2023 War Horse Seminar Guides Gold Star Families in Healing Through Storytelling

In May, The War Horse hosted its sixth writing seminar, welcoming Gold Star children and siblings at Lucky Spur Ranch Retreat in Justin, Texas. Tailored to the unique needs of this cohort, this was The War Horse’s first hybrid seminar, which provided fellows with work and child care obligations an opportunity to participate. We selected 11 fellows from around the country.

“This seminar was life-changing for me,” wrote Maria Rossi, 32, of Georgia. “I have always loved to write but the fear of failing and just not knowing where to start held me back. And after these last six days, I will never let the fear of not being good enough hold me back. This seminar taught me to trust in myself, trust the process, and that I can do this!”

“This seminar was life-changing for me,” wrote Maria Rossi. “I have always loved to write but the fear of failing and just not knowing where to start held me back. … I will never let the fear of not being good enough hold me back.” Photo by Babee Garcia.

“This seminar was life-changing for me,” wrote Maria Rossi. “I have always loved to write but the fear of failing and just not knowing where to start held me back. … I will never let the fear of not being good enough hold me back.” Photo by Babee Garcia.

Since 2017, The War Horse has hosted six writing seminars for veterans and military families. The 62 fellows from those seminars have written 88 stories for The War Horse about topics ranging from mental health and suicide to school shootings and gender issues. Past fellows have gone on to publish memoirs, as well as reporting projects with USA Today, CNN, The New York Times, and others. During our most recent community-building event for military spouses, nine women and three men represented all U.S. military branches. And our 2022 War Horse Fellows brought a remarkable breadth of experiences—we will continue to work with them to publish their reflections.

Once selected, War Horse fellows receive a welcome packet that offers details about travel accommodations, activities, and our newsroom’s community standards. This year, we revisited our venue location, which provided better flight options for the cohort and significantly reduced delays. As a result, our budget allowed an increase in stipend payments to all fellows, and our virtual participants received stipends as well. One fellow described receiving the financial support as “completely stress-free” and said that newsroom staff goes “above and beyond to handle all of the logistics of travel and accommodations so that the fellows can focus on the purpose of the trip, to tell their story.”

All 11 fellows reported that they arrived at our seminar understanding that they would be expected to write about and discuss potentially traumatic issues. Most importantly, upon arrival, all 11 members of our 2023 cohort felt as though The War Horse provided adequate resources to deal with the difficult issues we discussed and that our team presented the material in a way that was sensitive to their experiences.

  • Before the workshop, more than two-thirds of 2023 War Horse Fellows reported that they knew people who could help them publish their stories but that they did not feel comfortable asking for help with their writing. After the writing seminar, all in-person fellows felt confident they had gained mentors they could approach for help.
  • Before attending, two-thirds believed they couldn’t convey what they wanted to say or didn’t have the ability to share their story. After the workshop, all in-person fellows reported a stronger ability to tell their story and left feeling good or very good about telling their story.
  • Before attending The War Horse Seminar, nearly half of the attendees reported that they didn’t believe their stories were important. Following our week together, the entire cohort believed their stories were important and wanted to tell them.
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David Chrisinger, director of writing seminars, led the first instruction of the seminar. Chrisinger is also a University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy faculty member and a distinguished author.

Cassidy La Bouff at The War Horse’s first Writing Seminar for Gold Star Children and Siblings. Her father, Army Maj. Douglas A. La Bouff, died in Iraq in 2006 when his Black Hawk helicopter crashed. Photo by Babee Garcia.

Cassidy La Bouff at The War Horse’s first Writing Seminar for Gold Star Children and Siblings. Her father, Army Maj. Douglas A. La Bouff, died in Iraq in 2006 when his Black Hawk helicopter crashed. Photo by Babee Garcia.

“David helped me understand principles of establishing trust, authenticity, and structure in storytelling. He helped me think of the message behind more story more thoughtfully and encouraged several amazing ideas. He also inspired me—one of the special things my dad and I shared was how much we loved the band Mumford & Sons,” wrote Bailey Donahue. “While my dad was deployed, he would write in our letters that we’d go see them together in Ireland once he was home. For a few years, I haven’t listened to them because it hurt, but David and I had a conversation that made this band pop up. After the week with War Horse, I’ve been listening to them nonstop and feel nothing but empowered. So happy to have shared that conversation with him, I don’t think he knows how much it meant!”

