vets, something inside her knew that’s exactly what she needed.

She had been trained to fight as part of the 101st division in Desert Shield/Storm, but that hadn’t prepared her for the “spirit of death” she faced during her 10 months in the Middle East.

“All of a sudden something happens,” she said during a telephone interview from her home in Fairfax, VA. “It’s the reality that you’re killing people or are part of that chain that’s killing people. In the military you’re told that you’re defending democracy, but then we realize you’re pursuing other humans or, as the military likes to say, ‘targets’. You’re not necessarily mentally prepared for that to happen.”

Helping to heal those psychological wounds is what the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped’s Writers’ Program for Wounded Warriors is all about. Jesuit Brother Rick Curry, NTWH founder and artistic director, decided four years ago he wanted to use his theatre program to help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and psychological wounds, but he didn’t know how. It was while meeting with vets who were recent amputees that Brother Curry, 64, who was born without a right forearm, found his way.

“As went around, I found each one was desperate to tell their story,” he said during a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he is finishing his studies for the priesthood. “I realized we could teach them to write, to get them up in Maine with other disabled people. It’s the communal aspect that’s important.”

Belfast, Maine, is the site of NTWH’s summer arts program; its base is in Manhattan. It was in Maine that Major Ysewyn learned to share her story through writing and then present it to an audience.

“You go there as you are and are offered an opportunity to use theatre and narrative to explore or act it out,” she said. “When you leave, you’re a little more whole. The whole aspect of the arts makes people alive again. They (NTWH) start the healing process from the inside and work out.”

The program costs $5,000 for the 10-day session; each veteran attends on complete scholarship, including air travel. Next summer three workshops with 20 people in each will be held. So far between 30 and 40 vets have completed the program.

“They need new tools of communication and to see there is a possibility of joy after disability, there is a life they can share and contribute to instead of being perpetual victims,” Brother Curry says. “If we don’t stress the life of the spirit we’re going to have another Vietnam, a lost generation.”

Major Ysewyn had studied percussion and played in her high school band, but at that time it was a social outlet, not an emotional one. She found her way into the military while at Bryant College in Smithfield, RI. Needing an elective and wanting to avoid 8 a.m. or Friday classes, she signed up for military science. She then took other electives in the field and heard military personnel talk about the benefits of their career.

“Before I knew it, I was entrenched in the military program,” she said. “It was almost a fluke of needing an elective. It seemed whimsical at the time, a way to depart college and not work in a little cubicle from nine to five.”

She decided to leave the army before she could be redeployed and possibly injured physically. She got a graduate degree in education and was going on with her life when she saw the notice about the writing program, which she has attended twice.

“It sounded like an opportunity to open up and express myself,” she said. “It’s the first time I personally stumbled into the arts as an emotional tool or outlet.”

The process involves having students write their stories during the 10 days, guided by students from prestigious writing programs at Columbia and N. Y. U. At the end of that time they read their narratives from the school’s stage to an audience eager to listen; realizing they have a story and then finding someone to listen to it is crucial, Brother Curry says.

Major Ysewyn said every aspect of the program was healing, from the relaxed mealtimes with others students and the staff, to the structured days of classes.

“I don’t know how they do it,” she says. “Within 10 days it’s ‘Hi, welcome aboard’ to ‘Hi here’s our show.’”

She hadn’t expected to find any commonality with her former life.

“In the military there’s such discipline, anything in the arts seems 180 degrees out of it, but then you find work in the arts is discipline. That’s why there’s such success and loyalty from the folks who go there.”

Having developed skills from that discipline, Ysewyn is now working on a play about her parents.

“What NTWH helps people do is stop and think about what they’ve done and more or less accept it. It let’s the person know that one day they’ll be on top of their life again. You have to go through the grieving process and the program really helps.”

Related web site
National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped

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