Author and University of Washington professor Shawn Wong spoke at Bellevue College on Nov. 5 about his work with veterans, the Red Badge Project.
Program Chair of Cultural and Ethnic studies Kim Pollock introduced Wong. She said that she assigns reading from his books to encourage students to talk about the human condition. “All of Wong’s books do that,” Pollock said.
The Red Badge Project began four years ago when actor Tom Skerrit, a friend of Wong’s, told him that more U.S. soldiers were dying of suicide than in combat. This inspired Wong to collaborate with Skerrit and writers Warren Etheredge and Brian McDonald to bring soldiers a way to tell their stories and help them heal.
The Red Badge Project began as a three-week course in which recently discharged soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord would spend three hours a day three days per week in a classroom with writing instructors. They were given bonding exercises, writing exercises and guidance along the way.
Wong said that the original plan was to have students produce a completed piece of writing and receive a certificate at the end of the course. Instead, many students would retake the class multiple times.
The medical team at JBLM would refer soldiers to the workshop. Soldiers taking the course had emotional, physical and mental challenges they were being treated for while taking the course. Wong said that students were often angry due to their situation, and told them that they couldn’t control what happened to them but they could control the message in what they wrote about.
“It’s therapeutic, but not therapy,” said Wong. Most of his students say they hate therapy and are reluctant to open up about their past as military counseling sessions are recorded. If a soldier is concluded to have a pre-existing condition, their insurance payout is reduced.
Wong also showed a six-minute video on the Red Badge Project which showed perspectives from both soldiers and instructors of the class. “Storytelling heals,” said Skerrit in the video.
In Wong’s experience, teaching college students to write was different than teaching soldiers. “I had to reinvent myself as a teacher,” said Wong. He said that he will give the students sequential, additive writing exercises that allows them to focus on one line at a time, which will all come together at the end to form a piece. Wong wants his students to “tell the truth, not the facts,” and this type of writing exercise allows them to gain a new perspective.