National Writing Project

Utah Writing Project Creates Writing Group for Veterans

Date: August 2008

Summary: The Wasatch Range Writing Project (Utah) reached out into the community with a writing workshop for veterans that has produced poignant and therapeutic writing. The workshop could expand and serve as good training for teacher–consultants.


Evergreens merge with triple canopy
Merge again with olive drab
Clear alpine air, fades to a pastel diesel brown
Screech of the raptor begins to rumble
Convoy for Cu Chi, Charlie M16 at ready

In this stanza from the poem "Manastash Ridge" by Viet Nam war veteran Kim Vaughn, the author shares the recurring images of that war which intrude as he drives through Idaho.

Vaughn's opportunity for creative expression comes as a result of a program developed by Gary Dohrer, director of the Wasatch Range Writing Project, and one the site's teacher–consultants, high school teacher Debbie Davis. Vaughn is one of a group of veterans whose collective experience extends from World War II to the current war in Iraq. They meet with Dohrer and Davis each Monday evening at the Weber County Library in Ogden, Utah, for a workshop that allows them to share and write about their experiences in and out of the military.

Dohrer explains that the idea for the workshop originated with one of Davis's students, Samantha Lawrence. "Samantha was doing a senior project at the Hall Air Force Base nearby. She was meeting a lot of veterans and she kept telling Debbie, 'these folks have stories to tell.' So the three of us decided it was important to set up an environment that would allow some of these folks to capture their experiences in writing."

With the assistance of the Weber State University media relations department, Dohrer and his colleagues got the word out about the workshop through press releases and radio and television public service announcements.

Finding the Story in Details

Six veterans showed up the first night in January 2007. They brought with them stories. Dohrer and Davis saw their job as helping these mostly novice writers find a focus for their pieces.

Says Dohrer, "Like other inexperienced writers, they started by wanting to tell everything. 'I was inducted on such–and–such a date . . . ' they'd write. But when we prodded the World War II B–17 ball turret gunner to focus on that single experience, he produced a piece that truly engaged us and that he was proud of."

The veterans learned to pick away at their experience anecdotally instead of producing a "first–this–then–that" narrative.

The veterans learned to pick away at their experience anecdotally instead of producing a ‘first–this–then–that’ narrative.

Dohrer admits that he and Davis had to make some adjustments to respond to what the veterans wanted from these sessions. Keeping in mind the model of the summer institute and other NWP writing experiences, an anthology at the end of the sessions seemed an appropriate goal for the workshop.

"We wanted to publish an anthology for the Hill Aerospace Museum," says Dohrer. "But it turned out this wasn't what the veterans wanted to do. They wanted to write for their families. They'd include, for instance, a reference to uncle so–and–so that was just right for their family audience, but not so appropriate for writing directed to a general reader. They wanted those closest to them to know how they felt about their experience. We honored that."

Common Experiences Across Wars and Generations

Working with veterans from World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, Desert Storm, and Iraq, Dohrer and Davis found that despite differences of age and specific military experience, the veterans had shared commonalities that helped them bond. "Basic training, for instance," says Dohrer. "Every one of them had gone through that, and it meant a lot to them to share their experiences. Talk then generates writing."

And then there was the dramatic example of the World War II veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and the young woman just returned from Iraq. "Both of them shared the same M.O.S. [military occupational specialty]. They were generations and wars apart, but they found a great deal to connect them. They shared the same language," says Dohrer.

In a way what Dohrer and Davis are doing with these veterans mirrors the chemistry of a summer institute. The institute brings together individuals who share a common occupation, but come from different grade levels and disciplines. They share their commonalities and learn from their differences. That's also what happened with the veterans.

And like the summer institute participants, those thrust into this new community are motivated not only to share their stories but also to improve their writing. Dohrer speaks of "one guy who gets up two hours early every morning to write. It's amazing what they are doing with their writing in such a short time."

In a way, the work that Dohrer and Davis are currently doing with veterans is something of a dry run. "What we'd really like to do," says Dohrer, "is establish another group run solely by our teacher–consultants. That would give the teacher–consultants at our relatively new site an experience with facilitating a writing group and allow us to expand the veterans writing program to meet what we expect will be a growing demand."

Already, The Wasatch Range Writing Project has been contacted by veterans' organizations that want to learn about how Dohrer and Davis approach writing with veterans. Dohrer tells them about a key principle he has learned as he has worked with the veterans. "Be sensitive to the needs of the group. The veterans have raw emotions and need time to share with each other."

Spoken like a true writing project professional.

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