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Kansas City Veterans And Writers Say It's Time For More Real Talk About War — This Week

Damron Russel Armstrong
George Forbes is one of the actors in the Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City's production of 'A Soldier's Story.'

People need space to talk about war these days, says Anne Gatschet.

“We live in a world that’s got a lot of war. I think all of us are dealing with how to talk-slash-not talk about a great deal of pain and injury, moral and physical,” says Gatschet, who is president of the board at The Writers Place.

Gatschet's grandfather was killed in World War II, but her parents and extended family won’t talk about it. She says that leaves a void.

“What I’m hearing,” she says, “is that a lot of people are now willing to enter into a dialogue around the question of war, in ways that are looking for new language.”

This week provides several opportunities to do that.

People who’ve been in war, or are close to someone who was, need outlets to process what they’ve seen and experienced in order to heal. Army veteran and poet H.C. Palmer, who is also a doctor, understands this, so five years ago he founded the Veterans Writing Workshop of Kansas City, open to veterans and their family members.

In 1964 Palmer was pulled from his medical residency at the University of Kansas Medical Center and sent to Vietnam. Upon his return, a senior doctor at KU looked him in the eye and asked him how he was doing.

This senior doctor had fought in WWII’s Battle of the Bulge. Though Palmer understood at the time that the man was giving him permission to speak candidly, Palmer simply answered that he was fine. It only recently occurred to him that his fellow vet might have been hoping Palmer would lend an ear.

Palmer says his writing workshops draw people of all ages, some who have served, some who have been close to a veteran, published writers and those who have never written a word. Everyone is welcome at any of these events, and he stresses that it’s a safe place with no criticism.

Although Palmer is not leading a workshop in the current series presented by The Writers Place, he'll be on the periphery. The goal of the workshops isn’t necessarily to produce a piece of writing for publication, but they're also not intended to be therapy sessions. Their purpose is more about allowing people to voice their experiences to others.

“We have a mercenary army," Palmer says. "Ninety-nine percent of people don’t want to be involved and by God, their kids aren’t going to be involved either, because we can find some poor kids who have to have work and they’re going to go down and sign up.”

One reason for the general lack of conversation, Palmer says, is that civilians mostly just want to get on with their lives and not worry about what’s going on elsewhere. But, he says, there's another reason why veterans don't want to have the conversation.

“Their buddies have been killed and it may be their fault they got killed,” Palmer says, “so they just clam up. That’s what we hope to do with the arts. You get them talking about it, but they have to be in a safe place. They have to be with others like them or families.”

Of course, not all service members are put in a position to kill people. In fact, most of those who serve these days do not encounter the conditions Palmer did in Vietnam. But veterans of every stripe benefit from discussing their time in service with others.

So do their audiences, which is why Damron Russel Armstrong's Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City is presenting Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Soldier’s Play" on Thursday night.

Set in 1944, "A Soldier’s Play" is a murder mystery, about mostly African-American soldiers — one of whom has killed another. The victim has what Armstrong identifies as a form of Stockholm Syndrome: that is, though he’s descended from slaves and finds himself surrounded by his “captors”’ culture, he thinks it would be best to assimilate into white society as fully as possible, and even embraces it. Another soldier murders him for this view.

Armstrong says he hopes the play can launch a discussion about societal and personal notions surrounding race and military service that tear down our collective morale. Veterans of all wars are “not so much honored as hidden away,” he says.

“‘Thank you for your service’ is what they get, as opposed to being able to decompress and become a part of society again, one that truly interacts through experience,” he says.

Americans tend to value others, he notes, based on how much they appear to have contributed to society.

“If you don’t understand what my contribution is to your everyday life,” he says, “then worth goes out the window.”

Armstrong, who is not a veteran, is talking about the worth of whole groups of people — veterans, minorities, immigrants — whose tales of contribution go untold, and who are therefore undervalued by society as a whole.

The Writers Place has long been a space for writing and talking about emotionally charged topics and questions that are difficult to address elsewhere. Meanwhile, the easiest interactions for veterans seem to be with others who have had similar experiences.

Gatschet says everyone has a stake in the conversation.

“I think everybody has some place in their personal history that is stuck around the question of veterans, whether it be because you are one, or are a family member of one.”

Or because your country has gone to war.

A War and Peace Writing Forum with Susan Peters: 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, October 4, at the Writers Place.

The Writers Place Night at the Black Repertory Theater: "A Soldier’s Play," 7-9 p.m. Thursday, October 5, at the Arts Asylum, 1000 East 9th Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64106.

Third Annual Veterans Writing Workshop: Writer’s Critique and Point of View: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on five consecutive Saturdays beginning October 7 at the Kansas City Public Library-Plaza Branch, 4801 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64112.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf

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