Red Badge Project

Healing soldiers with art
A student listens to storytelling instructor Brian McDonald as he teaches a class on improvisation.

A student listens to storytelling instructor Brian McDonald as he teaches a class on improvisation. Photos by Johnny Bivera

By Deanna Duff

But for those who have had their boots on the ground and come home to the Northwest suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other issues, there is a group of people who are trying to reach out in a creative way.

According to Department of Defense figures, more soldiers committed suicide than were killed in combat in Afghanistan last year. Red Badge Project hopes to change that.

Red Badge Project was co-founded last year by movie and television star Tom Skerritt (“Mash,” “Top Gun,” “Alien”), who also happens to be an Air Force veteran who lives in the Seattle area. He started the program with his neighbor, Evan Bailey, a former Army captain.

Volunteers teach acting, creative writing, filmmaking and photography to soldiers in the Warrior Transition Battalion — a group of active-duty, National Guard and reservists diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other injuries. Red Badge meetings are being held at the University of Washington Tacoma campus.

“The best way to a wounded vet’s heart is in (helping) them feel the physical joy that rises from the spontaneity of laughter, music, impulsive movement, dancing or improvisation,” said Skerritt.

Actor Tom Skerritt and filmmaker Brian McDonald teach story concept and direction to students of the Red Badge Project

Actor Tom Skerritt and filmmaker Brian McDonald teach story concept and direction to students of the Red Badge Project

“Since most of our students are transitioning into civilian life, our hope is to redirect their discipline into realizing how special they are as an individual — independent of the function of the military,” Skerritt added.

Red Badge’s team includes Skerritt as a film instructor, alongside screenwriters Warren Etheredge and Brian McDonald. University of Washington professor Shawn Wong teaches creative writing. Soldiers who volunteer to take part in the program meet four hours a day during a three-week session.

The program has been so successful that over a third of the soldiers continue attending classes or serve as volunteers after their term ends.

“Storytelling essentially saved my life,” says Warren Etheredge, who has dealt with personal issues in the past. “I think these soldiers are helping save themselves by voicing their experiences and giving it credibility and meaning.”

Common Bonds
Red Badge participants range in rank, specialty and ages. There are men and women and accents indicating hometowns from Boston to the South. They’re sometimes outfitted in camouflage, but are welcome and encouraged to attend in civilian clothes. In the classroom, everyone is equal.

What bonds them is the shared experience of dealing with the physical, mental and emotional tolls of their service.

“There came a time when I was overwhelmed with medical conditions and afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do the things I enjoyed,” said one soldier, who asked to remain anonymous. “Red Badge gave me focus and hope. It became like a family support system.”

The 45-year-old sergeant served in the United States Marine Corps before joining the Army Reserves. He served around the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan. During his last deployment, he suffered three concussions within a month’s time, mostly due to roadside explosions.

“When I returned, I wasn’t able to read or write at a high level. I could read maybe a paragraph at a time before I’d get confused. My writing was also a mess,” he said.

The news was particularly devastating since his civilian career was teaching middle school English. The initial diagnosis was that he would probably never teach again. He has since regained most reading and writing skills and credits much of his improvement to the relaxed atmosphere at Red Badge.

Literary professor Shawn Wong teaches story concept and writing.

Literary professor Shawn Wong teaches story concept and writing.

“There are a lot of lighthearted moments. You receive academic instruction from high-caliber teachers, but everyone is also really approachable and funny,” he added.

Etheredge describes some of the soldiers as akin to “ghosts” when they first arrive. Many initially avoid eye contact and are hesitant to participate. One soldier struggled to discuss his experiences and occasionally excused himself to walk outside and collect his thoughts and emotions. Tears are not uncommon. However, it’s the shared laughter that is arguably Red Badge’s key to success.

“I think for soldiers, everything can become so solemn. I talk to them just as men and women, no better or worse than anyone else. The fact that I tease them and they tease me, it creates a wonderful atmosphere,” Etheredge said. “They tease me about anything they can think of — my being short, not a soldier … and I absolutely love it!”

As an icebreaker, Skerritt passes around a joke book and has each soldier read a quip. Some are initially hesitant, but most everyone participates with complete confidence by the end. At first, soldiers are slightly star struck having the iconic “Top Gun” star in their midst, but even Skerritt is good-naturedly joshed by the end of session.

“We hit a comfort level that we know we’re not being judged,” said one soldier. “The joking around really helps us move forward with whatever we’re trying to create and express.”

Finding the Words
There are no strict assignments, graded homework or final exams in Red Badge. Official attendance isn’t taken and no one is reminded to raise their hand. Yet UW professor Wong rarely encounters more disciplined, devoted students.
“It’s a pure learning environment. If they miss class due to an appointment, they’re really upset. They are really here to learn,” said Wong.

For Wong’s creative writing section, soldiers cover everything from analyzing Hemingway to writing and perfecting their own compositions. Sometimes skits are work-shopped in class with students acting opposite Skerritt.

“I’ll give them a benign prompt and tell them to write whatever they want. The soldiers go right to the pain. They don’t go for the gentle story. Sometimes you’re not prepared for that,” said Wong. “They want their stories told. And I need to help them do that.”

Family — fictional or factual — is a recurring theme. One short story focuses on a long-lost daughter. Some poetry tackles relationship issues with loved ones after returning home.

“It’s interesting because I previously had no direct contact with the military,” says Brian McDonald, one of Red Badge’s screenwriting and filmmaking instructors. “As long as I live, these faces and experiences will be the lens I use to think about these issues,” says McDonald.

A student uses photography during a story concept and writing exercise.

A student uses photography during a story concept and writing exercise.

A first lieutenant in the program who graduated with an English degree before joining the Army said that he was inspired to serve his country after 9/11. He’s now 30. He has served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and said the mental and emotional challenge of switching back and forth between sweepingly different worlds and cultural views is hard.

“It can be as simple as things we take for granted — paved streets, wearing shoes — or it can be the concept of lying or loyalty. It’s a tall order to reconcile thousands of years of divergent cultural beliefs in the span of just a few months,” he said.

He said it can create a “horrible feeling” of isolation from not having a safe place to express such feelings. He was one of the first Red Badge students and credits the program with stemming what he feels would have been his “slow but increasing spiral of self-destruction.”

“There was something cathartic about taking the last couple years of my life and finally putting it on paper. I don’t know why, but that connection between pen and paper helps clarify things,” he says.

He appreciates that Red Badge provides the forum and skills for soldiers to pose and contemplate questions, but doesn’t demand they answer them.

“The cost of understanding is high for what I experienced — injuries, friends lost,” he says. “The resolution is sometimes realizing there is no resolution.”

Forward March
Red Badge Project celebrated one year in existence and its founders hope to continue their work and possibly expand their reach to more bases. Learn more or make a donation at The Red Badge.

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