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Bathanti named the Charles George VA Medical Center Writer-in-Residence

BOONE—Joseph Bathanti has been named the Charles George VA Medical Center (VAMC) Writer-in-Residence in an innovative program in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) in Asheville. The program is funded by a North Carolina Arts Council and North Carolina Humanities Council grant.

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Bathanti is a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University and award-winning novelist, poet and essayist.

During his tenure, Bathanti will teach and co-lead two eight-week creative writing workshops devoted to the recovery of Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These veteran-guided workshops will feature poetry and creative nonfiction (personal essay and memoir) as the primary genres – and will make the crucial connection as to how memory and the desire for healing feed these genres.

Bathanti will compile and edit an anthology featuring the writing produced in the workshops. In addition, using material from the workshops, he will create a readers theater script to be performed on stage in Asheville and across North Carolina.

The ultimate goal of these works is to raise awareness and spur the development of writing programs in VA medical centers and communities across North Carolina focused on the recovery and healing of wounded combat veterans. Bathanti’s role will be a central feature of the arts and humanities programming at Charles George VAMC led by Dr. Bruce Kelly, with support from community, state and national partners. In launching this innovative effort, Bathanti and Kelly will work closely with the funding agencies.

In addition, Bathanti will also co-lead a literature and discussion group for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans at Charles George VAMC as part of the initial VA pilot for the Great Books Foundation’s “Talking Service” program, which is funded by support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Wounded Warrior Project.

Bathanti’s involvement with veterans began when he was appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue as North Carolina’s seventh poet laureate, a position he held from 2012-14. His signature project as poet laureate was working with military veterans – those returning from combat and others – and their families, whenever possible, to tell their stories through poetry and other forms of writing.

“Not only do veterans have extraordinary stories to tell, but scholarship now exists demonstrating that writing about trauma can be instrumental in addressing and overcoming its consequences,” according to Bathanti. “It is clear from pockets of experience throughout the country that the study of literature and related writing can contribute in profound ways toward the recovery of wounded veterans. We know very clearly the value of shared experience and importance of community in the role of healing within veteran populations.”

Bathanti continued, “Dr. Kelly and I saw this up close in our initial pilot with veterans from his panel related to their combat experiences in Vietnam. To a man, they reported it was the best thing they’d done to address their PTSD since returning over four decades ago. Though we didn’t see their courage while deployed in-country, we did see it in the classroom as they shared the images, guilt, camaraderie and the impacts of combat on their post-deployment lives. Their openness and writing was honest, powerful and personal as they took on the long-standing grip of moral injury and post-traumatic stress.”

Bathanti credited Appalachian State University for its commitment to veterans on its campus and beyond and for supporting his writing project with veterans.

The workshops Bathanti will lead at the medical center will help establish a broader strategy in support of the medical humanities and creation of local capacities to bridge the military/civilian gap. The ultimate aim of this project is to empower change agents throughout the Veterans Health Administration, inspiring them to integrate programming in arts and humanities devoted to the recovery and healing of veterans who carry the wounds of war. These approaches are not only transformative for veterans, but help them reintegrate more fully with their families, friends, vocations and communities.

There is a growing mandate for arts and humanities within the military itself. It’s been part of the programming at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for over a decade, and is the standard of care at the affiliated National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NiCOE). The National Endowment for the Arts collaborated with the Department of Defense and provided major funding to expand this work for wounded veterans at two key military bases.

It’s estimated there are a quarter of a million Vietnam veterans still living with defined post-traumatic stress disorder, and countless numbers with sub-threshold effects. PTSD is, as well, one of the signature injuries from recent wars along with traumatic brain injury.

This initiative signals a groundbreaking collaboration among the Charles George VAMC, the North Carolina Arts Council, the North Carolina Humanities Council and community partners around shared vision and purpose. As Bathanti said, “It establishes a prototype for others to follow. Programs in arts and the humanities are an important addition to the foundation of excellent care provided by VA mental health services to help our wounded veterans move toward an even fuller sense of recovery. We hope to see this programming grow not only here in North Carolina, but throughout the entire VA system.”

This initiative was made possible through the support of community non-profits Asheville Community Theater and Asheville Buncombe Sustainable Community Initiatives, which submitted the grant proposals to the North Carolina Arts Council and the North Carolina Humanities Council. Community supporters whose contributions made this possible include HomeTrust Bank, Dana Stonestreet, Roberts & Stevens, PA, Attorneys, John and Dee Mason, Jack and Laurie Hamilton, and Robert Major and Suzanne Morse.

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