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Vets Find Emotional Help through Writing

November 13, 2014

Local veterans dealing with the trauma of war find help through the Red Badge Project, a program run by acclaimed film star and director Tom Skerritt.

Tony Wingfield: “I served three tours in Iraq.”

Maggie Shartel:  What I went through in the Army, I basically shut everything down.”

Aaron Breitbarth:  I have fear and anger.

Penny LeGate:  Tony, Maggie, Aaron three soldiers, three very different stories. What they all have in common though, is PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Wingfield:  Most people in my situations either end up in prison, or dead.

LeGate:  So how do you heal through emotional and physical pain? Actor Tom Skerritt can happen through storytelling.

Tom Skerritt:  Storytelling or being able to express yourself in words, or painting perhaps, or music. Is a very significant way of channeling this energy in a positive way.

Skerritt:  So ultimately what we get to is self-realization.

LeGate: Two years ago, Skerritt  launched the red bad project in at Joint Base Lewis McChord.

Breitbarth:  Every time you tell a story there’s thing you leave out, everything you write a story you fill a little bit more in. It gives you a chance not to lie.

Skerritt:  We are experiencing the ‘truth shall make you free’.

LeGate: Over the course of three weeks, a skilled group of instructors teach the mechanics of storytelling, the vets can then write a memoir, music, poetry or poems.  Instructors use movement and humor to chisel away at self-consciousness.

Skerritt:  The first thing we like to do, is get them laughing. This is not an army thing.

LeGate: Improve and silliness help build trust, even so, no one is ever required to share their story.

Skerritt: You don’t have to show it to anybody. You can write whatever you want, that’s the one thing about writing. It’s yours and yours alone.

Wingfield:  My name is Tony Wingfield, I am a retired army major, and I served tree tours in Iraq. I am not traumatized like a guy who is on the front lines. My form of PTSD came from my childhood. Ages 6-11 I went through what was called sadistic torture. The beatings were routine, I became suicidal by the time I was 9.

LeGate: Tony Wingfield just retired after 21 years of service; his deployments were a volatile addition to childhood trauma. Red badge helped.

Wingfield:  For me, it hit on many levels on helping me to process some of my own memories, to hear about other soldier’s stories and the things they have gone through in life. I am learning from these guys, from the instructors what the power of storytelling is. My psychiatrist told me, just write an autobiography and retire.

Shartel:  It has helped it was probably about a year before I actually wrote something for the class.

LeGate: Army specialist Maggie Shartel left the service in 2002. Her PTSD is related to sexual assault.

Shartel:  Something like 90% of sexual assaults in the military are never reported.

LeGate: Maggie’s therapist referred her to the Red Badge project; it was a long time before she could finally turn out several short stories.

Shartel:  Being able to work through a story and look at it analytically like I am not actually the character in that story. That makes it easier for me to process on an emotional level.

Breitbarth:  I am Aaron Breitbarth and I am a specialist in the United States Army.

LeGate: Aaron has been in for 6 years, he recently suffered a severe injury during training.

Breitbarth:  It’s so hard to share the most private moments of your life, the things that have hit you the hardest.

LeGate: Aaron has lost many fellow soldiers, and PTSD nearly took him as well. Writing, finding his voice, discovering his worth changed everything.

Breitbarth:  But I know when I am in the Red Badge project, when I am with the instructors I can share so many horrible, horrible things that have happened to me. So many just difficult things, that is unique to me and unique to only service members. Just know, I am not a monster I am not a freak, I don’t need to hide it. It’s the best thing I have done for myself. I have done so much physical therapy, I have done so much counseling, I have done in-patient treatment, and I tried to hurt myself as bad as possible to help myself which was a terrible decision. And the Red Badge project is the best thing I have done for myself.

Skerritt:  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Let’s learn how to use it, let’s tell our stories, let’s find out who we are through the stories we write. That’s pretty rewarding once you see they got that. Once someone in the class comes up to you and says after three weeks and says ‘Is this what it feels to be happy... I have never felt this before.’ To have those moments, whoa it takes your breath away.

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