Ron Capps has had one fascinating career. He’s served in five wars in 10 years. Think about that for a moment. That’s a lot of war. He’s seen a lot of things. Things he can’t forget, things that visit him in his sleep. He has struggled with PTSD, which ultimately led him to leave the military and start the Veterans Writing Project. He writes about all of this in his marvelous memoir, Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years. Fascinating man. We were grateful to spend time with him on the phone.
TP: How are you doing today health-wise?
RC: I’ve turned a corner. I’ve been on meds a very long time and in therapy for two years and it seems to be having the desired effect. I’m able to work, not as much as I’d like to, but some, and I’m able to have a life with my family. I’m able to write. Those are things that are important to me. I’m doing better.
TP: When did you first sense you were struggling with PTSD?
RC: After Kosovo from 1998 to 2000, and also time in central Africa in the mid-90s, there was some PTSD. But it hadn’t come to the point where I was unable to function. Once I got to Afghanistan I realized there were triggers there that turned up the heat. I got a lot worse very quickly and that’s when I found myself almost unable to work. That’s when I began to have the uncontrolled images of the dead in my head. I had been living with it for a while but what happened in Afghanistan escalated the symptoms. That’s when it became more troublesome.
TP: I was struck in the book how vivid your nightmares were, and how damaging they were to your health.
RC: If you’re not sleeping you’re now allowing the brain to carry the trash out, to clean out all of the toxins. All of us have to sleep. I think a lot of people who struggle with anxiety and depression go through struggles with sleep. As part of the Veterans Writing Project, a former Marine chose to write about sleep. He referred to sleep as a failing relationship with a woman. Just how profound the effects of not sleeping are. That phenomenon of not sleeping and having these images come to me, both day and night, was what set me off to get medical care.
TP: You struggled with the idea of getting help because you thought it would cost you your security clearance.
RC: I had a top secret security clearance but you have to get that reauthorized every few years. There’s a question that asks if you’ve ever received mental health care, with the implication being if you had you’re going to lose your security clearance. So I had to make that decision of putting my career on the line and my ability to keep my house and feed my family or to take care of the people who work for me. I was responsible for the lives of 100 people. And I didn’t feel like I was making good decisions. It was a hard decision but when it comes down to it there’s no choice. I was supposed to be taking care of these people. I went and got help.
TP: It sounds like mental health stigma in the military is particularly rough.
RC: Recently, since I’ve left the military, the questions — I think it was question 31 on the list of questions we all had to answer — has been changed. It used to ask if you have ever received mental health care that wasn’t related to combat deployment? The implication being that if you’re receiving mental health care because of something that happened to you during combat deployment, that’s probably going to be all right and people shouldn’t fear losing their security clearance. That’s been changed, which is good.
TP: How did the bias play out in your life?
RC: I was in airborne units and if someone broke their ankle on a jump people would joke about it but at the end of the time your ankle would heal and you are welcomed back into the unit. If you went to get mental health care people would look at you as if you had something that was going to rub off, like you were the weak link.
TP: You had such varied roles in the military, some in diplomacy, others in active military. It must have been quite stimulating.
RC: My job in the military was to go places around the world and figure out the root causes and the current problems between ethnic groups who were fighting. Why were they trying to kill each other? What do we have to do to get them to stop? I would get up close and then write all of that up and send it back. That was the standard way of communicating ideas. I spent a lot of my career writing.
TP: And when you left the military you realized you wanted to keep writing.
RC: When I retired I had a lot of things left to say about ethnic cleansing and genocide and political conflict. I sat down and started writing because writing had become my tool. That’s how I expressed myself for most of my career, so I kept doing it.
TP: And you view writing as a part of healing.
RC: What I found was that I not only wanted to tell these stories, but I needed to. I needed to get those stories and those ideas and those memories out of my head and on to the page. Once something is on the page you can control it. You can shape it. You can ball it up and throw it away. You can edit it. You can change how you feel about it and how it affects you. I had this epiphany one day and wrote a phrase on a piece of paper and tacked it up on the wall: “Either you control the memory or the memory controls you.” I needed to get in control of those memories. Writing was how I did it.
