This fall, The War Horse hosted our Writing Seminar for Medics and Corpsmen at Boulder Crest Retreat, thanks to generous support from the Wounded Warrior Project and many other partners. The six-day expenses-paid retreat, which also included a tour of The Washington Post newsroom, brought together a dozen veterans with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and bestselling authors. Together, they worked to help our 2019 War Horse Fellows find and shape their stories as immigrants, first responders, survivors of sexual violence, and much more.
Since 2017, The War Horse has hosted four writing seminars for veterans and military families. Those 50 fellows have written 75 stories for The War Horse about topics ranging from mental health and suicide to school shootings and gender issues. Past fellows have also published with USA Today, CNN, and The New York Times. During our most recent community-building event for medics and corpsmen, comprised of six women and six men, all military branches were represented. And the breadth of experiences among our 2019 War Horse Fellows was remarkable—we look forward to continuing to work with them to publish their reflections.
“Hearing other people say the words that I have about my own experience was ground shaking,” said Gretel Weiskopf, a 2019 War Horse Fellow who has served 19 years in the Wisconsin National Guard. “The lack of judgement and familiar one-upping that you can see in veterans did not live here. I will always be grateful for the environment The War Horse created,” she said. “There is real work that goes into this organization and this retreat, and one of the transformative notions is that someone would do this for me.”
Once selected, War Horse Fellows receive a welcome packet explaining details about travel accommodations, activities and our newsroom’s community standards. Fellows described a “smooth and seamless process,” logistics that “were perfect,” and that receiving a travel stipend “made it less stressful financially to come.” The onboarding process was also redesigned this year to better set expectations and best prepare our incoming cohort, while also allowing our team to tailor the curriculum to the unique needs of our incoming writers. As a result, all 12 fellows reported arriving to our seminar understanding that they would be expected to write about and discuss potentially traumatic issues. Most importantly, upon arrival, all 12 members of our 2019 cohort felt as though The War Horse provided adequate resources to deal with the difficult issues we discussed and that the material was presented in a way that was sensitive to their experiences.
- Before the workshop, two-thirds of 2019 War Horse Fellows reported that they knew people who could help get their stories published but that they did not feel comfortable asking for help with their writing. After the writing seminar, all 12 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 12 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 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.
Because our writing seminars are designed for writers of all experience levels, the personal benefits to each attendee vary. For many, our seminars plant a seed of curiosity about writing and forge a supportive community. One fellow noted, “The attention to detail was incredible. It’s difficult to say you don’t have a seat at the table when even the coffee mug has your name on it.” For more experienced writers, the experience is restorative. “I’ve been struggling to get back into the writing grind for months since I had a nervous breakdown and this experience unblocked me mentally. I feel like my old self.”
Throughout their week together, War Horse Fellows worked alongside multiple guest speakers who each volunteered their time to work one-on-one with our writers. The first speaker of the week was Robert Rosenthal, a founding board member of The War Horse and a revered investigative reporter, who bravely shared his story of losing his son to suicide. “You have to find purpose in the pain,” he said. Rosenthal’s honesty resonated with many in the cohort. One fellow wrote that Rosenthal sharing such a personal story “set the tone that this was a safe place that genuinely cares about community,” and that as a result the vets “could think and look inward at things and tease out some of the hurt and pain.”
War Horse Fellows also benefited from the moments of relaxation scheduled throughout the seminar. In a sentiment echoed by many attendees, one said, “It was easy to get my thoughts on paper without distractions of noise and city life,” and that “the gardens, horses, mountains, nature were all beneficial tools in relaxing and allowing focus in writing or just taking a break from my words.”
Between guest speakers and events, classes were presented by David Chrisinger, director of Writing Seminars, who has led all four of the War Horse writing retreats. “Dave’s classes were very informative without being tedious,” one attendee said. “He covered the fundamentals in a fun, simple, and accessible way and without ego, which is absolutely key.” Another described Dave’s teaching style as “excellent on all fronts. Very patient and really insightful feedback.”
On the second day of the seminar, the cohort met Dan Lamothe, a war correspondent for The Washington Post who discussed the importance of honest writing and the need for self-care throughout the process. Fellows described his session as “fantastic” and that his one-on-one “time spent visiting with us fireside was more valuable than anything else.” Later that evening, The War Horse hosted a networking bonfire with advocates from the D.C. area and journalists from PBS NewsHour, NPR, The Fuller Project, and other leading newsrooms. We began the evening with a build-your-own-taco bar featuring food from local veteran farmers. After dinner, we enjoyed conversation and s’mores around a bonfire.
Throughout the entire week, our meals were served by Navy veteran and chef Rachael Harris, who joined us for our second writing seminar. “She’s a wonderful chef,” said a self-declared picky eater. “Everything was so tasty and thoughtfully prepared.” Even those with the most refined palates agreed. Karen Stabiner, a renowned food writer who has been a guest speaker at three War Horse Writing Seminars, said, “Rachael makes the best kind of food, which has nothing to do with a particular cuisine or technique. She cooks from the heart; she cooks to sustain and comfort people. It comes through in every meal—and in the snacks she put out every day for fellows or speakers who needed sustenance—emotional as well as nutritional. She’s as much a part of the program as those of us who were on the agenda.”
