TUNKHANNOCK — They gathered March 20 for the first time to prove, in public and out loud, that the pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword. Or the grenade or the rifle or the land mine.
Nearly 40 people came together at the Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock for the first-ever open reading from the Warrior Writers, an outcrop of the theater’s writers’ group. Half a dozen men and women, all military veterans, took to the microphone to share the words they had put on paper. That took courage. But it took even more courage to delve into their minds and souls, to bring forth the issues they still carry from their military service and to put them into words on paper.
The effect is powerful, startling, impactful.
“It’s important to have programs like this to reach veterans out there,” said Larry White, of Wyalusing, a veteran of both Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. “It’s good that those thoughts reach paper. We share with each other, and we share with other people who don’t have the experience of what vets have gone through.”
One of the main concerns shared by many veterans is the suicide rate among their own — an average of 22 per day in the United States.
“And that doesn’t include the people who might be considering it or who have attempted it,” he said. “We need to find ways, to create ways, to help save our brothers and sisters who have been down the same road we have but who just don’t know where to begin to heal.”
White, retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant in the military police, has military service in his DNA. His brother was in the Air Force and his father, Aldon White, also at the reading, served on the USS Rachamkin, a high-speed transport destroyer, in the Korean War. White is also president of Hunts for Healing, an organization in central Pennsylvania that helps veterans combat their demons through hunting and fishing.
In fact, that’s how he found himself writing. He learned about the writing program and reached out to its facilitator, Jenny Pacanowski, of Allentown, to offer support as well as a connection for vets to the Hunts for Healing program.
“I told him there’s no just visiting us,” Pacanowski said. “If you’re here, you write.”
None of the veterans considers himself or herself as someone who creates great literature. But their stories and poems carried powerful messages about their service to our nation and about the memories, the emotional and physical scars and the struggles once that service is done.
“My wife is actually the writer,” said Gary Morgan, of Tunkhannock, retired from the Marine Corps after service in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966. “She got me into this. And it’s a way of sort of venting, it’s cathartic.”
At the mic, he told the audience about the two difficult parts of his military service – boot camp and returning from night patrols in Vietnam to the commanding officer who, if startled out of his sleep, could easily have shot one of his own men. Morgan also talked about his vigilance today, constant monitoring of strange sounds, constantly checking on what might be a danger.
Rebekah Hasselman, of Scranton, gave a female perspective of service with her poem, “The Pawn,” reminding her comrades that she wore the “same uniform and the same boots; she did the same work.” Her gender was not an excuse to treat her differently from anyone else serving the same country.
Fellow veterans in the room nodded, understanding the common experience.
Programs like this are in parts of the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania area. The Tunkhannock Warrior Writers group got its start after a chance encounter by Carolyn Elliott, of Factoryville, who said she regularly attends the bi-annual Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Fest in Newark, New Jersey. That’s where she first heard Pacanowski and other veterans telling their stories and finding a way to healing through poetry. Elliott proved to be a catalyst bringing Pacanowski and the program to Tunkhannock with the help of the Dietrich’s writing program and support from the Tunkhannock Rotary Club.
“It’s important for the community to know that war is not localized — and it is not temporary,” Elliott said.
Pacanowski said she left the “black-and-white” world of the military where everything — clothing, daily schedules, all activity — is regulated and found herself in the civilian world where everything was “suddenly gray.” She turned to the Native American tradition of story-telling, transitioning from war to peace by way of sharing experiences.
“Everyone has a story,” she said. “We learn that carrying the burden of war alone is a huge weight that can destroy us. But when others carry the burden with us, it makes the burden lighter.”
The men and women were proud of their service.
“It’s made me what I am,” White said. “And what we did made our nation what it is today. Because we understand the impact of what happened to men and women on the battleground, and we all experienced different things, we try to help with the common thread of what we all carry home.”
The Warrior Writers meet every second Monday of the month at the Dietrich Theater at 6:30 p.m. and welcome any and all who wish to put their experiences into words.