Veterans learn 'to unpack our gear and tell our stories'

L-R Chantelle Bateman of Phila (back to camera) , John Rapacz (center) and Lovella Calica (back to camera) during session when veterans who call themselves Warrior Writers gather at the Writers House at Rutgers-Camden on November 16, 2016.

Wounded by an improvised explosive device while deployed to Iraq in 2005, Marine Corps Sgt. John Rapacz was awarded a Purple Heart.

"I thought of writing a book about my experience," Rapacz, 33, says.

"But I got nowhere with it."

Last week, the Cherry Hill resident, who was discharged in 2012, attended his first-ever writing workshop.

Sponsored by a Philadelphia nonprofit called Warrior Writers, the event was hosted by the Writers House at Rutgers-Camden. Rapacz, a graduate student, is one of nearly 440 veterans on campus.

Warrior Writers "creates space where people can write together," founder Lovella Calica says. A nonveteran from a military family, she facilitated the session at the Writers House.

"Writing," the poet and memoirist adds, "is a way to help people understand [their] experiences."

Says fellow facilitator Chantelle Bateman, a Marine Corps reservist who also served in Iraq, "we want to unpack our gear and tell our stories."

Located in a long-vacant, gloriously restored Cooper Street mansion, the Writers House recently launched its first season of author appearances, workshops, and other events, coordinator Leah Falk says.

"We're not just for people who are professional writers," she notes.

Fred Davis, director of the Rutgers-Camden Office of Veterans Affairs, invited Warrior Writers to the city campus after hearing Calica speak at a conference about female veterans.

A writing workshop "can provide an escape mechanism for those veterans [who] have kept traumatic events bottled up," Davis, a Navy vet and a retired Camden police sergeant, says.

During the portion of the workshop I attend, Rapacz and fellow veterans Jose Robles and Traci Huggins - both of whom hail from Pennsauken - react to excerpts from the latest Warrior Writers anthology.

A line about a veteran feeling stuck and needing to "learn how to learn again" as a civilian strikes a chord.

"They teach us how to go to war, but not how to come back," says Huggins, 30, a combat veteran who served with the Army in Afghanistan and is now a Rutgers junior.

"The hardest part was hearing about the numbness of feelings. I'm actually living that right now," she adds.

"What I learned is that my platoon was the family I will never have again," says Robles, 25, who served with the Army stateside. "We will be brothers forever."

Clearly, military service is far from automatically traumatic for everyone. Being a veteran is far more complicated than that, notes Rapacz.

"In boot camp they train you to fight, and when you do fight, it feels good," he says. "You miss that . . . I'd do it all over again if I could."

("In art, you can have those juxtapositions," Calica tells him. "They're allowed.")

After the workshop, Rapacz tells me it spurred him "to want to make time" to try writing that book again.

He says that he was found to have what he calls "dead spots" in his brain following his injuries and that he has recovered well from his cognitive deficits.

The military, Rapacz adds, "took good care of me."

His experience also led him to major in neurobiology as a Rutgers undergrad; he is now pursuing a master's degree in the discipline.

A wounded Marine is inspired to do research into the workings of the brain?

I tell USMC Sgt. Rapacz that's one book I'd love to read.

kriordan@phillynews.com

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