29th Writers’ Workshop Kicks Off with ‘Women Veterans Speak’ Panel
The William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences sponsored the 29th Writers’ Workshop, which features classes and individual consultations in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, and memoir, last month. The two-week workshop also included special topics such as songwriting, using theater for social change, and using art to build bridges in Iraq.
The Writers’ Workshop kicked off on June 20 with a panel titled, “Women Veterans Speak.” The panelists were Margaret Laneri, the director of the Worcester Vet Center and a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Army Reserves; Savina Martin, a U.S. Army veteran, social justice activist, advocate, and writer who is working on a play about veterans; Giselle Sterling, a Marine Corps veteran and commissioner of veterans services for the City of Boston; and Nicole Waybright, who was part of the first wave of women to serve at sea on combat vessels. The U.S. Navy veteran published her first book, Long Way Out: A Young Woman's Journey of Self-Discovery and How She Survived the Navy's Modern Cruelty at Sea Scandal, in February. Erin Leach-Ogden, the grant and research coordinator for the Joiner Institute and a U.S. Army veteran herself, moderated the discussion.
Leach-Ogden began the discussion by reading portions of a 2014 New York Times article called “The Things She Carried,” written by Cara Hoffman.
“The story of men in combat is taught globally, examined broadly, celebrated and vilified in fiction, exploited by either side of the aisle in politics,” Hoffman wrote. “For women it’s a different story, one in which they are more often cast as victims, wives, nurses; anything but soldiers who see battle. In the rare war narratives where women do appear, the focus is generally on military sexual assault, a terrible epidemic of violence that needs to be revealed and ended, but not something that represents the full experience of women in the military.”
Waybright said she decided to write her book to help women.
“That’s what kept me writing the book for eight years,” Waybright said. “I wanted to supply a raw narrative that was honest—that doesn’t always paint me in a positive light.”
The panelists also discussed how the military experiences were impacted by a variety of factors, including race, class, age, gender, sexuality, and family, and the connection that has been shown between military sexual trauma, post-traumatic stress (PTS), addiction, and homelessness. A 2014 Veterans Health Administration survey found 85,000 women and 60,000 men have experienced sexual trauma—sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment—at some point in their careers.
“PTS is real,” Martin said. “It’s happening as we speak.”
“And I’m glad we’re calling it post-traumatic stress,” Sterling said. “Drop the D because it’s not a disorder.”
Laneri said that men with PTS tend to report instances of substance abuse and aggression, while women report anxiety and depression. She also said that half of women veterans suffer from insomnia, and many go untreated.
“I would love to see better communication between the Department of Defense and the VA and state departments,” Laneri said. “Men and women prior to leaving active service should have a much easier transition. Women who end up homeless wouldn’t have to be lost. And I think it can be done.”
Laneri listed multiple avenues for women dealing with PTS, such as journaling, yoga, and acupuncture. All of the women agreed there is more work to do to support women in the military, and those transitioning back to civilian life.
“All my life I’ve had to fight and I will continue to fight for the rights regarding the social consequences that men and women have to face,” Martin said. “My fight isn’t in the military—it’s on the ground.”