Control the Memory So It Doesn’t Control You: A New Memoir About Trauma, PTSD, and Writing

Photo: Cliff Reeves

Ron Capps didn’t understand exactly what he was writing. Not at the time. Not during the decade he spent scrawling everything down as he bounced from Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq to Darfur, working as a Foreign Service Officer and a soldier in the U.S. Army. Before that, he had served in some of the most politically unstable and violent regions of Central Africa — Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Uganda, and what was then Zaire, where he was a witness to murder, rape, and ethnic cleansing. The images that struck Capps most from that time are those of the mutilated and burnt bodies of the men, women, and children he might have saved.

It was only years later, after Capps had already been published in major national magazines and policy journals, that he realized he had enough material on his hands for a memoir and was ready to share his story. Seriously Not Alright: Five Wars in Ten Years, released earlier this month, chronicles both Capps’s time in the field and the personal consequences he faced as a result of his job, which was to keep “crisp, dry reports of grisly, messy events” as he witnessed some of the worst atrocities in recent memory. “This book tells the story of how I got to that point in my life when I was sitting alone in a pickup truck in the middle of the African continent ready to end it all, and how I came back from there,” he writes early on. “It is the story of five wars in ten years.”

“Writing was the only thing keeping me sane,” Capps said in an interview with Science of Us. Writing the memoir was not only a form of self-preservation, but also a way to break the silence that so often surrounds the suffering of returning veterans. “Of course there is a stigma,” he said. “There is the fear that you will be laughed at, that you will lose security clearance. In this country, we don’t treat mental health like a health care issue. If you break your ankle, you’re out six weeks for treatment and then you’re welcomed back on the team. But with mental health, it’s like — you’re broken, you’re weak, you’re a pussy. Everyone has stress in their lives, and we need to go to war — so suck it up.”

But serving in the Army in Afghanistan in 2002, Capps reached a breaking point; he couldn’t suck it up any longer. He felt that his dangerously low mental state — precipitated by years of witnessing traumatic violence — compromised the safety of his entire team, and he sought out help from a military psychiatrist, who prescribed him Prozac to ease his PTSD and depression. He hopes Seriously Not Alright will encourage other military personnel to also seek help if they feel they need it.

Capps said it’s hard, though, when less than one percent of the American population has served in Iraq or Afghanistan, resulting not only in longer and more frequent deployments than ever, but also a stunted national conversation about the long-term psychological effects of those deployments. When the topic has gotten attention, it’s often been for the wrong reasons. Capps highlighted the trial of Staff Sergeant Bales, who killed 16 Afghani civilians in a shooting rampage, as a particular low point. “You see that headline, ‘Sergeant Psycho,’ in the New York Daily News, and this is a guy who’s in a lot of trouble, he murdered a lot of people and he has a serious mental health problem, but now a lot of people see that and they don’t want to hire Sergeant Psycho. They don’t understand and they don’t want to help the people coming back.” It reinforces the cycle of silence, Capps explained — a headline like that reminds veterans of how society might view them, of all the reasons to not come forward and seek help.

Capps is, unsurprisingly, a big proponent of writing-as-therapy. “Control the memory so it doesn’t control you” is his writing motto, and this notion helped inspire him to start the Veterans Writing Project, which offers free writing workshops and seminars to veterans and their family members, in 2011. Participants can write in any genre and about any topic they choose, but most do write about their military experience. It's an idea backed by sound science: James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin, whom Capps cited as an influence, has found that expressive writing about traumatic events can ameliorate their psychological impact, and these findings have been replicated elsewhere.

Despite the dark subject matter of his book, Capps is optimistic that the country will get better at helping out veterans who have experienced trauma. Two Medal of Honor recipients recently came forward to talk openly about experiencing PTSD, which “was huge in the military community,” as he put it. Capps believes that the stigmas he faced will lessen over time as more veterans go public with their struggles. In the meantime, he said, the key thing for veterans who don’t yet feel comfortable talking about their experiences is to write: “Those records you keep, whether it’s poetry or a journal or a blog, will be enormously helpful to you and also your family to start understanding your experience.”