The Museum of the American Military Family’s Writer-in Residence Caroline LeBlanc resently spoke to a group of women Veterans at the Kirtland Air Force Base Appreciation Luncheon for Women Veterans. Here’s what she had to say:
I am very happy to be here with all of you women veterans and to have the honor of speaking to you today about writing opportunities for women veterans in Albuquerque.
Every woman in this room has a story—actually many stories. Some you tell freely. Others, you hold close. Some you may even put on paper. In a journal, perhaps. In letters or family histories. More self-revealing souls, in another kind of bravery, write for strangers to read. You may write fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry, plays, memoirs or blogs—all of the above or something I have not named.
Often women feel their stories lack excitement or interest beyond their circle of personal connections. Traditionally, our stories unfold in less visible arenas than mens’ stories of combat and conquest. Until our modern wars women served in “support” roles. A few months ago, the DOD announced that women can now officially serve in combat roles. Of course, many women have already seen combat as pilots, MPs, transport, logistics and civil affairs personnel, in fact, in just about any role when deployed in modern combat where there is no front lines. But I, like perhaps some of you, did not serve in combat. So how do we value and communicate the meaning of the contributions we have made, and are making, whether or not they include the adrenalin and sex-appeal of combat stories?
Another question for many veterans is how to face down the shame, self-blame and fear of telling your stories—especially if injury, PTSD, sexual trauma, or homelessness is involved. How will you and your readers react? Women can be hesitant to write something that might open emotional dams or reveal things too sensitive, about themselves or their loved ones. A woman in one of my family member writing groups had dramatic stories of emotional abuse at the hands of her husband’s commander’s wife but she dared not write them for fear someone might recognize one of the characters. She was so afraid of retaliation from rank, that she would not even attempt to create a fictional scenario based on her experience.
All of us here have a certain loyalty, pride and affection toward the military, our comrades and our experiences. And, I would wager, we have all in some way been mistreated by certain individuals in the military, or the institution itself. Our stories must include all these things—the successes, the failures, the good, the bad, the loyalties, the betrayals—if they are to ring true. Today, I hope to convince at least some of you that every story—especially your story—is worth telling and can be written in a way that informs others about what it means to be a woman service member and veteran.
I’m actually pretty new to writing about more personal things for others to read. Until 2006, I spent my work week listening to people who entrusted their soul stories to me in my psychotherapy office. I wrote a lot but it was notes in charts, thoughts and feelings in my own journals. Beyond confiding my personal anguish, shames, hopes and secrets to my therapist, it never occurred to me that I had a story others might find interesting and benefit from hearing. My attitude evolved when, in 2007, I enrolled in Spalding University’s Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.
Sure, I cared for medivac’d service member during Vietnam as a civil service nurse in Okinawa. It was my job. It kept me busy while my Special Forces husband went on missions with his A-Team. I was lucky to have a job since I had gone to Okinawa against my husband’s wishes and the army’s orders. Thankfully, my job also gave me a good excuse to bow out of the wives’ club functions, which I loathed. Because of my unauthorized status we lived in the Okinawan community of Tobaru, rather than the little America of post housing. I loved the adventure.
My husband was discharged after Vietnam and we banged around several states until he went back to school on an Army scholarship. By then we had two sons. It was peace time. In 1982, I joined the Army Nurse Corps to support our family and to check out the Army’s promise of co-assignments for married personnel. After working one year on the Fort Dix Psychiatric Ward, I was Head Nurse of the Family Practice Clinic for 3 years. I discovered that the Army and I had different ideas about what co-assignment meant. Yes, Fort Gordon and Fort Benning were both in Georgia—but they were 4 hours apart! This was not
co-assignment in my book. I left active duty and finished my 2 year reserve obligation at Fort Gordon. In 1986, I resigned my commission. Having lived through Vietnam and worked with many Vietnam veterans, I knew what it meant to have both parents subject to the army combat assignments and did not want this for my children. My husband owed the army 4 years active duty payback for school so his path was set.
And sure enough, by 1991, our country was at war again. From then, until his retirement from the reserves in 2009, my husband volunteered for 5 deployments. And every time I was broken hearted by how eager he was to go off to war.
