Central Quaboag Valley Veterans' Storytelling Project

A new Brookfield Institute initiative, the Storytelling Project helps veterans to change their story — from struggle to service — by listening to their stories with a community volunteer interviewer. For most veterans, the story is one of struggle and sorrow, and the statistics are staggering: 20 veterans per day die of suicide1, 1 out of 4 homeless are veterans2, and 1 out of 5 struggles with PTSD3. Currently the number one killer of service members is suicide4.

The Storytelling Project is designed to help re-shape the trauma of war into an experience of resilience and positive growth3. Studies have shown that when the veterans are able to re-connect with the community and to have their stories heard and listened to, they are less likely to commit suicide or to experience other debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress on their lives and the lives of their families3. As a result, veterans are more able to use the resources and skills they developed in their military service in service to the community to which they return.

Veterans from all wars will be recruited to participate. The Storytelling Project will begin in the particularly vulnerable Central Quaboag Valley towns of Palmer and Ware, and then extend to Brookfield, Brimfield, and Warren. These 5 towns straddle Worcester, Hampden, and Hampshire counties, receive less organized services to support veterans, and have some of the highest population of National Guard, post 9/11 veterans.

Our region has sent scores of local National Guard members to Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a JAMA study, citizen soldiers from the National Guard are some of the most traumatized veterans of Mideast conflicts. Veterans from all wars however, will be recruited. Through our outreach to date, we realize that many Vietnam veterans need assistance. Many, now in their 60s or 70s, are just beginning to deal with trauma they experienced decades ago. In fact, our first two storytellers are Vietnam Veterans. Their stories may be found here.

At our program’s core is a unique “community as healer” approach because we use the compassion and engagement of the community through trained volunteers to “welcome the soldiers back into the fold.” Studies demonstrate that when the veterans are able to re-connect with the community and to have their stories heard and listened to, they are less likely to commit suicide or to experience other debilitating effects of post-traumatic stress on their lives and the lives of their families. 

According to veteran Bryan Pelley:

"Many of us are carrying stories about things that are pretty terrible, that are eating away at us. You don’t want to tell anyone the deepest stories because of the fear of how they will react. What we need is a sense of validation from the community, a sense of purpose for what we did. The way that someone reacts to your story has a huge impact. Most civilians don’t understand or they react with horror, which leaves the veterans feeling more excluded."

We want to prevent as many veteran suicides as possible and we believe storytelling is one of the most effective ways in which to do this while using resources that are abundantly available — compassionate (and trained) members of the community.

Storytelling has become recognized in some circles as a successful treatment method. In Madison, Wis., VA veterans are being given the opportunity to tell their stories in depth and this has shown to have positive outcomes.  Moreover, Columbia University now offers a Narrative Medicine course that recognizes how important it is to talk about illness in the course of healing. 

Anne Demers, in her book “When Veterans Return: The Role of Community in Reintegration,” writes: “High levels of distress exist among veterans who are caught between military and civilian cultures, feeling alienated from family and friends, and experiencing a crisis of identity. Narrative is identified as a means of resolution.”

And research backs up that storytelling and other trauma-healing therapies are working. “There are some physiological and chemical changes happening that are real, that are measurable,” said Leslie Martin, a clinical social worker with the Veterans Administration. Studies have shown that therapy — even in the form of telling a story — can build bypasses around injured and scarred sections of the brain.

  1. VA Stats sheet
  2. The State of Homelessness in America. Homeless Research Institute: April 2013
  3. Brenner, L., Homaifar, B., et al. Suicidality and veterans with a history of traumatic brain injury: Precipitating events, protective factors, and prevention strategies. Rehabilitation Psychology:Vol 54(4), Nov 2009, 390-397.
  4. Corr, W., Suicides and Suicide Attempts Among Active Component Members of the U.S.Armed Forces, 2010–2012:  Methods of Self-Harm Vary by Major Geographic Region of Assignment. Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, October, 2014:Volume 21,Number 10.

 Central Quabaog Valley Veterans' History Project

The Central Quaboag Valley Veterans' History Project will be offered to complement the Storytelling Project by offering veterans an opportunity to record their war experience by a community volunteer interviewer. The audio or video archive will be retrievable by the veteran, their family, and the public. The Project is part of national Library of Congress initiative started in 2000 which now contains over 68,000 interviews. The Project will also feature two community events honoring veteran service by local schoolchildren and a veterans’ breakfast. All veterans from Central Quaboag Valley (Brimfield, Brookfield, Palmer, Ware, and Warren) will be invited to participate.