Author Interviews
3:19 pm
Sat April 26, 2014

How An Army Officer And Diplomat Wrote His Way Through Trauma

Originally published on Sat April 26, 2014 4:25 pm

In five wars over 10 years, Ron Capps shifted back and forth between being a U.S. Army officer and a State Department foreign service officer in some of the world's deadliest places.

In Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, he served as a senior military intelligence officer. In wartime Kosovo, Darfur and Rwanda, he worked as a diplomat out in the field, documenting violence and war. As he writes in his new memoir, all the while he was almost daily "in the midst of murder, rape, the burning of villages, crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleaning or genocide."

Slowly, Capps watched his State Department and Army careers disintegrate along with his 20-year marriage. He was haunted by the dead civilians of Kosovo, Darfur and other conflicts. At one point, in the Darfur region of Sudan, he found himself on the edge of committing suicide — then the phone rang, startling him and bringing him back.

Capps has chronicled his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder in his memoir, Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years. He is also the founder of the Veterans Writing Project, which helps service members tell their own stories.

Capps spoke with NPR's Eric Westervelt about his book and his motivations for helping.


Interview Highlights

On monitoring his own PTSD

I was in Afghanistan and I was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. And my doctor told me just to keep track daily of how I felt so that we could talk about it, so I created a continuum from "I feel all right" at one end, through "vaguely not all right" somewhere in the middle, and then off on the far end would be "seriously not all right." And I used the scale to measure just how I felt, sometimes day by day, but sometimes, you know, hour by hour.

On asking for help

Initially I was concerned that I'd be mocked and ridiculed by the soldiers I served with for breaking, for being weak. The second thing really is that I was afraid that I would lose my security clearance. As an intelligence officer, you absolutely have to have a top-secret security clearance or you cannot do your job. And I knew that there were some medications — if I took those medications it would require that my security clearance was at least questioned, and I might lose it.

What changed was that I had over a hundred people working for me spread all around the country. I was the director of human intelligence operations for all U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. And I knew that if I didn't get treatment, if I was making those decisions in the condition I was, that I was putting their lives at risk. And I just couldn't do that.

On the stigma of mental illness in the Army

When I left at the end of 2008, there was still a stigma of asking for help for mental health problems among soldiers. I think officially at the general-officer level and at the headquarters level, everyone says all the right things, "Oh yes, we're gonna get you the treatment you need." But that may not have filtered down to the junior-leaders' level, where things really matter — among peers.

I've actually talked to soldiers I served with, or tried to, and a couple of them have come back and said, "Yeah, we knew you were struggling and it was OK." But a lot of them won't even respond to my emails or to calls ... I think individually there might be some people who just aren't ready to face what happened to me. Maybe they're concerned it will rub off or something.

On what drove him to stay in war zones

There was something inside of me during those 10 years where I knew that ... I wanted to be the guy that was on the ground. I thought that I was someone, if not the one, who could get the story and get it back to a readership in Washington that included people who influenced policy. I would also say that in many of these places, I was tasked to go and try to stop the fighting. And as many times as I failed to stop fighting or to protect civilians or to stop the killing somewhere, there were at least a few times that I did succeed.

On founding the Veterans Writing Project

My personal experience was that I used writing to find the road home when medication, talk therapy, and large amounts of whiskey weren't working. And so I formed the Veterans Writing Project. We give no-cost writing workshops and seminars to veterans, to service members, and to their adult family members, because we really want the family members in that circle as well. I've got a little sign up in my office that says, "Either you control the memory, or the memory controls you," and I felt like writing was what allowed me to control that memory.

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Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

If you've just joined us, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt. Through five wars over 10 years, Ron Capps whipsawed back and forth between being a decorated U.S. Army officer and a highly-regarded State Department official. As a frontline foreign service officer he was also allowed to remain in the Army reserves and serve for both branches in some of the world's deadliest places - wartime Kosovo, Darfur, Chad, Afghanistan and Iraq.

And all the while Capps was almost daily in the midst of death and bloodshed. Slowly he started to lose his sanity from all the horrors he's experienced. He was haunted by dead civilians, villagers in Kosovo, women and children in Darfur and beyond. Ron Capps has chronicled his struggles with post traumatic stress disorder in his new memoir, "Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years."

The book opens in the African desert. The author's in a pickup truck in Darfur. In his hand is a pistol, a bullet's in the chamber, the safety's off. He's about to take his own life until his phone rings.

RON CAPPS: When the phone rang I jumped, startled and nearly shot myself. This would've been somewhat ironic because I was sitting in a truck about to kill myself, and was already holding the pistol in my hand. But I would have pulled the trigger while the pistol was pointed at my foot, rather than my head.

After all the crying and shaking, the moralizing and justifying, the calming of hands and nerves, the intense focusing on the immediate act of charging the weapon to put a bullet into the firing chamber, and then taking off the safety and preparing to put the barrel in my mouth, the sudden ringing broke the spell and pulled me back from the brink.

