“That’s the most amazing part, the community that’s built around it. You can’t really get through a couple of workshops without the other folks getting to know you really well.”

As appearing in CHHS.source.colostate.edu| Nov, 2022 | by Ben Leonard

CSU Veterans Writing Workshop builds community among veterans, helps process their experience

Since leaving the military and joining Colorado State University, veteran and Ph.D. student Ross Atkinson (‘18) is continuing the same mission: serving others. Atkinson, who coordinates CSU’s Veterans Writing Workshop, is a student in the Education, Equity, and Transformation Program in the School of Education and holds a master’s degree in English from CSU. 

Atkinson and co-facilitator Merit Davey are currently collecting stories from participants for the second volume of the workshop’s publication, Charlie Mike. The name stems from the use of the NATO phonetic alphabet for the letters C and M, which to service members, means “continue mission.” 

“The intimacy that is formed through the sharing of the writing makes it so that we all form a really strong bond,” he said. The workshop is open to anyone affiliated with the military, ranging from veterans themselves to dependents and family members. 

“This gives you an opportunity to express your feelings about things that you don’t with other people. I felt very comfortable doing that here,” said Jim Smith, a workshop participant and Vietnam veteran. “What I like most is being able to put it down on paper, and then let it go. Which maybe I’ve never done for 50 years since Vietnam,” he said.

From military to civilian life 

Atkinson noted that transitioning from military to civilian life can be very challenging for some veterans, and there are many veterans who might not have had the space to fully process their experiences in the service. This workshop is here to help with each of those challenges. 

Atkinson started to help run the workshop when he was a master’s student along with Ryan Lanham, another student who has since graduated from the Department of English, the workshop’s original home. Through the workshop, Atkinson hopes to make the reintegration process better for veterans.  

“I’m looking at that whole process as a system that I’m trying to transform to become more equitable – the process of leaving one culture and community and coming into another,” he said. “Informal education through programs like this has been shown to facilitate better reintegration for veterans.” 

Building community

“Last week, someone shared a haunting piece. It did get a bit dark, but that was a real-life experience he had, and now we can all share that experience together. That’s the love and support that exists in this group,” said Laura Mahal, a workshop participant. “I have known some of these people for years, and it seems like every week we learn something new about each other.” 

“That’s the most amazing part, the community that’s built around it. You can’t really get through a couple of workshops without the other folks getting to know you really well,” said Atkinson. 

The workshop meets every Thursday, with some folks stopping in occasionally, and others that are regular participants. As Atkinson collects submissions from participants for publication next year, he organizes public readings, where participants can share their work in person.  

Last night, Atkinson and 8 other participants shared their work at Wolverine Publick House. “This has been a wonderful event to diversify the veteran identity,” he said.  

Not therapy, but therapeutic 

While the workshop is not intended to be therapy, it often provides therapeutic experiences to participants. “It’s not meant to be therapy, and none of us are trained in that, but I do think it can be therapeutic for the participants,” Atkinson said. “I know that it has helped me work through a lot of experiences that I otherwise wouldn’t have worked through or thought about.” 

Diversifying the narrative 

“This kind of writing can be challenging to share and get out into the world,” Atkinson said. By collecting these pieces of writing, publishing them and sharing at local events, he hopes to “diversify the narratives around what it means to be a veteran.”

“A lot of ideas can become monolithic around what it means to be a veteran – what PTSD is like, and who veterans are. Readers of the workshop’s journal, Charlie Mike, can get a full scope of what it means to be a veteran or be associated with the military,” he said. “There are writers in the book that don’t look back on their service fondly, and those that do. Everyone’s experience is different.” 

“My experience is completely different from theirs. And it’s interesting to hear from other people, and, at some level, these things don’t change,” said participant Milt Mayes. “I think the good thing that has changed is the attitude towards veterans, and that’s what makes this a great class. It allows veterans to realize that they’re okay, they’re human beings too.” 

Sponsors of the Veterans Writing Workshop include the Department of English, the School of Education, Adult Learner and Veteran Services, and the Writing Center. 

For folks interested in participating in the Veterans Writing Workshop, they will resume meeting weekly in February of the coming spring semester. For more information about the workshop or to be added to the email list, visit their website, or contact Ross Atkinson at ross.atkinson@colostate.edu. 

The School of Education is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.