Through pen and paper, veterans find a way to cope
Andrew Miller had finished his second tour in Afghanistan for the U.S. Army, but he didn’t have a lot of time to think about it before being thrown back into the world, now labeled a veteran.
"Nobody gave us the time or the room to figure out what it meant to us," he said. "We caught planes, hipped and hopped and skipped and jumped. And the next thing we do, we were having a parade shoved down our throat."
Miller had a bad experience being asked to headline a Veterans Day parade he didn’t feel he earned for the right reasons.
Struggling to figure himself out after the military, Miller got a nose ring, stopped shaving and grew his hair out. Coping with stress is something he’s always had trouble with. He said he was easily upset and needed a different outlet. He had begun to drink more.
"I did not hit rock bottom, but I knew that it was coming up soon, that I was probably going to go get a DUI, or do something really stupid if I didn’t get some kind of help, if I didn’t come at my inability to adjust in a different way than I had been trying so far," he said.
There’s a certain tough-guy persona that encircles being in the military and so talking about experiences in war can be difficult for some veterans.
It took a lot, Miller said, to muster up the courage to see a therapist with the VA hospital.
"It felt like giving in," he said. "It felt like, this sucks, I lost."
But now he’s glad he did. There have been more social settings Miller has found to be able to express himself and feel comfortable.
"It felt like I lost."
He worked for a year at Clear Path for Veterans, a converted country club in Chittenango that’s now a sanctuary for veterans. It hosts a free weekly lunch for vets, gives out massages and runs a pet therapy program.
With most of the staff and volunteers at Clear Path being fellow vets, Miller said it was great to be surrounded by people who understand what he’s going through.
"It’s one thing that maybe starts people off feeling a little safer, is knowing that the person I’m working with is like me, somehow," said Dr. Ellen Dougherty, a care manager with the VA’s behavioral health center.
"There are a lot of people who benefit very much from that kind of activity. From going and having some social time with people who they feel they have some sort of shared experience," she said.
Veterans can now hike, care for horses or fish together through a growing number of nonprofits. The VA runs a community center with an art room, cooking courses and group therapy sessions.
The way Miller's found to best get him through "the tough crap," as he puts it, is writing. He’s a member of a veterans writing group that meets once a month at Syracuse University’s writing center.
About 10 people sit in a circle of plush chairs. A notebook and pen finds room on small writing slabs between coffee and muffins. Their writing focuses on their experiences in the military.
"I never feel the way I do anywhere else like I do when I'm in that room."
"The writing group is a group of peers who are more like you than not like you. And I don’t really feel like that in my day to day life," said Miller. "I never feel the way I do anywhere else like I do when I’m in that room."
Putting thoughts down on paper makes them matter a lot more to him, he said.
Also in the writing group is Pete McShane. An Army medic who served in Vietnam, it was years after seeing combat that he was formally diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
McShane's retired now, after a life he said he tried to make as busy as possible in order to suppress the bad memories of his military service. Along with therapy, he decided to start writing a few years ago.
"Because it’s a way to sort out often conflicting memories that often times don’t make sense until you actually get them on paper and you can look at them and try to objectify the memory somehow," he said.
Writing has been a profound experience for him, he said. He’s now able to look at mementos from his time in Vietnam and talk about those experiences with loved ones.
"What I’ve found is in reading material that I’ve written, in our meetings with other vets, particularly younger vets who have just gotten back from a war zone and are trying to figure out what to do with the next chapter in their lives, and it’s making a difference," he said.
Miller, the Afghanistan veteran, says he’ll probably always write about his time in the military. Getting those thoughts down on paper, he said, frees up mental real estate for the good stuff.