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State Press Play: How an ASU writing circle helps veterans find their voice, skill and camaraderie

The Veterans' Writing Circle helps student and local veterans achieve a sense of camaraderie through story workshopping

"State Press Play." Illustration published on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

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The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, the Pat Tillman Veterans Center and the Office for Veteran Military Academic Engagement have partnered for the Veterans Writing Circle, an opportunity for veterans to engage with each other as well as creatively express themselves. Travis Robertson sits down with Shawn Banzhaf, a military advocate with the Pat Tillman Center, and Keanna Curry, a student who has attended the Writing Circle, to get a sense of what the circle can offer veterans as well as how it has adapted amidst virtual meetings and the pandemic.


For veterans, higher education can represent a new beginning, but often the transition is not a quick and easy process.

As of 2018, the Postsecondary National Policy institute reports that 75% of student veterans were enrolled as full time students. 

Student veterans have also reported difficulties transitioning from military style learning to a university environment, and some even face the loss of scholarship dollars due to deployment while enrolled in college.

The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing has partnered with the Pat Tillman’s Veterans Center and the Office for Veteran Military Academic Engagement to create a space for veterans, student and local, to share their experiences, and express themselves creatively.

The Veterans Writing Circle meets on the fourth Tuesday of every month as a space for veterans to share their stories, workshop their creative ideas and write together.


Really the way that I teach is a little bit different than some people, but I think this last time I started talking about finding your voice. 


Shawn Banzhaf is a military advocate with the Pat Tillman Center who also served for 21 years. He has spoken at two Veteran’s Writing Circle workshops. 


It was a really neat exercise in re-finding your voice. So maybe you've been speaking to an audience, but maybe that voice isn't really your voice. So we talked about personality, the use of the Enneagram Personality Test helping them understand what is their personality and does their writing really reflect that. And if it doesn't, have you ever thought about getting back to that writing or starting that writing over again, something like that?


Shawn led the one that I went to. His focus was mostly just like appreciating things in our life. So we just wrote like one thing that we appreciate and one thing we're hopeful for. 

It was supposed to relieve stress I think, and it did. It wasn’t so much of a learning thing it was just a way for us to vent and, you know, not be crazy.


Keanna Curry is a student veteran who transitioned from serving for five years to being a full time student. She attended the February writing center.


It was a little tough at first, just — I think the age difference, you kind of feel old, even though I’m only like 25 but just transitioning from a time where I’m like constantly doing something, it’s always happening to a more slow time, it was kind of weird. 

There were a lot of cool people there and things. I wish there were more young veterans there if I'm — to be honest, but I don’t think a lot of veterans know about it. But it was people that understood what it’s like to be a veteran, even if some of them weren’t necessarily. Some of them were like dependents and stuff. It helped people, especially talking to Shawn because Shawn is a veteran, so just talking to people helps.


Student veterans have also faced mental health challenges, as 7-8% of student veterans reported a past suicide attempt and 35% reported having suicidal thoughts.


So, in particular for our veteran community, for myself included, walking through post traumatic stress is a big deal right? And so that's a special challenge that veterans face, both in writing and then, and then in reading what has been published. So, really focusing in on some of those things like my book does, it can bring healing to those veterans that might read it.

This past conference that I was a part of, I was a reader — one of three — and I got to listen to an author — a poet, he's a poet — and he calls himself a war poet. And he spoke of Iraq, and that's where I served right? I couldn't believe the realism in his poems, and it actually, it brought up a bunch of stuff in me. Some of the things, it was as if he was with me because he served in the same place, and I could see myself back there.

And I think sometimes taking those steps is a step towards healing, and that's the beauty of veteran writing, is other veterans trust other veterans so when they read their stuff, they know that they're going to be taken care of just like we take care of ourselves when we were in the military. I think a lot of healing can happen when veterans write.


How has the pandemic affected veterans’ mental health issues?


For me personally, it’s pretty depressing. I mean, I wouldn’t call myself depressed, but I know plenty of other veterans who are because I work with the outreach team. They just relay to us things like that. 

But yeah, it’s just a social component that you get in the military just as a big family, and now you don’t have that. You might have your blood family but the friendships and the social are important to a lot of veterans.


You know I work with veterans every day, and the one thing that every veteran, probably 99% of the time tells me that they miss from their military experience is called camaraderie. It's this space where we're together with our brothers and sisters, we have fun together but then we go through hard times together, but we're always there for one another, that camaraderie.

When they leave the military it is like they have to unplug from that and they're alone. Well, then you add a pandemic when we're all set in our Zoom world. We're away from everybody that we care about or that cares about us, and it just amplifies the feeling of feeling alone because you already miss being so close to your brothers and sisters, that when you take that away, it becomes difficult; and if you're struggling already with post traumatic stress, it can cause you to retreat and go away anyway, because you're trying to deal with it, and you don't really know how to deal with it.

It just amplifies it again when you're in a COVID response, right, when you’ve got lockdowns and you can't see the people you love, and so I think overall it's going to make it worse for veterans especially.


While the pandemic has cut off a lot of social engagements for veterans, Banzhaf hopes the Veteran’s Writing Circle can be an opportunity for socializing and finding one’s aptitudes outside of the military.


Oftentimes veterans when they were in the military, no matter how long they were in the military, the government tells you you’re only really good at these three things. You have to take what’s called the ASVAB test, and so you think during your whole career that you don’t really have aptitude for anything else, right? Because the Army told you that you’re really good at these three things that’s what you should do when you even get out of the Army. 

I think the writing center, what it allows is for this artistic and personal, and this brand new thing that’s maybe always been inside you to actually open up and let it out and to be ok with it, and that people are encouraging you to do it and that you can be talented and good at something even though they told that you couldn’t in the military. 

For the most part they don’t have much use for writers in the army. They need people that can carry weapons and go to war. There are some spaces for media and those types of things, but it's very small, and I think having the writing circle allows for this larger population of veterans who have a story to tell to get it out, so I love the veterans writing circle for that reason.


The next Veteran’s Writing Circle will be held on March 23 from 6:30-8:00 p.m. For The State Press, this is Travis Robertson.

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