During our third day together, Stabiner presented to the cohort. Fellows described her as “encouraging and empathetic” and said she shared “excellent lessons in the use of detail and creating immersive scenes,” and “like all the instructors, her advice was pragmatic and honest,” wrote one medic.
“I’ve participated in three War Horse Writing Seminars, and each time I ask Thomas and The War Horse team if they’re sure they want a civilian in the mix,” said Stabiner. “When they say ‘yes,’ I switch to wondering how I will connect with fellows whose experience is so different from my own. And each time I am gratified by how quickly we manage to find common ground.
“I’ve come to believe that telling a difficult story requires the bravery to confront it—which in turn requires faith in a future that acknowledges the past but is not defined by it. I shared essays this year about being the mother of the bride, and about my elderly mother’s illness, chosen on purpose because they were so far from the stories the fellows wanted to tell,” said Stabiner. “After my presentation one medic approached to ask if I would like to see a photo of an engagement ring she liked. Sure, I said, as long as I can see a photo of the guy who plans to give it to you—and we were off on a conversation about weddings and dresses, about happiness and a future she couldn’t have imagined several years ago. She’s going to grow as a writer and a person, and I believe that each year I grow in understanding and compassion as well. I wouldn’t miss these workshops.”
During our final day together, the cohort learned about editing and publishing their reflections with The War Horse and how to be prepared for the pitch process throughout their careers as writers. To assist with this, literary agent Stuart Krichevsky spoke to the group. The cohort said they appreciated “his kind approach” and that his “eye for detail and meaning was absurdly high quality.” Wendy Wolf, the executive editor of Viking Books, also spoke at the session, who the cohort felt brought “seasoned knowledge and a warm presence.”
During our seminars, in addition to editorial support, The War Horse places a high priority on the mental wellness of our fellows. To assist in this effort, Jodi Salamino, a counselor who has worked alongside wounded veterans and their families for more than 15 years, joined our team for the week. “Jodi saw that I was struggling and with each day she took time, if not extra time to listen, to ask questions that in turn made me look inward and ask myself questions. This was why I was able to put my thoughts, my anger and frustration, and fears to paper.”
Other War Horse Fellows also appreciated the focus on mental health. “Having a counselor available was so instrumental in dealing with emotions that resurfaced,” said one vet. Many others found it reassuring just knowing that a mental health professional was present if needed. “These 12 fellows, strangers to each other, belonged together,” said Salamino. “As a mentor and advocate/advisor for mental health and wellness, this program is perfectly poised on the spectrum of opportunities to enable post-traumatic growth.
“As they contemplated their personal stories of fallen comrades, moral crisis, blame, and faced layers of pain it was remarkable to watch them transition from caution and fear to curiosity, resolve, and even humor,” said Salamino. “The Writing Seminar with all its inherent encouragement let the fellows trust not only a process that taught new skills, but they could trust themselves to tell their story with a deep altruistic impact.”
Many of our 2019 War Horse Fellows agreed that our Writing Seminar for Medics and Corpsmen was transformational, both personally and professionally as writers. One vet said, “With the new knowledge and skills I have to work with, I have a deeper understanding of what the process of revision entails. What the construction of story can be, and the value of writing several drafts to get to the bits that make the good one. Reading out loud wasn’t easy but it was an opportunity to grow.”
The sense of community among our 2019 War Horse Fellows also increased. “I haven’t felt that close to a group of people since deployment. It was being understood by those around me that enables me to write what I did,” wrote one medic. “They got me, they knew where I was coming from, they became a source of encouragement.”
And on Nov 11, 2019, less than one month after our writing retreat, 2019 War Horse Fellow Adam Linehan published his story about losing patients in combat for The New York Times Magazine as its Veterans Day feature. He explored addiction and thoughts of suicide, the struggle of transitioning homes, and how our writing seminar helped him be able to share his experiences of war with the world. In his words:
“I wanted to turn back in the other direction. As introductions began, I was brainstorming excuses when one fellow, an Air Force veteran named Jen, said something that caught my attention. She had worked in a combat-support hospital near Kandahar City in 2010. The story she had come to Virginia to tell began with her and her colleagues running across the hospital landing zone to a Black Hawk full of dead American soldiers.
“I noted some familiar details in her brief description of the casualties as they appeared when the helicopter crew chief slid open the cargo door—the missing heads, the charred flesh. She mentioned that only one of the bodies was still wearing a name tape and that someone asked what it read. ‘Carver,’ she said. ‘He had beautiful green eyes.’ At which point I volunteered to introduce my story next. ‘Those were my guys,’ I began. ‘I put them in that helicopter.’
“Five days later, when it was time for everyone to go back to wherever they came from, back to our respective ecosystems, nobody wanted to leave. We exchanged emails and phone numbers and promised to stay in touch. All of us had done this dance before. Military life is full of hard goodbyes. But you are always looking forward to something: block leave, the end of a deployment, reuniting with friends and family, retirement. Then you get out, and you can’t stop looking back. That’s why we had gone to Virginia—to figure out how to carry the stories. To unstick ourselves from the past. Because moving on isn’t the same thing as running away. That was my takeaway, at least. I realized that along with the traumatic memories, I had also buried the side of me who can cope with them.
“It was liberating to be in a place where war and its repercussions aren’t kept shrouded in mystery. And humbling. I remembered why I got into journalism in the first place. War is a failure to communicate, and nothing good comes from veterans’ keeping quiet about it…”