TP: You’re also clear with people who are struggling that writing isn’t a substitute for proper medical treatment.
RC: That’s the approach we take with the Veterans Writing Project. We tell people right up front that this is not health care. We’re here to teach you about writing. That’s what we do. If you need help, go get it. But if you’re here because you want to use writing as a part of therapy, as a tool, as a way of getting control of your life, we’re happy to work with you.
TP: You must read amazing stories through the project.
RC: From a literary standpoint, I think these stories need to be told. For Iraq and Afghanistan, less than 1 percent of the American population took part in these wars. We have a responsibility to tell the 99 percent who sent us that this is what we did in your name. This is what happens during war. We have a responsibility to the people who didn’t come back and to the people who were affected by the war to tell their stories. If I can generate stories with social and literary intentions, maybe people will be able to use the writing techniques we provide them to help heal their moral injuries and get control of the trauma that they’ve been through.
TP: How has therapy helped you?
RC: When I first went to treatment in Afghanistan I hadn’t come to terms with why I was struggling. I just knew that I was. I knew what the symptoms were and I knew that I needed help. In the months and years that followed, I got much clearer in my thinking about what was really bothering me. That’s what a long series of conversations with a psychiatrist or psychologist or social worker can do for you. They ask you the hard questions. What do you think about this? Why do you think that’s important to you? In these long conversations in therapy is where you come up with the answers. Initially it was that I needed help getting control of these images in my head, the physical manifestations of PTSD, such as not sleeping. Once I had done that then I can start working on these questions in the background. It can take a long time. It took a long time for me. I had to take it step by step. First getting control then asking questions and working my way through. Writing was a big part of that. Getting these memories out of the limbic system. It doesn’t work the same for everyone though. For some writing might not be the tool. Music, art, dance, drama, any of the creative arts can be a tool. But it may take some experimentation to find out which one works for you.
TP: When you look back, are there things you would have done differently in terms of putting yourself in places where you were exposed to trauma?
RC: Knowing what I know now, I would have taken better care of myself. I would have given myself more breaks between deployments. I would have asked for mental health care sooner and followed the regimen a little more strictly. But mostly I wouldn’t change what I did because it made me who I am. More importantly, I was able to do some good and save some lives because that’s what we were trying to do, in particular in central Africa, in Rwanda and Zaire and Uganda, we were trying to stop the fighting and save lives. I felt like that work was important and I did well at it. Did we stop the wars? No. But in cases we were able to stop a village from being destroyed.
TP: It’s hard to not want to keep serving when there’s so much need.
RC: I came back from Afghanistan and I was back in the United States four months and then I went to Iraq. I came back from Iraq and I was back in the United States for five months and then I went to Darfur. That’s the challenge. There’s always going to be a need. I think people who are in leadership positions have to be able to balance concerns for the individual with getting missions accomplished. But to be sure, I wanted to go to these places. I wanted to be the man. I knew I was good at what I did and I wanted to be the one to go to these places and sort these things out. Knowing what I know now, I might have wanted that a little less.
TP: What are you working on now?
RC: I’m working on a novel that takes place in the Sudan during 1916. I’m also working on a book about Afghanistan. It takes part from the 1950s up to the current war. I have ideas for a couple other books, one which would take place in a fictional country in west Africa, a black comedy about diplomacy in the intelligence community during the Cold War. And I’d really like to write a book about the 1941 baseball season. What it must have been like in the last year before the war. There was this kid named Ted Williams who was a pretty good hitter and a lot of other stuff going on.
TP: And how are the nightmares?
RC: They’re pretty much gone. I still on occasion will have one but much less often. Oddly I have developed a survival mechanism where I can wake myself up in the middle of a bad dream.
TP: Really? How do you do that?
RC: I don’t know. But for 13 years now I’ve just been able to wake myself up. Sort of back up in the middle of a dream and say, I don’t want to go there. If it’s a really bad dream that I don’t want to go back to, I’ll just stay awake for a half hour. I’ll get up and go do something and come back to bed. I don’t find myself trapped in bad dreams anymore.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.