Veterans Writing Project founder Ron Capps

The former professional military officer and diplomat offers a sobering reminder of the cost of war with his memoir, Seriously Not All Right.

After 25 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve, Ron Capps retired as a veteran of five wars. He served in combat in Afghanistan and as both a senior military intelligence officer and a Foreign Service officer in conflicts ranging from Kosovo and Rwanda to Iraq and Darfur. He returned home with PTSD—a result of what he'd witnessed, but was helpless to prevent. Capps subsequently began a career as a teacher and founder of the Washington, DC-based Veterans Writing Project, a nonprofit organization that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans to "write their way home." He shares his unique perspective in his memoir, Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: The overwhelming majority of physical and emotional cost of war is the subject of Ron Capp’s new memoir, “Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years,” which takes readers on a very personal journey into the reality of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and government atrocities.

He was a senior military intelligence officer and a Foreign Service officer for the U.S. Department of State and a combat veteran of Afghanistan having served in the Army and Army Reserves for 25 years. He is now the founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project. Ron Capps, I’m honored to have you on this program.

Ron Capps: It’s my great pleasure, Tavis. Thank you.

Tavis: I want to start by reading something you write in this text because I think it will contextualize our conversation. These are your words.

“Just as a glove protects a hand around hot iron, writing allows me to hold onto the memory long enough to shape it. It allows me to distance myself from it. In a very real way, I wrote my way into it, and this book is my attempt to write my way out of it, to write my way home.”

That’s a powerful phrase, to write my way home. Can that be done?

Capps: I’m trying. I’m doing my best. I was diagnosed about 12 years ago with post-traumatic stress disorder. Even after I was diagnosed, I didn’t do a very good job of taking care of myself. I continued to deploy to different war zones until I wound up out in the desert alone one day ready to take my own life.

I was interrupted and I figured that’s a second chance. And ever since then, I’ve been trying to get home. Writing is the road home for me. It’s the way that I found to take control of all that trauma in my life.

Tavis: And what do you want to say? What are you attempting to say with your writing?

Capps: Well, the story, this book, it’s really two stories. It’s the story of how I ended up one day in Darfur in 2006 ready to kill myself, that I’d lost the thread. I’d lost all hope.

There was nothing I felt that I had ever done that was successful. I’d failed at everything. I’d failed to save lives in the five wars that I’d gone to and I was ready to just end my life.

And what writing did was give me the chance to come back and that’s the second story. And that’s the story of hope for anyone that has post-traumatic stress disorder, that there is a way home.

Tavis: When you were sacrificing in the way that you were and others are, help me understand what leads to a feeling of failure. I mean, you’re putting your life on the line for your country, for fellow citizens.

Some of these wars in the minds of some Americans are, you know, wars of – I’ll just say it – expeditions in the minds of some of us. And yet, there you are putting yourself on the front line. What happens to make you feel like a failure?

Capps: Well, in some of these places – let me say that another way. In all of these places, my job as an intelligence officer was to go somewhere, some foreign country, some land away from home, come to understand what was happening on the ground, understand the people, the culture, the grievances. Why are they fighting? What do they want? What do they need? And write about that. Send that information home.

And in many of the places that I worked, the implicit task was stop the fighting, stop the killing, stop the rape, stop the burning of villages, stop the horrors, and I was unable to do so. I was in Kosovo for two years. I was in Central Africa off and on for a couple of years.

I was in Darfur for two years. When I arrived in Darfur, there were 200,000 dead and two and a half million displaced. When I left, there were 300,000 dead and I felt like I had failed in my personal mission, but also in the task given to me by the United States to help stop that war.

Tavis: How do you not take all that onto yourself as an individual? You’re not human and divine. You’re just human. How do you not own all of that? Or is that impossible?

Capps: For me, it was impossible for a long time. I could not separate the task from myself. I felt that I had failed. Over time, I’ve come to understand that there’s nothing I could have done that was different.

There were some villages that maybe I could have fought harder to get into to protect the civilians there, to keep the village from being burned. But the fear, the knowledge really, that if I took a certain action that I would lose my status, my ability to stay in that country and do the job. Maybe my whole team would lose our status.

