Listening to Stories of Sacrifice this D-Day
Veterans bear the burden of sacrifice yet face difficulty telling their stories.
Posted May 23, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Programs across the country are helping veterans to tell their stories and to share their stories with others.
- Constructing a coherent story about traumatic experiences can help alleviate stress and PTSD symptoms.
- Veterans often feel as though their stories are ignored or silenced, which can contribute to their mental health challenges.
I am awed and overwhelmed as I walk among the graves of over 9,000 American soldiers buried in Normandy who were part of the Allied invasion on June 6, 1944. This experience will remain a profound and indelible memory for me.
I recently traveled with my husband and his cousins to the landing beaches and the cemetery at Normandy. My husband and his cousin both had fathers who served in WWII. Neither was part of the D-Day invasion; one was a navigator and one a pilot on B-17s based in Italy. My husband’s father was shot down and spent about a year as a POW in a German prisoner of war camp. Both men grew up with stories and silences.
As we walked among the thousands of graves at Normandy, the enormity of the sacrifice of all those young men was palpable. Each individual grave left its own legacy, its own story—and yet it was a place of silence and sorrow. As we commemorate the past loss, how do we help those who served, and continue to serve, and their families, in the present? \
The Power of Storytelling
One way to serve the needs of veterans and their families is to help them to tell their stories, share their stories with others, and connect their stories with the larger cultural stories about war and sacrifice. Multiple projects have been launched in the past couple of decades to help veterans tell their stories, either through personal storytelling or creative writing, such as the Veterans Writing Workshop launched through the National Endowment for the Arts at Fordham-Westchester University, The Syracuse Veterans’ Writing Group, and The Veteran’s Writing Project through the Writers Guild Foundation.
The Theater of War project has veterans and community members come together around reading and performing Greek plays focused on the wounds of war, and Songwriting with Veterans pairs songwriters with veterans to create their stories through music and lyrics. These are just a few of the many projects across the country aimed at helping veterans and their families put their experiences into words, express their emotions within coherently structured narratives that strive for meaning, and connect one’s personal story with universal stories of war, trauma, and suffering. These programs can be enormously helpful—veterans and their families report lower distress and feelings of isolation after participating as well as higher levels of connection to others.
What is it about telling and sharing stories of war that is helpful? Research has shown that creating coherent stories of difficult, challenging, and traumatic events helps to alleviate stress and anxiety and lower emotional reactivity.
In particular, James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, and his colleagues have pioneered work on expressive writing. Decades of research have now shown that simply journaling about stressful events for 10 to 15 minutes a day for 3 to 5 days leads to better health outcomes. This kind of expressive writing decreases anxiety and depression, and, perhaps even more intriguing, boosts the immune system leading to fewer physical symptoms.
Expressive writing is effective for all kinds of stressful experiences, from everyday work- and school-related stress to more difficult experiences with chronic pain, medical diagnoses, and job loss. Although we still do not quite understand all the reasons why this kind of expressive journal writing is good for us, we do know that individuals who use their writing time to construct more coherently organized stories—stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end—and who express emotion, both negative and positive, show better outcomes as a result.
But does this work for the kind of trauma that war inflicts? It seems so. Certainly, many of the projects inviting veterans to share their stories through writing and performing stories, plays, songs, and poetry have been found to be helpful in informal assessments. And research has now established that expressive writing can be an effective intervention for veterans suffering from PTSD; Denise Sloan and Brian Marx describe a series of studies that show that Written Exposure Therapy, a form of expressive writing used in a structured therapeutic intervention, is highly effective in alleviating PTSD symptoms in combat veterans.
Helping veterans tell their stories is important. So is making sure that we listen, as discussed by Benjamin Sledge, a war veteran and mental health counselor. Veterans, like other trauma survivors, talk about being silenced, about people not wanting to hear the horror, about people wanting them to end their story with a kind of redemption: “But really, it ended well—didn’t it”? We don’t want to be haunted by their images, their experiences.
But walking among the graves at Normandy, we are forced to acknowledge that for so many it did not end well and there are too many veterans who still carry the burden. Sometimes we just need to stop, listen, hear, and sit with the enormous toll war has taken.
This D-Day, let’s commemorate our veterans with parades and flags and salutes. But let’s also acknowledge their sacrifice by staying silent and listening to them as they tell their stories.
Pennebaker, J. W. (2018). Expressive writing in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 226-229.
Sloan, D. M., & Marx, B. P. (2017). On the implementation of written exposure therapy (WET) with veterans diagnosed with PTSD. Pragmatic Case Studies in Psychotherapy, 13(2), 154-164.