Warrior Writers group creates cathartic experience for veterans

  • Veteran Eric Wasileski speaks during a poetry reading held by the Warrior Writers at the Greenfield Public Library. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Veteran Eric Wasileski speaks during a poetry reading held by the Warrior Writers at the Greenfield Public Library. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Veteran Eric Waseleski speaks during a poetry reading held by the Warrior Writers at the Greenfield Public Library. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Veteran Preston Hood III, of Colrain, speaks during a poetry reading held by the Warrior Writers at the Greenfield Public Library. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Veteran Ted Cromack, of Shelburne, speaks during a poetry reading held by the Warrior Writers at the Greenfield Public Library. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Veterans Eric Wasileski, left, and Caleb Nelson, speak during a poetry reading held by the Warrior Writers at the Greenfield Public Library. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Veteran Eric Wasileski reads a poem at Poet’s Seat Tower on Saturday, May 27, 2017, in honor of Memorial Day. Recorder File Photo

For the Recorder
Published: 5/18/2018 12:27:25 PM

The first poem came to him mid-brush stroke, as he painted a house in Worcester five years ago.

“I was in a dark place in my life when I fell into (writing). It was an accident. I was up on this ladder and I was literally attacked by a poem. I had to write it down,” remembered Eric Wasileski, 46, of Shelburne, while sitting among fellow military veterans at a weekly luncheon hosted by the Greenfield Elks Lodge.

That was two years after he’d graduated from a master’s program at Andover Newton Theological School, more than a decade since the Iraq War started, and 15 years since he left the Navy.

The poem, called “Live Free (or die),” which eventually became a book in 2014, contrasts President George Bush’s May 1, 2003 victory announcement in the Iraq War to the subsequent crumbling of New Hampshire’s “Old Man on the Mountain” a few days later. It was the first Wasileski ever wrote.

These days, Wasileski leads the local Greenfield chapter of Warrior Writers, a veteran-focused arts group that uses writing as therapy, and is working on his second book of poetry.

Wasileski, who joined the military after graduating from Greenfield High School in 1991, became involved with Warrior Writers soon after he wrote his first poem. Since then, he has seen the power of words first hand, and uses writing to understand the world around him.

Writing, especially in the context of helping people overcome post traumatic stress disorder — which Wasileski himself suffers from — is a powerful therapy tool.

“Things that are unrealized within the self, when they get put down (on paper), the piece of us that has been avoiding and trying to move away from it, when it’s written down, we have an opportunity to engage with it in a different way,” Wasileski said.

Personal experience

Wasileski knows what it’s like to experience trauma first-hand.

On Dec. 16, 1998, nine days before Christmas, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” played over scratchy speakers on the Navy destroyer USS Stout, which rested quietly at anchor in the Persian Gulf.

Just after 10 p.m., at shift’s end, Wasileski, then a Navy fire controlman who operated the ship’s radar, walked out onto the deck for a smoke break.

He lit a cigarette, took a long drag, and blew it into the cool night air.

“Hark! the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king. Hail the heaven-born prince of peace ... ” the carol was cut off abruptly by an announcement from the ship’s executive officer: “This is excellent tomahawk music.”

A minute later, at the order of then-President Bill Clinton, the first tomahawk missiles of Operation Desert Fox launched toward Iraq, lighting the darkness with streaks of white flame. When the smoke cleared four days later, thousands of Republican Guard soldiers and some Iraqi civilians lay dead.

In that moment, Wasileski suffered a “moral injury,” and has been grappling to understand the spiritual implications of war ever since.

“The trauma that I experienced was knowing that I was an agent of death, and knowing that what I was doing was morally questionable, and I did it anyway,” Wasileski remembered.

“We had done missile firings a lot of times. But I never smelled the smell of the smoke going up like I felt it that day.  And I never felt the heat of the missiles leaving like I felt it that day. It felt like hell. It was the smoke and the heat and the cinders, and it was in my mouth. I could taste it in my soul,” Wasileski said. “That created, inside of me, a space that I’m still trying to fill.”

A few days later, as the shelling continued, one missile misfired and landed in the ocean three miles away.

“We made best speed to where it landed. The missile was burning fuel underwater for three hours, maybe four. Every fish you could ever imagine seeing was dead,” Wasileski said. “There were octopus, there were tortoises, there were eels, dolphins, snakes, every kind of sea creature was there dead. It was the one time I could see the carnage we created up close.”

Poetry reading

Over the years, Wasileski has written about his experiences at war extensively.

On Wednesday, he shared poems along with four other veterans at Warrior Poets, a poetry reading hosted by the Greenfield Public Library. The event culminated the local writing group’s winter session.

Other poems, while different than Wasileski’s, shared common themes of witness, war and military life.

“I remember heat in my earmuffs and goggles. Dry eyes blinking. Ears leaking wax,” read Caleb Nelson, a Navy veteran and Boston-based poet. “I remember the pop of the sweat when it poured from my noggin, walking through the warm exhaust, and the coolness of air when I took off my cranial.”

Another veteran, Ted Cromack of Shelburne, shared a poem that looked forward to a day without war.

“When the big guns are finally silent, and jets no longer roar. When big ships carry laughter, and waves gently lap the shore — when sentries no more tramp parapets with arms held at port, and the sound of marching boots no longer echoes in the fort. Then tyrants will no longer covet other men’s possessions. And people will no longer fear government oppression. One word at peace, no fear, great dreams then men will dare.”

Wasileski noted that reading work aloud is just as important as writing.

“When another veteran brother or sister reads a piece where someone mucked around in their own darkness, it triggers the darkness in their darkness. They can relate to it and move out of their darkness,” he said. “Moving it from the subconscious to the foreconcious is huge. That’s the power of it. And not only for yourself, but for others.”

Through his work with Warrior Writers, Wasileski looks forward to a peaceful day when veteran suicide from PTSD is no longer a problem. Veteran writers can help bring about that day through their writing.

“People have to know. If people knew how awful (war) was, they wouldn't be looking at it as a solution — because it’s not a solution. It creates more problems than it solves,” Wasileski said.

Looking ahead, Wasileski intends to once again facilitate Warrior Writers meetings in the fall. The group will also host its annual veterans poetry reading at Poet Seat Tower on Saturday, May 26, at 3 p.m., in honor of Memorial Day. The event’s rain date is Sunday, May 27, also at 3 p.m.

“We’re going to stay until we run out of words,” Wasileski said.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.




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