“Our lives are built around stories. It’s the fabric of society,” says Tom Skerritt, whose Red Badge Project helps Wounded Warriors use storytelling to explore their emotions and heal invisible wounds. (Photo by Katie M. Simmons)

Helping vets recognize courage through storytelling

We sit down on a comfy couch with a cup of tea. Tom’s cat slinks easily from his lap to mine and back again as we begin to talk about his work with military veterans. After a few poignant comments, the Forefront supporter quickly transitions to art, a subject where he clearly feels at home. He explains it’s all storytelling, whether it’s through Van Gogh’s painting of southern France or acting. He feels one can measure the success of an artist by how many people the artist has touched.

While he doesn’t profess to indulge in the analysis, Tom Skerritt has thoughtfully reflected on his art and life: He speaks about taking risks, “making good and not-so-good” choices and learning from them. He speaks about being in this game of life together.

He says, “It’s about how we confront our weaknesses that shows how we measure our strengths.” He explains all this with an artist’s lens and I’m swept up in his story. It’s as if I’m there, seeing it with him, how he renders his first exposure to classical music: “I saw this tiny old man with wild, white Einstein hair who, when he stands with his arms outstretched, grows young and strong before our eyes. The music sounds through the breath of his baton — his rite of spring…”  Then he tells me about how his career actually began with his GI bill at UCLA.  Naturally, he found himself drawn to storytelling.

Aha moment

Tom considers himself a writer and a director who happens to earn his living through acting. His body of work spans over five decades of artistic and blockbuster films, award-winning TV series, and Broadway work. In addition, a dozen years ago he co-founded TheFilmSchool. While teaching screenwriting there, Tom observed that writing had a profound affect on his students, so profound that many spoke of its life-changing qualities. Several called it life saving.

Around that same time, reports were showing that as many as 22 veterans per day were taking their own lives, a death rate higher than those dying in combat. Those two realizations gave Tom an “aha moment” which led to the formation of The Red Badge Project. It was founded with the idea of helping Wounded Warriors “struggling to heal their invisible wounds of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS), depression and anxiety” find their voice, their sense of purpose, and their self worth.

One doesn’t have to be a budding screenwriter or poet to participate.  The goal is not to publish works of art, though that has happened, too. The goal is to help vets explore their emotions and thoughts through acting, performing, writing and/or photography. And through that exploration they can get to the place where, as University of Washington professor and Red Badge instructor Shawn Wong says, they are ready to “reveal what they want to learn about themselves and their relationship to the world.”

Putting PTS to work

Ultimately, the goal is to help vets tell their unique stories through self-realization. By reconnecting to who they are through their voice, and recognizing that having served in the military is only one aspect of who they are now, they find that whatever their journey, they are a unique, important and an essential part of our community. As Tom said, “They have something to give to society, that’s worthwhile and that’s themselves.  That’s a big deal.”

Being a vet himself, and having lived through some difficult times, Tom deeply understands PTS, as do his fellow teachers. Although PTS can be a lifelong challenge, Tom feels strongly that vets can put it to work for them, rather than against them. Tapping into those emotions can be challenging, but ignoring them can be crippling. In fact, the label PTS has actually been helpful because it gives the vets a unifying understanding of their common symptoms — from suicide ideation to feelings of carrying an unbearable weight or complete isolation. (He intentionally drops the D as he feels it is mired in stigma and not accurate.)

With that in mind, each teacher is carefully selected to not only be accomplished in his or her field, but also to be able to share and solicit those PTS types of experiences so that the bond of trust is authentic. It is in that space that the vets can tap into their emotions and write (or photograph) their unique perspectives.

Amazing what comes out

The course often begins with simple humor to get everyone to relax and enjoy the process. The gauntlet is thrown down with “Yo’ mama” jokes which escalate into peels of laughter and emotional release. And since the vets have an inherent sense of conflict and resolution, transitioning to the arc of a story develops naturally. After that, the vets are engaged in a 6-week course for which they receive credit through UW Tacoma.

Tom reflects, “It’s amazing what stories come out. Each person has a unique lens on their experience, their interpretation, and it doesn’t matter exactly what it is, but it’s how they use that experience to tell their stories.  It’s their truth. It’s a dark place that creates great poetry and prose.” It creates a feeling that touches people. The vets surprise themselves with their audacity of spirit and their shared valued truths. The course culminates with powerful pieces of writing, but more importantly vets find a new sense of voice and self worth.

I can’t help but think how much Tom has stood up like that conductor who first introduced him to the beauty of Stravinsky. He said it’s a wonderful thing when you stand up, but you have a responsibility to bring others with you. In his current role with the Red Badge Project he goes far beyond standing, he is helping society heal by giving the vets the chance to find and share their singular truths.

By Lisa Wahbe

Are you or a loved vet in crisis?

Call the Veterans Crisis Line to talk with qualified, caring Department of Veterans Affairs responder through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text. Veterans and their family and friends can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.