Vets Get Creative in Returning Home
Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan face plenty of challenges reintegrating with life back home. One local nonprofit is offering a new way to cope: the arts.
At his home in Southwest Austin, Zack Dryer plays with his 2-year-old son, Mason. The toddler, in a baby seat, bangs his sippy cup. His lunch is all over his face.
“Are you going to be the next Clapton?” Dryer said. “He’s like, ‘Well, it’s going to be a little bit difficult, Dad, when you’re making me play for the Yankees.’”
A guitar is strapped around Dryer’s shoulder and waist. In some ways, that guitar saved Dryer. During his 11 years of military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, it kept him from drowning in his own anger.
“The moment my fingers got it and they could make that sound, it just felt like a total release,” he said. “Once you get that and you can let that go, you can piggyback some of the other anger and sadness that you’ve shoved down for the last 11 years.”
Three years after his last deployment, art is still helping Dryer cope with the aftershocks of war. But instead of using lyric and verse, he’s now expressing himself through fiction.
Every Wednesday night, Dryer meets up with six other veterans for a creative writing workshop. The nine-week workshop is part of VetArts Cooperative. It’s a nonprofit geared towards building a community of veteran artists in Austin.
Sam Ellison, a young vet who started writing science fiction while serving in Afghanistan, founded the group.
“I came up with the idea first as a literary journal,” Ellison said. “I started writing when I was in Afghanistan, and when I came back, I realized that there isn’t really a group of centralized veteran writers and artists. So I figured, as a way to get material for the journal, I would start an organization that would provide resources.”
Some veterans, like Chris Hernandez, joined the writing workshop because it didn’t have an ulterior motive, like treating PTSD.
“I was very interested, at the same time I was very hesitant,” Hernandez said. “I was kind of worried that I would show up and it would be something focusing on ‘you’re all screwed up from the war and you need help and this is your therapy,’ which isn’t what I’m trying to do and which I don’t think is an accurate depiction of most of us.”
Others, like Dryer, are not so sure that any soldier can elude the emotional scars of war.
“If you can come home and say, doesn’t bother what we did over there, saw all dead bodies, saw my friends die, I saw the civilians, the men, the women, the children, the animals burned, the cities destroyed, but I’m OK with it — if that’s really what you’re going with, then you’re probably the one that needs to go to a psychologist,” Dryer said.
On a recent evening the members of the workshop sat around a long, rectangular table. The discussion roamed over different elements of fiction:
“’Cause I want us to use these different categories, speech, thought, appearance, action and authorial interpretation to talk about Cathedral in just a minute …”
The guys say that along with sharpening their skills and getting published, the group re-attaches a bond that was formed on the front lines. But for Dryer, the workshop offers more than brotherhood or a straight shot to publishing fame. It’s a way to exorcise the demons of war. Art, he says, is a way for him to return to the man a he used to be — a husband to his wife, a father to his son.
“We spent so long being monsters that it became a little bit true,” he said. “Every time that you write a song or you write a poem or you paint a picture of you do something artistic, it gets that feeling out. Even if it’s just a small extent, it brings you closer to being the person you were before you became a monster.”
And Dryer hopes that his stories will help other people get a better understanding of veterans as they continue their journeys back home.
A video version of this story is below.