Writing promotes healing for 'Heart of A Veteran' authors
Within every veteran she's met, Jordan Holwell sees strength.
She sees perseverance of body, resilience of spirit.
She sees a heart.
She wants others to see it as well, this heart of a veteran, despite the hardened edges in many veterans' outward lives and the strong silence in which they often keep their stories of service.
Holwell, a Naperville massage therapist, says veterans let her into their world as she works to improve their flow of spinal fluid, which she says can ease the symptoms of anxiety, depression and -- the big one for those who have served -- post-traumatic stress disorder.
"They learn to trust you and they're in a very vulnerable situation, so they tell you their life stories," Holwell said.
She doesn't want the sharing, the storytelling or the healing to stop there.
Holwell is compiling a book called "Heart of a Veteran" in which 11 veterans -- 10 men and one woman, many from the suburbs -- get a chapter all their own.
In writing their stories, the veterans say they've found release.
Moments of uncertainty, fear, sadness, worry, loneliness -- anything they felt -- can give comfort to others in similar situations, the veterans have found.
"The reason that I give in the story is that it's really not about me," said Pat Tyree, 61, of Downers Grove, a retired Illinois Air National Guard officer. "It's about the next generations and pulling them up and getting them prepared to do the same thing that I did and we did, which is to serve their country."
Learning to put the realities of military service on the page has been an exercise in caring, healing and paying it forward for veterans such as Jack Erwin, a 46-year-old Army National Guard veteran of St. Charles, Leona Di Amore, a 49-year-old Navy veteran of Naperville, and Tyree.
With such personal messages in its pages, Holwell says she hopes the book will guide other veterans to connect with the stories in their hearts and get help to heal any brokenness that remains.
Much like Holwell, Erwin has a helper's heart.
He's going through his own struggles, to be certain.
He has memories of commanding a battalion of artillery members who served as military police and responding to devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
He's felt loss as he's seen three friends die from "slipping through the cracks" and "going into depression" after he returned from Afghanistan in 2009.
In 2010, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and he found it difficult to return to a life teaching math and history to special-needs kids at a middle school.
He'll try anything to manage his stress -- therapy, yoga, massage, exercise -- but especially helping others. Because, in helping other veterans, Erwin is beginning to find peace.
"What's helpful in healing is reaching out to other veterans. It's healing for you to do that. You make those connections and have that camaraderie and build the relationships," Erwin said. "You get your natural endorphins, build relationships with others and you're not isolating yourself."
Erwin is active in veterans groups, including Team Red, White and Blue, the Wounded Warrior Project and Line of Advance. With Line of Advance, Erwin has written blogs and stories for a veterans writers group, and he says his participation in "Heart of a Veteran" is extending his use of the therapeutic power of words.
"There's really a healing aspect to getting your memories, that are seared into your brain and your experience and that don't go away, onto paper," Erwin said.
Leona Di Amore
As a chiropractic doctor, Di Amore has a healer's heart.
In the Navy, when she worked as a corpsman (the military term for a medic), her duty was to tend to the injuries and illnesses of bomb experts and Navy divers.
In her early 20s, Di Amore said her military job gave her a new set of friends so close they felt like family and a new code of ethics -- people she still knows and a philosophy she lives by today. But her Navy gig also came with stress and the constant requirement to put any personal issues to the side and deal with the medical problem at hand.
"My job is always as a healer and to take care of people," Di Amore said. "I didn't have an option to whine and cry about it because people depended on me."
People -- patients now, not fellow sailors -- still depend on Di Amore to help improve their quality of life through her chiropractic practice and the other holistic health options she offers.
In her chapter of "Heart of a Veteran," Di Amore writes about her early days in the military and reflects on how they shaped her into the healer she is today, especially when it comes to her concern for the mental and emotional well-being of veterans.
Veterans, she says, stick together because of their shared values, values she wants to pass along to others through the book.
"Our moral code is different. I feel once you take an oath to serve and protect and honor this country, that's an oath that's ingrained in your structure, your DNA, who you are," Di Amore said. "You're kind of compelled to serve in some other capacity, be it for love of country or patriotism."
With an emphasis on building up the younger generations, Tyree has a teacher's heart.
He also has the heart of a pilot after 25 years in the Illinois Air National Guard.
Tyree says his chapter takes readers back to the final days of the Gulf War, when he was flying a plane carrying so much fuel that it was practically a bomb waiting to go off and he found himself searching for purpose.
"I'm struggling to come up with a reason as to why we're doing this," Tyree says, thinking back on the moment.
The reason he discovered then and now is for the future. For the benefit of future generations. And that's the same reason he's sharing his stories of working as an aircraft repairman, navigator and pilot for a quarter-century.
The military doesn't afford time to process sad or scary things, like a friend's death or a nearly blown landing, he says.
"In the military, you've got to stow it and go and it gets pushed down," Tyree said.
That attitude keeps operations flowing, but it hurts veterans' mental stability, Tyree says, because it leaves them with years of baggage to sort through later.
Writing his story for Holwell's book is helping with that sorting process, not only for Tyree, but for everyone who cares about him.
"She's really onto something that a lot of people aren't aware of," Tyree said. "When you heal one veteran, you're not just healing the veteran, you're healing all the people that come in contact with the veteran, especially the family because it affects the individual and relationships."
'Heart' in progress
"Heart of a Veteran" is set to be released early next year, on a day known for heart-shaped chocolates, pizzas and Valentine's cards: Feb. 14.
But before then, Holwell and the authors need to raise about $15,000 to cover costs, including printing at Semper Fi Printing and Promotions in Arlington Heights. If organizers can fundraise for production costs, Holwell says that will allow more proceeds from book sales to benefit programs that help veterans, including initiatives of the U.S. Veterans Foundation, Team Red White and Blue and the Brothers in Arms Foundation.
A "Night at the County Fair" event from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, at the Alfred Rubin Riverwalk Community Center, 305 W. Jackson Ave., Naperville, will raise money for the book project and will feature entertainment by DJ and singer Karl Knutson along with a buffet dinner, a popcorn bar, dessert table and pie-baking contest.
Tickets to the fundraiser are available at heartofaveteran.com for $25, $20 for military and $15 for kids.
The event will begin after a 6 p.m. ceremony in which the book's authors will be presented with a flag from the Healing Field of Honor at Rotary Hill, 443 Aurora Ave.
Holwell says she admires the strength -- both physical and mental -- of the authors in enduring their military experiences and sharing their stories. After "Heart of a Veteran" is launched, she has plans for a sequel exploring the ripple effect Tyree mentioned of one veteran's background affecting so many people.
"We're hoping after this to write a book called 'Heal my Purple Heart' from the families, wives, girlfriends, caregivers," Holwell said. "They, too, have to 'man up,' if you will, and support the people that are serving. It's not easy."
If you goWhat: A Night at the County Fair fundraiser to benefit "Heart of a Veteran" book project
When: 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12
Where: Alfred Rubin Riverwalk Community Center, 305 W. Jackson Ave., Naperville
Cost: $25, $20 military, $15 kids