Several years ago Ron Capps found himself sitting in his truck in the desert in Darfur with a pistol in his hand contemplating taking his own life. He had spent the previous decade in the US military and then foreign service jumping from one conflict to the next.
"I went from Rwanda to Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq and then to Darfur and I came away from that pretty traumatized," says Capps.
A phone call from his wife jolted him out of the moment. He left Darfur but it was a long time before Capps sought treatment.
"The culture in the military is very much one of 'embrace the suck,' this place we're living really sucks, it's cold, or it's hot or it's miserable and mental health, particularly post traumatic stress disorder, depression, these are considered weaknesses in military."
Capps "embraced the suck" himself for a long time internalizing what he witnessed during his decade at war. The one place where he was able to let some of his stories out was, ironically, part of his job. As a foreign service officer he wrote reports for the State Department on what he witnessed. But then he began to write two versions.
"I would write the one report to the State Department or the Pentagon that said here's the facts," Capps says.
Then he would write out a personal account for himself with the details he left out of the official report – the details that haunted him at night.
One event that stands out for Capps was during his time in Kosovo. He went to investigate an attack on a village by Serbian paramilitaries where he witnessed the bodies of women and children killed in the attack.
"One of the bodies was missing and we determined that … I'm sorry this is kind of gruesome … that the dogs had eaten the body," he says.
Capps didn't put that fact into the government report because it wasn't relevant to what had happened but when he wrote about the experience on his own, that fact became central to an essay entitled, "Yellow."
"The essays are now the way that I'm documenting what I did, what I saw, what I witnessed."
Capps credits these alternate writings as the balm that he needed.
"One thing I was trying to accomplish was to get in control of my own story," Capps says. "The story no longer controls me. I'm in charge of it."
Capps retired from government service after 25 years and went back to graduate school to get his MFA in creative writing. One night on his way home from class he decided that he really wanted to do something to help other veterans.
He created the Veteran's Writing Project and started leading workshops with veterans across the country. He also helped launch a program at the Walter Reed hospital in Betheseda.
Each Wednesday Capps meets with service members recovering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury. The writing is therapeutic he says but he is quick to point out that he's not a therapist.
"We make very clear that we are not therapists if you need help go get it. This is a writing program," he says.
Ultimately when Capps thinks about this last decade worth of war it's the writing and not the trauma that he hopes will be the legacy.
"I think we're going to see a new wave of great American writing come out of this generation of veterans," he says. "I'm very much looking forward to it and we're trying to help."
This interview was recorded at the 2013 AWP Conference & Bookfair in Boston.