Necessary Bridges: The Telling Project


The Telling Project was coming to Care Café. Created in 2008 by Christopher Wei, The Telling Project, was created for veterans to publically share their experiences and thereby ease their way back into civilian life. Personally, I shy away from things having to do with war. To borrow a term from structural family therapy, I “grow down” when war enters the room and become 10 years old again caught in the nation’s turmoil, trapped in my family’s grief and chaos. It is too hard to explain and so I simply avoid the topic. But the Care Café was hosting the Telling Project at Lincoln Center and as Dean of Wurzweiler School of Social Work I needed to be there. And so did my 10-year old self. I just didn’t know it yet.

I grew up eating dinner to the Viet Nam War body counts. In black and white images on our small kitchen TV, dead soldiers lay face down in the mud and the tallies of “their” dead and ours were printed at the bottom of the screen. “Who’s winning?” I would ask my dad. He would throw his napkin in his plate in disgust and leave the table. Years later I would put words to his reaction. How can anyone win a war when wars are measured in how much is lost. Antiwar protests filled the main streets of my town and my mother would warn me not to wander but to come straight home from school. While the soldiers on TV were anonymous, my 4th grade class wrote letters to servicemen we knew. Everybody knew someone and thus war was not anonymous for us. I wrote to Patty’s cousin and to my two brothers. One brother left for the army another left for the navy. And the tension in my family mounted. My father who had been a World War II veteran, and the son of a World War I veteran was as conflicted as our nation about seeing them go.

My father rarely talked about his war experiences. When he did, he shared decontextualized images of gruesomeness and fear. There was no story, just flashes of memory. Sometimes the images were of severe cold and of endless marching in thin soled boots. Other times they were pictures of human desperation and suicide, frozen tortured bodies and German beds in commandeered homes. Together they were descriptions of a young man who was terrified, who genuinely feared freezing to death, and who saw there was no real line between life and death as he had once believed growing up in rural America. Ultimately, he recounted experiences that separated him from everybody who did not experience the same thing. And thus, his stories where about never truly being able to return from the war. When I see him in my mind I see him stuck on a battlefield in a dirty uniform unable to find his way forward.  

When the Viet Nam war ended, there were no celebrations for those who had served, no hero’s welcome. The country was a cauldron of turmoil when my brothers left for the war and when they returned. Anti-war protesters greeted deplaning troops shaming them for having served. That shame met men’s own regret, futility, anger, duty, pride, and brokenness. It also met their anxiety, fear, depression and addictions. In other words, it met men’s own personal cauldrons as they tried to re-join a society that had not yet heard of PTSD. And as the country slowly inched away from the open wounds left by Viet Nam, too many men were stuck, unable to move at all.

If my brothers talked about their experiences it wouldn’t have been with me, their 10-year old sister. Instead I overheard parts of conversations shared among the men at family gatherings. These were images of intentional cruelty, order and control, and military inefficiency. Sometimes they revealed the intentional suffering and humiliation they endured. Sometimes I heard stories of derision told with scorn at military hubris.

When I see my brothers in my mind’s eye, I see two men trying to turn their back on something. But that something for me is a void. It is empty space that neither they nor I traverse. And so we are both stuck.  The images I carry from that time are not the same as theirs. There is no shared lexicon or social space in which to share our dissimilar stories. Time moved on, the nation moved on. They moved on. War existed in my family as disjunctures, fragments and silence. And this left us all stranded.  Sometimes the only thing to do is to keep fractured memories stored in a safe place until they can find a home, until they can connect with other memories and memory holders to make sense of it all.

And then came Tuesday night, the night after Memorial Day. I listened as five military service men and women talked about their experiences in the service. They stood in the spot light, looking directly at the audience and, one by one, told a story. Some shared a slice of their time in the service and their journey home. Others shared their journey into war and their struggle to find a way back to a world that made sense. They spoke directly to me—10-year-old me who desperately wanted to hear what had happened “over there.” And grown up me who wanted to reach out to those who served and to understand the mental health needs of veterans whose lives and families and routines and expectations for normalcy had been forever changed.

As I listened to the story of the Viet Nam veteran I found a bridge between Viet Nam and America, between 1969 and 2018. I was able to understand what had happened as young men were changed from boys to soldiers, from college students to combatants; to see the fight, to hear their doubts, to feel their fear and boredom and self-loathing. I listened to the stories from an Afghanistan and Iraq War vet, and to the story of a woman married to a veteran and I found another bridge between the rhythms that govern my life and the rhythms and realities that governed the lives of men and women in desserts, on dusty streets, in unfriendly terrains, in vehicles heading toward battle, between civilian routines and military ones. Those bridges afforded me a glimpse of the indelible mark military experiences created on the lives of young men like my brothers and father and how those marks turned into scars they brought home and wore into middle and old age.  

Tennessee Williams wrote, “time is the longest distance between two places.” Perhaps this is what many vets hope for and count on when they come home. But time that creates distance also creates chasms through lonely, isolating, silence because too often there is no way for families to understand what happened. Too often the distance between two spaces is the only thing families share unless and until you build a bridge. Through the courage of a story teller and the tenacity of a story, that night, we found a bridge. And through that bridge, we found insight, and healing.

Care Café came into being because one night on the homeward bound train, exhausted and cold and jostled into other tired commuters, I envisioned a place where even for an hour every day citizens could find respite, hope, community, insight and help with issues with which we may struggle. Care Café is that place. Come in from the cold, or from the pain or from the loneliness or from those isolating moments of grief that we all carry and join us for a moment of healing.




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