From 1989 to 2011, I lived in a community where my identity as a veteran was invisible, despite—or because of—living near Fort Drum, the home of the 10th Mountain Division. I had become a family member, a wife who lived off post to boot. I still had no interest in the “auxiliary” role of spouse. In some ways, I was my own worst enemy, but then aren’t we all at times? My civilian neighbors did not understand what it meant to be a military spouse or veteran. After 9/11 some of my friends’ children joined the service. They then understood the worry of having a loved one in the combat but they never really understood the realities, regulations and risks a service member or the spouse and children of a service member live with.
In 2006, I closed my psychotherapy practice and began writing poems and stories about my ancestors, my family, my military related experiences. I re-connected with the military by leading Writing For Your Life writing groups for family members and Wounded Warriors at Fort Drum. And I realized how much I had missed involvement with other military folks. Because it is all about the people, isn’t it?
Over the next few years, I gradually moved to Albuquerque where I led writing groups for women veterans at Henderson House and at the VA. But not too many women came and those who did were often reluctant to do more that touch the surface of their stories. When I talked to a writer friend—the widow of a Vietnam vet—about this challenge, she said, “Listen to yourself. Look at how long it took you to decide to write about your experiences with the military.” Point well taken.
I’ve thought a lot about what keeps women, including women veterans, from writing their stories. Time is a big factor, especially for women who are still working and raising families. Shyness and lack of confidence can be another. How often have I heard, “My story is not interesting. My teachers told me I can’t write.”? And, as most writers will tell you, what you write reveals much about who you are. That is a scary thing to do.
I am no longer a psychotherapist. I am a writer and a teacher who has spent years listening to other people’s stories. My goals now are to write more of my stories and to do what I can to help other women veterans write their stories; whether you write them yourselves or I serve as a kind of ghost writer/editor. To that end I am involved with 4 projects, any of which I invite you to join.
1. Beginning November 27 and roughly every other Monday until mid-April, from 6 to 7:30 PM, I will host a free Women Veterans Writing Salon at the Cherry Hills library on Barstow Street NE. You have to drive but parking is close, secure and plentiful. Check the Women Veterans of New Mexico site and Facebook page for dates, as some are out of sync because of the library’s schedule. It is an open group for women veterans. No writing experience is needed. Come with your paper, pen or pencil whenever you can.
2. Together with the Women Veterans of New Mexico network, I will be working to get our stories in print—on line or hard copy.
3. In November and December, 2013 through the UNM Continuing Education Osher programs I am offering workshops on published women’s writing about WW I, WW II and Vietnam eras.
4. Last but not least, as Writer in Residence for the Museum of the American Military Family (MAMF), based here in Albuquerque, I am spearheading our Post Card Project. We are asking service members, veterans, their family members, friends and care givers to write their thoughts, feelings and stories about the military and their lives—in 9 to 90 words on the back of a postcard, any postcard. To date we have collected about 200 cards toward our goal of 500 postcards. These will be included in a major Museum of the Military Family Exhibit at the Nuclear Science Museum during the summer of 2014. You can mail your postcard to: MAMF, PO Box 5085, Albuquerque, NM 87185.
I want to thank all the women of our New Mexico network who have completed postcards and who have collected postcards for our project at various events. If you would like to participate in any of these writing opportunities, please contact Caroline LeBlanc, Writer in Residence, MAMF at email@example.com.
Thank you for being such gracious listeners. I look forward to seeing some of you at the Writing Salon and to one day reading your stories—on postcards, in print or both.
WOMEN VETERANS WRITING SALON
CHERRY HILLS LIBRARY
6901 Barstow NE, Albuquerque, NM 87111
Roughly every other Monday from 6 PM to 7:30 PM.
See dates below for specific information. The library allows no food or beverage on the premises. Bring your pencils, pens, and paper. No writing experience necessary. Open group. Come when you can. FREE!
Salon led by Caroline A LeBlanc, MFA, MS, RN
published writer and veteran
More information contact Caroline at: firstname.lastname@example.org
November 25, 2013
December 9 & 23, 2013
January 6 & 27, 2014
February 20 & 24, 2014
March 10 & 24, 2014
April 7 & 21, 2014
Please participate in MAMF’s Postcard Project: