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Army veteran and former Foreign Service officer Ron Capps spent a decade chronicling atrocities in five war zones. A Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis set him down a long road to recovery, during which he found that writing about what he’d seen was a valuable, cathartic tool. We talk to Capps about his experience, the Veterans Writing Project he has founded to help others and the importance of reading writings about war.
- Ron Capps author, "Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years, A Memoir"; founding director, Veterans Writing Project; Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (ret.)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street." Who is she? We'll ask author Susan Jane Gilman. But first, the list of countries where Ron Capps served the U.S. in war zones overseas as both an Army officer and for the State Department, is enough to prompt a visceral reaction. It includes Kosovo, Central Africa, Afghanistan, Darfur and Iraq.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn each country, he bore witness to atrocities in which he could not intervene, but left him haunted and contemplating suicide, eventually leading to a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Here to tell us how he found his way back to himself through writing and how he helps fellow veterans do the same, is Ron Capps. He is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, former Foreign Service officer, and founding director of the Veterans Writing Project. He's also the author of "Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years," a memoir. Ron Capps, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. RON CAPPSIt's my pleasure, Kojo. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for Ron Capps, give us a call at 800-433-8850. If you're a veteran who has had trouble reconciling feelings about your service, give us a call. 800-433-8850. Tell us how you've coped or are trying to cope. You can also send email to email@example.com. Ron, it's the early '80s. You've spent seven-plus years bouncing around various colleges without getting too close to a degree. What made you decide to hang up your guitar that you were playing in various Virginia and North Carolina bars and join the Army instead?
CAPPSWell, I wanted to go to flight school. I decided that I wanted to do something a little more challenging, so I thought about joining the Navy. My dad had been in the Navy. His dad had been in the Army. And thought about it and decided to join the Army. They're like, yeah, yeah, you're definitely going to get flight school. Don't worry about it. And after my training, I was not given flight school. I was assigned as an armor officer and sent off to Fort Knox. But I spent about nine years doing that, riding around the East German border or out in Korea and then finally back in the United States.
NNAMDIHow did you transition to the State Department?
CAPPSYou know, I had taken the graduate record exam one day and I was sitting in my yard up in Ellicott City, Md. We were listening to John Miller call an Orioles game on the radio. And some friends of mine and I were just sort of complaining about how brain dead we were after the graduate record exam. And someone said, you should take the foreign service exam. I didn't really know what it was. Apparently I test much smarter than I am, because the three of us went down and took the test and actually all three of us passed. But I was the only one that joined the foreign service.
NNAMDIYour experience might run somewhat counter to what people imagine serving in five war zones in a decade is like. Much of your time was spent documenting war crimes, documenting violence. How did the act of recording what was happening change you?
CAPPSWell, in many of these case, particularly in Kosovo and Darfur, my job was go in as either a military officer or a foreign service officer and try and stop the fighting. Document what was happening, but at the end of the day really try to stop the fighting, the violence, in these villages, in these towns, between these groups. And in almost no case was I very successful at that. Our teams were unable to stop the fighting in Kosovo. We were unable to stop the fighting in Darfur. When I arrived in Darfur, there were 200,000 dead. I spent nine months there working as a member of the African Union mission in Sudan.
CAPPSAnd when I left, there were 300,000 dead. And so that inability to stop the fighting, to protect civilians, and the day-to-day examination or inspection of war-crime sites, really did change me substantially.
NNAMDII want to talk about the difference between that and, well, civilians often imagine that acts committed in the course of war are what haunts soldiers. In your role, you were often unable to take action or intervene on the ground in war zones -- kinds of acts of omission, if you will, than acts committed. How important is that distinction between actions taken and actions not taken to veterans?
CAPPSWell, I think -- I don't want to speak for every veteran. I'll speak for myself and maybe for a few others that I've spoken with. There's a research psychologist at the Boston VA Hospital named Brett Litz. He and another psychiatrist up there named Jonathan Shay have come up with an idea that's really gaining currency. And it's called the idea of a moral injury. And it really deals with taking part in or failing to prevent or even witnessing actions that violate deeply-held beliefs and expectations. And Jon Shay wrote about this in his books after working with Vietnam Veterans for 30 years.
CAPPSBrett Litz has been working with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. And the whole idea is that we're taught that killing is wrong. And yet we're sent to battle, we're sent to war and told the metric of success is killing the enemy. And those two contradictory ideas get at your soul. In my case, it wasn't actions that I took, it was actions I was unable to prevent. A woman tried to hand me her child to take out of a Serbian -- I'm sorry, a Kosovar Albanian village because she was afraid the Serb military were going to come back in, having already killed a number of people, and kill her child.
CAPPSWell, I was unable to do that. I couldn't just take one child without taking all of them. But I also knew that if I did take that child out, that my entire team would lose our diplomatic status in that country, and we would be unable to report, unable to even try to stop those wars. And so that memory will haunt me forever.
NNAMDIThe act of omission. The act of being unable to do something about it, while at the same time watching it. Our guest is Ron Capps. He's a retired Army lieutenant colonel, former Foreign Service officer and founding director of the Veterans Writing Project. He's the author of the book, "Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years," a memoir. You're invited to join the conversation. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Or give us a call, 800-433-8850. If you're a veteran who's had trouble reconciling feelings about your service, tell us how you're trying to cope.
NNAMDIHave you found that writing is a cathartic experience for you? Tell us how it has helped you cope with stress from any source at all. Ron, we've heard a lot about the suicide rate and the stigma attached to seeking mental health treatment in the military. When did you decide that, as the title of your book notes, you were not -- that you were seriously not all right?
CAPPSI was in Afghanistan. And it was about halfway through this period of time of ten years of going to these five different war zones, when I began to have really graphic, violent nightmares. And then those images started coming to me during the day. And I was unable to control the intrusive images of the dead from Kosovo, the dead from Rwanda and Central Africa. And so I tried to hide my symptoms for a long time. I was afraid that the soldiers I was serving with in this unit in Afghanistan -- it was an airborne unit and I'm just surrounded by paratroopers and rangers -- and I felt that they would mock me, that they would laugh at me and consider me weak.
CAPPSBut the point came when I couldn't control what was happening in my head and I worried that I would make bad decisions that would put the soldiers I had been sent to Afghanistan to lead in danger. And at that point, I really had no choice. I had to seek help. And I did go see a military psychiatrist.
NNAMDIHow difficult was that decision for you?
CAPPSOnce I came to understand that I risked putting those soldiers' lives in danger, it was not a hard decision. But coming to that understanding was very hard. I was very much afraid that I'd be mocked, that I'd be ridiculed and considered weak or cowardly.
NNAMDIYou considered killing yourself before you decided to make that decision. How difficult was getting treatment?
CAPPSGetting treatment, once a soldier or service member steps up, the treatment's there. You can get the treatment. I got it in Afghanistan. I got it when I came home from Darfur after my suicide attempt, both from the military, from civilian doctors and from the Department of Veterans Affairs. So the treatment's there. There's a real shortage all throughout the United States in all three of those medical systems, whether it's VA, Department of Defense, or the civilian society around us, of mental health care professionals. We simply do not have a sufficient number.
CAPPSI was able to get in and get my treatment. But other people are having to wait because there aren't enough psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers.
NNAMDINow, as you've heard me say before, don your headphones, please, because I'm about to go to the telephone and talk with Rob in Reston, Va. Rob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBHi. I'm just sharing my experience. I joined the Marine Corps in 2005 when I was 19 years old. And I served four years as a recon marine and did two deployments to Fallujah. And when I was over there, the Marine Corps does a great job at boot camp changing your morals a little bit about how you feel about killing people. They almost encourage it. And all the training you do builds up to the point where you're excited for the experience of combat. Well, when you go over to Fallujah and all of your friends are getting hurt, there is still a thrill involved, but you don't really necessarily know how to cope.
