With the success of movies like “Unbroken” and “American Sniper” in the past few months, it is clear that Americans love a good war story. For the veterans who came to participate in the College of William and Mary’s Veterans Writing Project Saturday, war stories are more than just a form of entertainment; they are an opportunity to express themselves and find relief.
Government and finance major Sam Pressler ’15 started the Veterans Writing Project at the College in December 2013.
Pressler said that both of his parents were born in areas with strong military presences, so he has always had an interest in the lives of veterans. When Pressler learned more about the statistics of war’s effects on veterans — especially the high rate of suicide among veterans — he decided to look for a way to help improve veterans’ lives.
“I approached it from a mental health perspective,” Pressler said.
When Pressler learned about the Veterans Writing Project, founded by Ron Capps and based in Washington, D.C., it seemed like a project that he could implement at the College to help the numerous veterans living near Williamsburg.
The William and Mary Veterans Writing Project has since expanded to include programs which give veterans the opportunity to express themselves through stand-up comedy and music, in addition to writing.
The writing group that meets at the College is the Hampton Roads Veterans Writing Group. The group hosts two sessions a month — one at the College and one at Old Dominion University — to attract veterans from both the Norfolk and Williamsburg areas.
While the Veterans Writing Project in D.C. focuses more on the instruction of writing, the College’s Writing Group “is more feedback based,” Pressler said.
Pressler is president of the William and Mary Center for Veterans Engagement. Alyssa Harrison ’17 and Yousif Al-Amin ’16 are co-chairs of the Writing Group and help run the sessions.
The session Saturday ran from 12 to 2 p.m. in Alan B. Miller Hall. The group split into one group of five and one group of six to allow each veteran to get ample feedback on their work. The session consisted of two 30-minute writing periods, each followed by a 30-minute period for sharing work and receive feedback.
The veterans are all given prompts to inspire their writing. The prompts Saturday asked the veterans to place themselves in the shoes of someone else in the military and write about the physical aspects of war. Pressler said the prompts are not always exclusively related to military and that they sometimes focus on civilian life. The group’s main hope for the prompts is that they will inspire veterans to keep writing.
“These prompts become the beginning of larger works,” Pressler said. “By using them, it allows people to tell their stories, and then expand out.”
Once a veteran has shared his or her work, Pressler, Al-Amin and Harrison, as well as the other veterans, all offer feedback to the writer.
Todd Belt, a veteran who served for four years in the Navy and six in the Army, credits the sessions with giving him a fresh perspective on his writing.
“It’s an opportunity to get a new understanding and get your words heard by other people,” Belt said.
Belt began writing after his time in service and, while he prefers to write about civilian life, he finds his time at the sessions invaluable because of the connections he makes with other veterans.
“You build relationships in the military where you can’t build anywhere else,” Belt said. “You can relate in a way most other people couldn’t.”
Harrison credits her decision to volunteer with the project with a desire to connect with veterans. She comes from a military family and found she missed having a connection to the military when she came to the College.
“William and Mary was my first experience with civilian life,” Harrison said.
She said she has come to find the writing group as the most worthwhile activity she participates in.
“You really get to hear some amazing stories and meet some amazing people,” Harrison said.
The veterans at the session varied in age, gender and service. One writer served in World War II and a few just ended their service in the past year. The participants also varied in their level of writing experience. Some were published authors while others were completely new to writing.
Pressler said the writing project now has a blog where veterans’ work will be published, but it also tries to provide veterans with resources to publish their works in literary journals and other publications. The Veterans Writing Project in D.C. has their own magazine, “O-Dark-Thirty,” in which they will publish veterans’ work from all over the country.
Whether they are aiming to get published or simply want to make a connection, Harrison said that most veterans come to learn a certain message.
“It’s going to be okay at the end of the day,” she said.