I was sitting in a dingy gray room, with gray carpet in a gray chair. No windows. The only light came from the florescent lighting overhead and one of the fixtures had one of those annoying flickers. In that setting, my heart broke wide open. So wide open – it was filled with sadness, hurt, anger, love, compassion and empathy – waves of emotion that swept through my entire body and rattled me to the bones.
I was attending a book launch of a graphic book (cartoon) that was a collaboration between the Center for Cartoon Studies located in White River Junction, Vermont and the White River Junction VA Medical Center.
Now, you may not know there is an actual school for cartoon studies, but there is. The Center for Cartoon Studies was co-founded by James Sturm, whose comics and graphic novels have been translated into several languages and who has won many awards including “Best Graphic Novel of 2001” by Time Magazine.
Cartoons are not just the funnies you used to read in the paper every morning during breakfast or the comic books you horded to keep up with the likes of Archie, Veronica, Betty and Jughead. They include the political comics we see, those fabulous New Yorker cartoons, and even Pulitzer Prize winning books like Maus, written by Art Spiegelman, which tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist, coming to terms with his father’s story.
I had gotten interested in graphic novels and cartoons when my book club picked Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, a New York Times Bestseller and a 2014 National Book Award Finalist, written by New Yorker cartoonist, Roz Chast. Who knew such an important memoir about the trials and tribulations of dealing with elderly parents could be told in a cartoon?
Of course, my interest was peaked when one of the members of the book club who works at the WRJ VA Hospital, mentioned that just two days later, there would be a book launch there. I was definitely interested.
The White River Junction Veteran’s Hospital is the home to the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was created about twenty-seven years ago under the guidance of Dr. Matthew Friedman, who acted as the Center’s Executive Director from creation to the end of 2013. Now as Senior Advisor to the Center, he says that “Our most important accomplishment is that we helped educate policymakers as well as the general public that PTSD was not something that happened only to Vietnam Veterans, but could happen to Veterans of other wars and to any man, woman or child faced with a catastrophic event. When we started, PTSD was a controversial diagnosis. The Center’s research and educational initiatives helped establish the scientific basis for PTSD, and disseminated that information globally.”
So the book launch collaboration between the Cartoon Center and several veterans who have suffered from and are being treated for substance abuse issues, PTSD and and/or other medical issues, gives a glimpse into the lives of veterans of World War II, Vietnam, The Cold War, and the “War on Terror.” The book called When I Returned can be downloaded free online.
The book is about a few men who wanted to share their stories in a different way. No elaborate detail, but you feel the men and their emotions through these stories. No women came forward to do this project even though there were some women vets at the book launch. One spoke up and suffers from PTSD. Maybe next time, they will be willing to share their stories.
Several of the men who participated in the project spoke at the launch and that is the moment by heart broke open. Knowing that these men had served our country and then have continued to pay a big price for that service every day of their lives for however long it’s been couldn’t not affect anyone present. I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes.
They spoke about their service, the issues they were dealing with, what working on this project meant to them, and how grateful they were to the VA for helping them through – not what we usually hear about the VA. At that moment, I was so grateful that there has been help for this group.
In the meantime, you can find out more about graphic work and about this special project:
James Sturm’s 2104 TEDx talk about how cartoons communicate
New Hampshire Public Radio interview – War Stories Illustrated
As always, would love to hear your input about this topic or experience you’ve had as someone who has served or someone who is close to a service member.