ROBSo we're told not to give away, you know, information as to your mission back home. But whenever I had a chance, I would go and write detailed emails to my family and friends letting them know about -- sharing my experiences over there. And I think that helped me, you know, if I did die over there, at least my family and friends would understand, you know, what I was going through and my thoughts and feelings and my experience there.
NNAMDIRob, I'm very glad you shared that with us, because Ron Capps will tell you that the catharsis of writing is something that a lot of people, like you, can relate to. How has it helped you, Ron Capps? And how have you seen it help others through the workshops that you've established and run, the process of writing?
CAPPSRob, thanks for your call. Writing was my road home. I was in therapy. I was taking medications. And while they may have worked, I didn't think they were working fast enough. I was still really struggling. And what I found that -- you know, because I was an intelligence officer, because I was a diplomat overseas -- most of my job involved going somewhere, learning what was happening on the ground and writing home about it -- sending reports back to Washington. And these were very crisp, dry reports. But at night I would go back to my tent or back to my rented room somewhere and sit and write the remainders, the things that were leftover.
CAPPSWhen I got out of the service, when I was in treatment, I went back to that writing, back to those vignettes, those stories, and rewrote them to try and turn them into something useful. And what I found was that repeated exposure to those events, writing through it again and again, editing it down, getting it right, that's what really helped me. And I founded the Veterans Writing Project for a number of reasons, one of which was to really transfer the skills that I learned in graduate writing school and as a working writer to others so that they can do the same thing.
CAPPSI'm not a doctor. And we stress that right upfront in our programs. But we want people to get the skills to tell their own story -- the skills and the confidence to tell their own stories.
NNAMDIYes, you stress that you're not a doctor upfront, because while writing was your catharsis, when someone comes to your workshop who needs help beyond what you can provide, you tell them that this is not a medical course here. We can't heal you here.
CAPPSThat's right. We say very early on in our program, this is a writing program. If you need medical help, go get it. We'll be here when you get back. But we also stress that there are a lot of health care professionals that use writing in their practice. You can go to college in the United States and get a degree in art therapy, dance therapy, music therapy or drama therapy, but you can't study writing therapy. It just does not exist anywhere in the United States, that I found.
CAPPSBut so many health care professionals use writing as a part of their practice. And the Veterans Writing Project is part of a program at Walter Reed where we go in and work with service members who are suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury, just to give them the skills and the confidence to do the writing. And then their medical health care professionals work with them beyond that.
NNAMDIRob, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Ryan in Arlington, Va. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHey, Kojo. It's actually Brian.
RYANYes, sir. I love your show and I think it's great to hear you talking about this. I just wanted to share something your guest talked about in terms of -- or maybe you did -- about acts of omission affecting soldiers or maybe in my case just sort of a screw-up. One of the things that I deal with regularly and have emotional reaction to, is an Iraqi who I sent to Abu Ghraib. And he probably didn't need to go and his family showed up at our side the next day and he had a son and a daughter.
RYANAnd I deal with how much my daughter would react if I just disappeared. And so -- but it's hard to talk about because it's my failure to think, my failure to take an intelligent course of action. This Iraqi man was stopped at a checkpoint my soldiers ran with a shotgun he used for hunting birds, and a semiautomatic pistol that he used for protection, both of which were technically illegal as far as my understanding, but (unintelligible) you know.
RYANSo anyway, it's not something I -- it's a combination of something I did and something I failed to do that really affects me. I don't think -- I don't know that it amounts to PTSD. I don't have nightmares about it, but obviously, as you can tell, I have an emotional reaction to it. And this was seven, eight years ago now. So it's -- anyway just thought I'd check.
NNAMDILet me have -- I'm glad you shared that story because let me have Ron Capps respond. He may not think he is necessarily suffering from PTSD, but it certainly does sound like it.
