Writing to Heal: Nebraska Writing Project Helps Veterans Tell Their Stories

Writing can be a great outlet for military veterans who have experienced trauma, said Sharon Robino-West, a Marine veteran whose son also served in the Marines.

“In the military we’re taught to hold things in and not talk about ourselves,” she said. “But sometimes you need to heal.”

In 2014, she signed up for Nebraska Warrior Writers in Lincoln, a program with free writing workshops for active duty military, veterans, and their families. The Nebraska Writing Project at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln launched the program in partnership with Humanities Nebraska and the Veterans Administration. Modeled after a similar program in Missouri, Nebraska Warrior Writers has since expanded to Omaha and Grand Island.

The Lincoln group meets a dozen times a year for workshops with instructors from the Nebraska Writing Project. Workshops cover short stories, poetry, personal narrative, and publishing, said Tom Seib, one of the facilitators. He often brings in local authors or faculty from the university creative writing program as well.

“We have some really brilliant instructors,” said Robino-West.

Some write pieces based on their military experience and some don’t. “We make the assumption that it’s fiction,” Robino-West said. “We just talk about the writing.”

Some participants self-publish or post their story on the Nebraska Warrior Writers website. Others have broken into print in publications such as Nebraska Life Magazine. The actress Alfre Woodard read one of Robino-West’s pieces on a New York stage. Others prefer to write only for themselves.

The last hour of each session is reserved for sharing and constructive feedback. Sharing at workshops isn’t required, said Seib, but most eventually do share. “Some will just sit there for a year and write but never share. The more they listen and the more they write, the more they are willing to share, and soon it all comes flowing out.”

One veteran swore he would never write about his Vietnam experience, said Robino-West. “But we’ve had three good stories from him. Over the years, he’s really opened up.”

She herself has found relief writing about and sharing her experience as a military sexual assault survivor. “I feel safe sharing because it’s veterans,” she said.

Doctors and psychiatrists from the Veterans Administration routinely refer patients to Nebraska Warrior Writers, said Seib. “A lot of participants still have a lot of issues. If it’s not PTSD, it’s anger about the way they were treated when they came back from the war and the lack of support from the community.”

But, he said, “they are getting to the point in their lives where they want to express what happened to them. We hope to give them enough comfort to know they don’t need to keep it bottled up as they have for so many years. When they are finally able to share, it’s an amazing thing.”