When we were in Kosovo, a woman tried to hand me her baby. She said, “Take my child away so the Serbs won’t kill him.” I couldn’t take that child. If I did, I knew that we would lose our status.

But I will never forget that. I will never forget the feeling of hopelessness, of fecklessness, to leave that child behind and I know now that someone did go back and move some of those children out. But that was the United Nations.

Tavis: How do you navigate – I’m glad you raised this ’cause you write about it powerfully in the text – how do you navigate the process of having to honor the strict code that you were under as an intelligence officer with the compelling and maybe even greater moral questions that you face?

Like this woman and her child about what to do knowing that you could in fact have done it in those moments, even though it might have been a violation of the rules and regulations? Does that make sense?

Capps: It does make sense. And the act of navigating it, how you do that is the challenge for anyone that’s in that situation. In some cases, I did things that I should not have done.

I know in a case particularly in Darfur, I went outside the chain of command and I called Washington directly to a friend of mine who worked in the office of the Deputy Secretary of State. And I told her that, if we do not take action tonight, this village, Muhajeria, in Darfur will go away and all those people will die.

And she helped that village by urging action from Washington to Addis Ababa, the African union, and a platoon of Nigerian peacekeepers went into that village the next day. I like to think that, by doing something a little bit wrong, I corrected a greater wrong and that village exists today.

But also, what happens is by taking an action that’s very much counter to one’s personal moral beliefs or by not taking that action, I think we’re left with something that’s called a moral injury. And this inability to fix a problem, this inability to – or this having taken an action that really goes against one’s personal beliefs leaves one’s soul really very much injured.

And there’s research done by Jonathan Shay and Brett Litz at the VA Hospital in Boston on this very subject, and reading their research helped me understand where I am with this and is helping me on my road home.

Tavis: This notion of moral injury strikes me as fascinating because you’re talking about it in one particular context. I think there are a great many fellow citizens who’ve never gone to war, who suffer from moral injury of a different type, which is another conversation for another night.

But in the context in which you reference it, what is to be done about that moral injury that you and others suffer from?

Capps: Well, I think the first thing is that people have to understand that this is an injury to the soul and we have to treat it as an injury. But we also have to allow that person to forgive themselves.

We have to allow that person to understand what they’ve done in a larger context, you know. And then towards the end of the book, I talk about, you know, could I have done more? Maybe. Could I have done this much more? No.

I could not have stopped the war in Darfur by myself. There’s still a war in Darfur. People are dying every day out there. I could not have stopped the war in Kosovo. I was a very junior officer at the time. I was driving Dick Holbrook around. It’s his job to stop the war.

But it doesn’t change how I feel that I could have done more for a specific village or for a specific group of people. And what I’ve had to do is to reconcile those feelings with this larger context, and I’m trying to forgive myself for my failures.

Tavis: What are you learning about PTSD that you think the rest of your fellow citizens still don’t get or need to be made aware of?

Capps: I would say that a lot of people who come back from a traumatic experience are going to be just fine. The vast majority of us are. We might need some treatment. We might need some medication. We might need talk therapy.

For anybody who is hurting out there, I would say, look, there is a road home. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We all need to get beyond the stigma of asking for help.

Mental healthcare is nothing more than healthcare. If you broke your ankle, you’d get a cast. You’d go back to work in six weeks. If you come down with PTSD, people are going to shun you, but don’t be afraid to ask for help.

We all have to get beyond this idea that there’s some difference between mental healthcare and healthcare. It’s all the same. We’re caring for the body. We’re caring for the mind. We’re caring for the soul.

Tavis: I am pleased that you are writing your way back home.

Capps: Thank you.

Tavis: And I’m pleased to have had you on this program. His name is Ron Capps. His memoir is called “Seriously Not All right: Five Wars in Ten Years.” Ron, thanks for your service, most importantly, and thanks for the text.

Capps: It’s a great pleasure. Thank you so much.

Tavis: My delight to have you.

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Last modified: August 11, 2014 at 1:12 pm