By Jonathon Spalding
As a society, we are fascinated by war stories. Movies, television, video games and literature all do their part in capturing something that is so fundamental to human nature, yet so incredibly hard to imagine. From the beginning of time we have huddled around campfires and told each other stories of conflict, complete with a triumphant victory or a symbolic defeat, a hero and an enemy fighting for something worth dying for. Today, most of the images we associate with war are carefully and artificially crafted in a Hollywood studio or neatly twisted into a storyline fit for the nightly news.
But for the soldiers who actually live it, war is not a fictional escape but a harsh reality.
Many veterans struggle with the traumatic events of their wartime service and may never be able to express what they saw “over there.” With the inherent fragmentation of memory that goes along with the chaos of war, recollection of these events can be particularly difficult. This is especially true for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress when the memories and associations are a much heavier burden to bear.
“After my second tour of Iraq I developed avoidance issues,” said Travis Martin, former U.S. Army sergeant and Ph.D. student at UK.
According to Martin, reminders of the war—movies, television, news, people—made everyday life a challenge. He found that this was not uncommon and that many veterans try to bury their wartime selves. “But people with healthy identities don’t function that way,” said Martin.
When Martin returned to school to pursue a graduate degree he decided to embrace the reality of life after war.
“So, for the last couple of years, I’ve been researching how authors overcome fragmented, wartime memories and the tendency to avoid their wartime selves by writing about them. I’ve also been applying that research to help both myself and my fellow student veterans succeed in their postwar lives.”
While working on his M.A. in English at EKU, Martin founded The Journal of Military Experience, an award-winning publication which began as a simple classroom assignment but quickly expanded. The first volume included the poetry, artwork and poems of more than two-dozen student veterans. In July 2012, the second volume will include scholarships from teachers and researchers all over the world. Creative works from veterans will get hands-on advice and feedback from an impressive editorial staff that joined Martin in his attempts to help veterans find a voice.
“Veterans of every generation have gone to war and written about it. But they often struggle to find the words necessary to describe such surreal and chaotic experiences. They’ve all got great stories and we just want to help them get told through whatever medium possible,” Martin said.
In July, Martin is holding the “Military Experience and Arts Symposium” at EKU. The MEA is funded almost exclusively by the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs and will streamline the same process that takes place with contributors who receive assistance after submitting to the JME. The symposium will offer 100 veterans, three days of free lodging, meals, supplies, travel grants and texts, allowing them to focus on more than sixty workshops designed to facilitate creative, cathartic expression.
“My theory is that there is something about the process of crafting these stories and bringing together the fragments that clears the mist obfuscating wartime memories,” said Martin, “I think equipping veterans with the skills and confidence needed to craft their own stories, poems and artwork can help them explain and understand what happened to them.”
The symposium will also feature events open to the public such as conflict art exhibits, concerts, dance performances and lectures by experts in fields that offer veterans access to creative therapies.
Martin plans to establish a board to manage the event annually at different schools in the region. With as many as one-in-five service members currently in Afghanistan from Kentucky or one of its bases, there is a demand. Next year, Martin hopes to bring the Military Experience and Arts Symposium to the University of Kentucky and is already making the necessary contacts as he continues working on his Ph.D.
“I’m relatively new to UK,” Martin said, “but I want my new “Big Blue” family to know that their help is needed. I especially hope that student veterans from UK will attend this year’s symposium and that faculty and staff who think this kind of thing is important will get in touch with me.”
After returning from Iraq in 2006 Martin began to focus on furthering his education while researching the value of reading and writing as therapy. With his academic interests centering on trauma, autobiography and war memoirs, Martin has found an avenue for healthy expression that has helped him overcome the challenges of life after war.
“I wanted to get to the bottom of my own problems and figure out how to bring together my different selves, the student and the soldier,” said Martin, “and by trying to help others tell their stories I have found a new path to take following the war.”
Learn more about what Travis has been up to recently:
>>A New York Times article that highlights some of the work Travis is doing with veterans at Eastern Kentucky University.