CAPPSYeah, Brian, I would just say, first, you've got to be able to forgive yourself. And second, the individual experiences, yours and of that Iraqi man's and his family's, are so important that we remember and commemorate. They're just as important as the great strategic actions, you know, the invasion, the battles of Fallujah, the first and second battles of Fallujah. All of those things must be commemorated. It's so important that we all have a collective memory of these things. And your memory of that event has to survive, and your memory of that event has to be documented. And that man needs to be commemorated, and if he's not still alive, memorialized.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Brian, and good luck to you. Here is Ken in Gaithersburg, Md. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENYeah, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'll process this by saying I am a health professional and I served during the Vietnam War in a couple of areas where we were not technically at war. And later on I dealt with many Vietnam veterans who were suffering from PTSD who I was treating for physical ailments and hopefully getting them treated for their psychological scars.
KENOne of them during the 1990s was a friend of mine who had PTSD to the point where he was really not able to function terribly well. And I worked with him for quite a while. And one day he turned to me and said, you know, you have to realize that you have it too. And for the first time I started to deal with my own war experience.
KENAnd my point is this. You never really get over it. I don't even think that that's a good goal to get over it. There are some things that you never un-see or undo or un-experience. And what you really need to do is learn to live your life around it and also deal with the occurrence of the experiences which will happen. But like any traumatic experience, it does not go away and you don't stop living with it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Care to comment, Ron Capps?
CAPPSI absolutely agree with Ken. Once something's in your head, it's there forever. You can't -- there's no such thing as, you know, the eternal spotless of the -- I'm sorry, I've forgotten the name of that story, but there's no way to get memories out of your head. And once they're there...
NNAMDI"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
CAPPSThe "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," thank you.
NNAMDIThank you, Tayla.
KENI've got a sign up in my office that says, either you control the memory or the memory controls you. And you're going to have to deal with that memory sooner or later, so it's a matter I would rather deal with it when it's under control when I have -- when I can get my hands around it rather than when it comes out on its own.
NNAMDIAs long as people have been setting pen to paper or chisel to tablet, they've chronicled stories of war through their writing. In the last few years we've started to see the first really acclaimed novels come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where you say less than 1 percent of our population has taken part in these wars. So how important is it, therefore, to get these works into civilian hands, the 99 percent if you will.
CAPPSI think it's absolutely critical. This goes back to the Greeks. When the Greeks came home from Troy there was a requirement that each of the warriors presented it in the middle of the town. And everyone would have to come out and hear that story. And it's really a way of socializing the return of these soldiers. I mean, Twitter didn't exist back then so people needed to hear the stories. But you have to communalize that experience. The civilian population sends the military off to war and the civilian population needs to know what it's like and what it's all about.
NNAMDIBefore we go, and we only have about 30 seconds left, let's hear from Chip in Arlington, Va. Chip, your turn.
CHIPYeah, thank you, Kojo. And hello to my old friend Ron Capps. So this is Chip Beckwan (sp?) .
CHIPSince you only have 30 seconds, I guess I don't have much time. But I've -- as Ron knows, I've been involved in about 20 different wars and conflicts from Vietnam era all the way through Iraq and most recently Haiti. And I always found keeping a diary or a war log was therapeutic. And I'm -- currently I wrote a book that I'm editing as well. So I applaud Ron's efforts and have spoken to him about that in the past.
CHIPBut one thing I found that always helped me was my wife's asked me, how come I didn't come away from these wars completely crazy. And it's have a sense of yourself, have a sense of right and wrong and don't be afraid to question authority. Speak truth to power. And know beforehand, if you can, what you're getting into. That often helps, so I'll leave it at that.
NNAMDIChip, thank you very much for your call. I know Ron appreciates it. Ron Capps is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, former Foreign Service officer and founding director of the Veterans Writing Project with which Chip is also clearly familiar. Ron Capps is the author of "Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years, a Memoir." Thank you so much for joining us.
CAPPSIt was my pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street." You're going to find out all about her with author Susan Jane Gilman. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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