This was David’s sixth cohort with The War Horse. Throughout the week, Lucky Spur Ranch provided dining in their massive renovated barn. The catering for the seminar was described as “fantastic,” “phenomenal”, “amazing,” and “absolutely delicious.” The fellows had the opportunity to interact with three mentors who all volunteered their time.

One of the first was First Lady Jill Biden, who spent an hour in conversation with the cohort discussing topics that ranged from her own memoir and the loss of her son to the needs of Gold Star families.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden spent an hour discussing topics that ranged from writing her memoir, the loss of her son, and the needs of Gold Star families. Photo by Babee Garcia.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden spent an hour discussing topics that ranged from writing her memoir, the loss of her son, and the needs of Gold Star families. Photo by Babee Garcia.

“Your loss is different than mine. Your families have made a sacrifice that can never be repaid. And because of that selflessness, you are facing a world without the wisdom, and kind words, and warm touch of the person who is supposed to be by your side as you travel through it,” Biden told the cohort. “You aren’t alone. Your President and I are on your side. We keep you in our hearts. And we’re working to support you every day.”

Following their conversation, Cheyenne Smith described her time with the first lady as “…an exciting experience. She seemed to genuinely listen to our concerns and wanted to have a conversation with us.”

During the week, the cohort also met with Nina Rodriguez-Marty, an editor at Viking Press. This was Nina’s second seminar with The War Horse.

“I really connected with Nina, she was very receptive and warm, a great listener and asked challenging questions,” wrote Cierra Becker, 23, from Texas. “She graciously offered resources to me and [I] felt like she was always there to help.”

Others agreed. Another fellow, Cassidy LaBouff, wrote that “Nina was great! She was so attentive and was a great resource.”

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One of the other mentors who spent the week with the cohort was David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Washington Post.

“Having the opportunity to speak with and learn from someone of his stature was unlike any other,” said Maria Rossi, 32, from Georgia. “He was willing to listen and learn from us as well. He gladly listened to our stories and offered advice and critiques in a supportive and encouraging way. I am so grateful for the opportunity to meet with him!”

On the last morning of the seminar, the cohort and staff members took part in goat yoga. Photo by Babee Garcia.

On the last morning of the seminar, the cohort and staff members took part in goat yoga. Photo by Babee Garcia.

Other fellows echoed similar sentiments. “I was going to write something completely different,” wrote Danielle Rushing, 36, from Wyoming. “Then David spoke to me, and encouraged me to do something else. He made me brave, and I couldn’t have done what I did this week without him.”

In addition to authors, journalists, and editors, book agent Chandler Vickers from SK Agency also joined the cohort in Texas. “Chandler was incredibly kind and always willing to hear our stories,” wrote Maria. “It was great getting the perspective of someone who, in the publishing world, is the first person to read someone’s story. She offered great empathy and insight.”

Another fellow said, “Being able to speak to Chandler has been fantastic. I was able to ask questions without any fear of being seen as stupid, and she answered everything I wanted to know. Definitely bring her back, she’s an asset for sure.”

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In addition to editorial support, The War Horse places a high priority on the mental wellness of our fellows during these seminars. To assist in this effort, Dr. Pam Wall, a counselor and retired Navy psychiatric nurse practitioner who has worked with wounded veterans and their families for more than 20 years, joined our team for the week.

“​​This was one of the first events I have been to where there was a health provider on hand,” said Cassidy LaBouff. “That was WONDERFUL!”

On our final day together, the cohort and staff members participated in a “goat yoga” session. (We think the pictures speak for themselves.)

Members of the cohort work on their pieces on the patio at Lucky Spur Ranch in Justin, Texas. Photo by Babee Garcia.

Members of the cohort work on their pieces on the patio at Lucky Spur Ranch in Justin, Texas. Photo by Babee Garcia.

The serenity of Lucky Spur Ranch can also not be understated.

“It was incredibly helpful to be in a remote location. It allowed me to disconnect from the chaos and distractions of the real world,” said Rossi. “The environment was perfect for what I had to do during my time there. It was relaxing and comfortable and just a beautiful place. It was almost impossible to not be inspired.”

If you’d like to learn more about the writing seminar experience, listen to Bailey Donahue and Maria Rossi on this nationwide NPR interview.

The War Horse Staff

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