It’s estimated that nearly half of the returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan will report at least some difficulty reintegrating to civilian life. Those experiences are often compounded by other factors, like post-traumatic stress disorder. But some Central Texas veterans are learning to use writing to help.
When Lila Holley was younger she loved to write, but as she got older she says she got away from it. Although she would eventually come back to writing at various times in her 22 years in the military, it was always professional, never personal. But in 2012, when Holley retired she had some trouble readjusting and wasn’t sure what to do.
“There was a period in my life where it was just emotionally stressful, literally it could’ve took me out emotionally," Holley said. "And that’s when I started back writing, started back journaling just to move through those emotions and feelings I was struggling with."
For Holley, returning to civilian life after her time in the military was difficult. Veterans who leave the military after years-long careers often experience trouble returning to civilian life, and some studies estimate that nearly half of the veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan will report problems reintegrating. Holley eventually became depressed, had anger issues and communication problems. The whole time, she says, she was trying to figure out who she was outside of the uniform – and it wasn’t easy.
“I eventually moved through it with the help of my family, writing and getting some counseling," Holley said. "And as a result of that writing, I penned my first book. It’s called “Battle Buddy: Maneuvering the Battlefield of Transitioning from the Military”, and in this book I really poured out my heart, the things I struggled with in my transition.”
Holley now spends her time as a life coach, helping other veterans in their transition, and she continues to encourage writing as a helpful reintegration tool. A study published last year in the Journal of Traumatic Stress even found expressive writing to have some noted benefits for returning veterans. The study asked nearly 1,300 returning veterans, who reported reintegration problems, to complete four 20-minute sessions. The researchers used a series of metrics to measure wide-ranging indicators, like distress, anger and PTSD symptoms. Doctor Nina Sayer was the lead researcher on the study. Sayer is a clinical psychologist with the Minneapolis VA
The results, Sayer says, “are small effect sizes, so what we’re seeing is that expressive writing is helpful across a range of different kinds of symptoms, but the magnitude of the impact is small.”
That means writing was effective overall, just on a smaller scale. Sayer says despite the limited effect sizes, writing remains worthwhile due to its accessibility and its non-stigmatizing nature. The research concludes that writing could be used as a standalone treatment or as a supplement to more formal help.
But it’s not the first veterans have been encouraged to write as a therapeutic practice. In 1946, the Hospitalized Veterans Writing Project was established. Now known as the Veterans Voices Writing Project, the outreach program encouraged vets to tell their stories and share their thoughts and feelings through writing. By the early 1950s, the VVWP evolved into the Veterans’ Voices magazine. These varied stories, says Leila Levinson, a literature professor at St. Edwards University, have universal value.
“I think we need stories to make sense out of our lives," Levinson said. "Nobody knows why we’re here. Every person’s main task is to figure out the meaning of their lives and we do that through story.”
Levinson is currently leading a month-long workshop at the Waco V-A that aims to teach veterans the benefits of writing their stories. One caveat, Levinson says, is the writing veterans do, requires them to rehash their memories, to relive the trauma they’ve experienced.
"Regardless of how emotionally draining the process is in writing and journaling and getting your story out on paper, it’s still, the benefits outweigh that process piece of it, the toughness of the process."
For Holley – who’s participating in Levinson’s class – writing her story, however difficult it may be, allows her to not only help herself but help others who might find meaning in her words.