I looked down at the phone lying on the seat of the pickup. It was wife Maureen calling from Washington, D.C.

WESTERVELT: Ron, your book is really about how you got from that point, from near suicide back to health today. Your title comes from the scale you created to monitor your own mental health. Tell us about that.

CAPPS: Right. I was in Afghanistan, and I was being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, and my doctor told me just to keep track daily of how I felt, so that we could talk about. So I created a continuum from: I feel all right at one end through vaguely not all right somewhere in the middle, and then off on the far end would be seriously not all right. And I used to scale to measure just how I felt, sometimes day by day, but sometimes, you know, hour by hour.

WESTERVELT: There are a lot of chilling sections of your book, Ron. You witnessed really a horrific amount of violence, and the breaking point comes for you in Afghanistan. You have panic attacks, you start to shake all over, you're unable to sleep. You clearly needed help then as you were in Afghanistan as a senior military intelligence analyst, yet you were reluctant to ask anyone for help. Tell us why.

CAPPS: Well, initially I was concerned that I'd be mocked and ridiculed by the soldiers I served with for breaking, for being weak. The second thing really is that I was afraid that I would lose my security clearance. As an intelligence officer you absolutely have to have a top secret security clearance or you cannot do your job. And I knew that there were some medications, if I took those medications it would require that my security clearance was at least questioned and I might lose it.

What changed was that I had over 100 people working for me spread all around the country. I was the director of human intelligence operations for all U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and I knew that if I didn't get treatment, if I was making those decisions in the condition that I was, that I was putting their lives at risk, and I just couldn't do that.

WESTERVELT: Ron, I know from personal experience journalism has come a long way in recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder. You know, it's gone from sort of you need a vacation and some scotch to realizing this is a serious, you know, condition that needs help and treatment. Do you think the Army has come far enough, as far as it needs to in terms of releasing that shame and encouraging soldiers to get help?

CAPPS: I hope so. I certainly hope so. You know, when I left at the end of 2008, there was still a stigma of asking for help for mental health problems among soldiers. I think officially at the, you know, the general officer level and at the headquarters level, everyone says all the right things, that, oh, yes, we're going to get you the treatment you need. But that may not have filtered down to the junior leaders level where things really matter among peers.

I've actually talked to solders that I served with or tried to and a couple of them have come back and said, yeah, we knew you were struggling and it was OK. But a lot of them won't even respond to my emails or to calls.

WESTERVELT: Really? Soldiers you served with and know don't respond to your emails? Do you think there's still a little bit of shame and embarrassment there?

CAPPS: I do, yeah. It's not clear why.

WESTERVELT: Do you think on some level among some soldiers there's a sense of betrayal, look, you're putting some dirty laundry out there?

CAPPS: I don't think so. I would certainly hope not. This is one person's story. This is what happened to me, and you know, I think individually there might be some people who just aren't ready to face what happened to me. Maybe they're concerned that, you know, it will rub off or something.

WESTERVELT: Ron, in the book, you talk about the importance of bearing witness to war's horrors and documenting war crimes. And just speaking for myself as a reporter who's covered his share of conflicts, I would tell myself that too. You're bearing witness. This is really important. You have to keep to going.

But there's also, for me anyway, something overly earnest about that, and a little dishonest. And I want to know from you, do you think you were also doing this dangerous work again and again in part for yourself?

CAPPS: Oh, sure. There was something inside of me during those 10 years where I knew that wanted to be the man. I wanted to be the guy that was on the ground. I thought that I was someone, if not the one who could get the story and get it back to a readership in Washington that included people who influenced policy.

I would also say that in many of these places I was tasked to go and try to stop the fighting, and, you know, as many times I failed to stop fighting, or to protect civilians, or to stop the killing somewhere, there were at least a few times that I did succeed.

WESTERVELT: So Ron, you came home from Darfur. You got help. And in 2008 you retired from the State Department, and you went on to found the Veteran's Writing Project to help veterans, in your words, write their way home. Tell us about that.

CAPPS: My personal experience was that I used writing to find the road home when medication, talk therapy and large amounts of whiskey weren't working. And so I formed the Veteran's Writing Project. We give no-cost writing workshops and seminars to veterans, to service members and to their adult family members, because we really want the family members in that circle as well.

I've got a little sign up in my office that says: Either you control the memory or the memory controls you. And I felt like writing was what allowed me to control that memory.

WESTERVELT: Ron Capps, welcome home. We're glad you're back, and thank you for your service then and now.

CAPPS: Thanks, Eric. It's a great pleasure.

WESTERVELT: Ron Capps, he's the author of the new memoir "Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WESTERVELT: Coming up, one of today's performers at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Rene Marie talks about the first ever tribute album to Eartha Kitt.

RENE MARIE: There was this delivery that Eartha Kitt gave to a song. She completely was herself, and I wanted to celebrate that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARIE: (Singing) Come on to my house. I'm going to give you grapes and cakes while you're watching me shake. Hey.

WESTERVELT: Renee Marie in the next part of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.