by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
If you sign up for the military, your life is separated into at least two chapters, before your first day of service, and after. Then, when you leave the service, you add another chapter, to find your place in civilian society. Writing a memoir can help you organize and collect these sections into one compelling whole. Here is the second part of my essay about reasons why veterans should write memoirs.
Click here for part one of this essay
Resume Your Coming of Age Goals
People sign up for military service during the period in their lives when they are looking for a path into adulthood. We all go through that period, discovering our new identity beyond the childhood home. Military service offers a leap into that next stage, and once you enter the system, you know where you fit in to the larger world.
When you reenter civilian life, many of the advances you reaped in the military no longer apply. Your training probably doesn’t translate well into a civilian career. And the sense of purpose, of belonging, and structure are gone. You must start over, searching for a new place. In a sense, you are going back to the day before you entered the recruiter’s office. You are now looking for a second path that can carry you competently into adult civilian life.
Writing is a powerful tool to help reconnect with the person you were when you started, and the person you were trying to become. By pulling the pieces together into a story, you can reconnect them, and resume your journey. For example, by writing about life as a teenager, you get in touch with your first kiss, first car, first job, first questions about the possibility of God. When you lay these moments out in the form of a narrative, you find a self-image that makes sense across the span from civilian to warrior and back to peace again.
Restore Purpose and Idealism
In the book “Flourish,” psychologist Martin Seligman digs into the challenges of combat trauma. According to Seligman, who founded the Positive Psychology movement, the psychological care given to veterans focuses too much on falling apart and not enough on growth and resilience.
Many psychologists agree with Seligman that having a purpose for living is one of the crucial requirements for a healthy life. In fact, the search for purpose drives many young people to join the military in the first place. They risk their lives in defense of family, community, and country. However, when their mission is over it is difficult to remember the earlier ambitions and dreams, especially when memory is clouded by the fog of war.
If your earlier purpose no longer seems to apply to your life as a civilian, you are missing one of the great foundations of a healthy life. And your sense of purpose might be undermined further if during war, you suffered the side-effect noted by military psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, M.D. According to Shay’s books “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America,” many soldiers return to civilian life with their idealism in tatters. Without faith or dreams, they have little to stop them from sinking into cynicism and despair.
Writing a memoir can help. By searching for the meaning in their memoir, veterans can reconstruct the meaning of their lives. For example, David Bellavia, author of the Iraq war memoir House to House developed a sense of responsibility to publicize the experience of soldiers, as well as to commit himself to his family.
When Luis Carlos Montelvan returned from service in Iraq his mental and physical wounds left him incapacitated. He was better able to navigate civilian life after he was chosen to participate in a program that uses service dogs to help wounded veterans. However, he continued to struggle for a purpose until he realized the importance of the service dog program. He became an outspoken advocate to help the public understand the invisible wounds of PTSD and his memoir Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him provided us with an important look inside the mind of a combat veteran.
Some veterans redirect energy toward promoting peace, or reducing gang violence. When Mark Bounds, left the army as chief of staff at a training center, he entered the civilian educational system to help young people become more responsible adults. Whatever path you choose, writing your memoir can help you find your direction.
Building Bridges from War to Peace
In combat, soldiers earn respect by becoming experts at violence. When they return, this very skill sets them apart from the society they defended and our respect mingles with fear. After the Vietnam war, returning veterans were stigmatized by the violence of that war, adding a terrible psychological burden to the trauma they already suffered. And even the heroes of World War II had to fight with this stigma. Most of them felt obligated to shield their loved ones from war by hiding behind a wall of silence.
Writing a memoir is an antidote to this sense of separation. Just as memoirs can break down the walls between people of different races or lifestyles, it can break down the alienation between veterans and civilians. I have spent many hours vicariously terrified by combat, thanks to memoirs like James McGarrah’s Vietnam experience in “Temporary Peace” and William Manchester’s struggles on the Pacific front during WWII in “Goodbye Darkness”. David Bellavia took me on another emotionally grueling journey in “House to House,” about the war in Iraq. By now I have a good idea of how gruesome and dangerous that world can be.
So when a veteran shows up in one of my memoir workshops, ready to talk about their military service, I will encourage them to build bridges. By teaching them to write their story in language an outsider could understand, I could help them cross the chasm that separates their world from mine. In this era of the memoir, veterans no longer need to hide, but can be welcomed back into civilian life as messengers from another dimension of human experience.
How Boys Become Men
Mark Bounds’ shift to Civilian educational system
Interview with Vietnam vet Jim McGarrah
Storytellers Shed Light On the Horrors of War
Luis Carlos Montelvan’s Home Page
Healing Combat Trauma website
More memoir writing resources
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