The classroom is filled with sounds of scratching pencils and rustling pages as seven people feast upon the writing assignment given to them by University of Washington (UW) professor Shawn Wong. But this classroom is not at the UW, it is in the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. And these eager students are not working to pass a class, they are using the words to heal their wounds.
The creative writing class is offered as a part of the Red Badge Project, a nonprofit founded by actor Tom Skerritt, an Air Force veteran, and his neighbor Evan Bailey, a former U.S. Army captain.
After hearing the statistic that in 2012, more soldiers committed suicide than were killed in Afghanistan, Skerritt and Bailey recruited Wong and two screenwriters, Warren Ethredge and Brian McDonald, to teach classes. The teachers help the soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord feel more connected to society by channeling their feelings into storytelling.
The soldiers living in the battalion are not all originally from the Pacific Northwest — many are from Southern states like Georgia and Alabama and were in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though there are other similar programs for combat veterans, the Red Badge Project stands out as one of the few programs teaching active duty soldiers. These men and women are still in the army, but no longer able to serve. During the time of the Red Badge Project classes, the army is not allowed to schedule mandatory activities for the soldiers.
The classes run every day for three weeks, with a two-week break between sessions. The battalion contains approximately 600 soldiers, and six to seven show up for each session. The classes are voluntary, though the teachers observe that the effectiveness of the class compels many of the students to return session after session.
With a class full of soldiers, Wong, who has been teaching for 42 years at various colleges in Germany, France, Italy and the U.S., admits that the dynamic of the class is entirely different from anything he has ever experienced.
“I’m neither a therapist nor a social worker; all I do is teach writing,” says Wong. “The biggest surprise to me was how much ‘therapy’ I have to do, but I do it through the creative writing exercises.”
The soldiers, who range from their early-20s to beyond 50, have suffered the deep struggles that come with amputation, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoid schizophrenia or a traumatic brain injury.
Wong recalls the first class he taught, during which the soldiers were so withdrawn, they could not even make eye contact. By the third class, they were participating enthusiastically.
“They are dying to write, and when I give them a writing assignment, they can’t wait to complete it,” says Wong. “They are not trying to be professional writers, they are just trying to tell their story.”
The soldiers do not have to write about battle, but get to choose their own subject matter. A popular topic among the students is family. When an assignment does not mesh with the soldiers, Wong and the other instructors are required to think on their feet.
When Wong gave the seemingly thought-provoking prompt, “Describe a familiar street scene from childhood,” the soldiers were uninterested. Then he shared an ambiguous Anne Sexton quote that popped into his head, “Some women marry houses,” and asked them what it meant.
“They couldn’t stop talking about it, everyone said they knew exactly what it meant,” says Wong, laughing. “You can’t just take something you do in a UW class and put it in front of them, so you immediately make an alteration.”
When Wong teaches classes for the Red Badge Project, he shares his personal traumas more than in a regular UW class. By sharing his own experiences, Wong hopes that the soldiers will feel less isolated in their suffering.
As the soldiers develop a level of trust with Wong, they confide in him with their troubling pasts and stories. The majority of the soldiers want to come to class more than anything else they do, says Wong. They write everything from poetry to short stories and memoirs, and extend it to their free time.
“When somebody says to you that their comrade died in their arms, or that they looked at a suicide bomber in the eye before he triggered the bomb, or that they spent a year in a hospital bed trying to recover from injuries, it’s difficult to know what to say,” says Wong.
But Wong realizes that the soldiers do not expect him to say the right thing. They just want him to listen.
Originally published in The International Examiner