This photo, titled “Coming into Country,” is of American soldiers in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Troy “Butch” Gudger, one of the Brothers.
Join us for a conversation with veterans who’ve written their stories in poetry and prose, and the Creative Writing Professor and Medical Doctor who co-founded the Creative Writing Program at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
In spring of 2014, Joseph Bathanti, Creative Writing Professor at Appalachian State University and then North Carolina Poet Laureate and Dr. Bruce Kelly, a primary care physician at Charles George, began conversations about launching a creative program for Vietnam Veterans in Kelly’s care who were struggling with PTSD.
Kelly had been pioneering Medical Humanities at the VA, as well as a community-based Arts in Medicine program – programs that transformed what healing looks like for wounded veterans. Bathanti, in his two-year signature project as poet laureate had worked with returning combat veterans and their families to harvest their war-time stories through various strands of creative writing.
After months of strategizing and wrangling with red tape, Bathanti and Kelly began meeting with cohorts of Vietnam Veterans in Classroom B, an out of the way room in the basement of the Asheville VA, where they gathered weekly to write. In January of 2016 –through the generosity of the NC Arts Council, the NC Humanities Council, the cooperation of Appalachian State University, and Kelly’s unflagging determination – Bathanti assumed the role of Charles George VA Medical Center Writer-in-Residence.
Those weekly sessions yielded extraordinary, breathtaking writing. In Classroom B those Vietnam Veterans – none of whom would have ever called themselves writers, but boy could they write – committed to paper stories that had been banging around inside of them, often deviling them, since their service in Vietnam – the same stories that empowered and lifted them, and for which they discovered language and voices. Each time one of the men read his story aloud to the others, there were nods of recognition.
Those men gave one another the strength and permission to tell their stories – and it’s crucial to mention that these men had not known one another before crossing the risky threshold into Classroom B. Nevertheless, they had been brothers, of course, long before they had ever met. They understood one another perfectly and understood as well their respective stories of the war they had each kept secret for fifty years – and then those stories came out, first in trickles, then in torrents, and it hasn’t stopped, nor will it.
Brothers Like These, a staged reading of those Vietnam Veterans reading the work they produced in Classroom B, premiered on August 31, 2016 at the Asheville Community Theater, and was later reprised at Appalachian State University on April 19, 2017. It’s been performed in Franklin, NC, Old Fort, NC, at the Vietnam Veterans of America annual mid-Atlantic Convention in Durham, NC, and was excerpted at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, NC in September of 2019 and at the North Carolina Writers Network Annual Conference in Asheville, also in 2019. What’s more, it continues to be performed in venues across the state.
Brothers Like These weaves the remarkable voices of unimaginably brave soldiers who gave their all during the Vietnam War. These are stories and poems, large and small, funny and heartbreaking — not just invaluable to succeeding generations of soldiers, but to every citizen of our country, and beyond. In April of 2017, the book, Brothers Like These, was published by St. Andrews University Press, and remains the Press’s best-seller.
A number of the original group of men from Bathanti’s and Kelly’s workshops have since launched the foundation, North Carolina Veterans Writing Alliance, also known as Brothers and Sisters Like These (https://brothersandsisterslikethese.com/shop), which includes women veterans, and veterans of all stripe, from all wars . They are now going forth like evangelists to continue the work of harvesting veterans’ stories.
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