After returning from Iraq, Isaura Ramirez didn’t feel she was the same person.
She was angry, depressed and anxious, and her time overseas had only exacerbated her existing feelings of isolation. Things seemed to get even harder in the past year as she and her husband retired from the military and opened a business together while raising a child. Too many big transitions were happening at once.
It was then that Ramirez turned to comedy, taking part in a workshop held by the William & Mary Center for Veterans Engagement in the spring.
“It was a big struggle this past year,” said Ramirez. “This workshop really helped me turn my anger into something positive.”
Through comedy, writing and music, the Center for Veterans Engagement aims to help vets express themselves. The program began as the Veterans Writing Project in 2013 and morphed into the center last year through the efforts of Sam Pressler ’15. A native of New Jersey, Pressler began writing and performing stand-up to help him work through a difficult period during high school.
FREE EXPRESSION: By offering outlets through writing, music and comedy, the William & Mary Center for Veterans Engagement provides therapeutic benefits for veterans.
Photo by Skip Rowland '83
“I lost my uncle to suicide, and as a means of dealing with that, I turned to comedy,” said Pressler. “It really helped me cope.”
Though he isn’t a veteran and doesn’t come from a military family, Pressler was raised in a household that supported military-related charitable causes, and both of his grandfathers served in the Air Force.
The genesis for the project came after Pressler researched the country’s veterans benefit system for class and was shocked by what he found. At the time of his research, the Veterans Affairs system was backlogged by more than one million claims. Another statistic stood out to Pressler: on average, 22 veterans were committing suicide each day.
Noting how he had used comedy to get through hard times and the concentration of military in Hampton Roads, Va., Pressler set out to create a program to assist veterans through artistic expression.
In December 2013, Pressler invited Ron Capps, founder of the Veterans Writing Project, to give a seminar on writing. The event was so popular, Capps returned for two more sessions the following spring.
The popularity of the seminars led to the creation of the Center for Veterans Engagement and the Hampton Roads Veterans Writing Group. The latter is a sustained community for writers that meets regularly, conducting readings and giving feedback.
The Center for Veterans Engagement also partnered with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s MusiCorps to pair William & Mary musicians one-on-one with combat veterans, teaching them to play music.
But Pressler takes particular pride in the program’s Comedy Boot Camp.
“It’s the first-ever stand-up class with veterans,” said Pressler. “At the end of eight weeks they can get onstage and perform a five-minute set.”
Ramirez got involved after her husband saw a flier for the program and signed her up. Since joining, Ramirez says she’s felt more comfortable expressing herself.
“I just don’t relate to a lot of people,” she said. “I’m always the odd one out. I’m Puerto Rican, so I’m not really foreign. … It is a different culture, but I also don’t fit the Hispanic stereotype.”
At the time of this writing, Ramirez had upcoming shows planned at the Kimball Theatre, Langley Air Force Base and Fort Eustis.
Another veteran who has benefitted from William & Mary’s program is Jenny Loveland, who served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. After retiring in 1996, Loveland pursued a fine arts degree from Christopher Newport University on the G.I. Bill, and developed an interest in painting, teaching and writing.
After attending a two-day writing seminar, Loveland began joining regular writing sessions. As of this spring, she planned to participate in a special veterans reading in Norfolk, Va., to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day in June.
“Veterans who have an interest in expressing and working through their story get a lot of support and work on craftsmanship,” said Loveland of the writing program. “It’s through sharing stories in a constructive way that I think the veterans feel like their situation is not unique.”
Pressler hopes to take the model he created at William & Mary on the road as the newly formed Armed Services Arts Partnership, or ASAP.
“We’re looking to replicate what we’ve started at William & Mary at schools with high military and veteran populations across the country,” said Pressler, who has filed for 501(c)3 status.
In scouting for possible locations, Pressler said the ideal is a school with a large number of students that would want to volunteer. At present, Pressler has his eye set on the metro Washington, D.C. area for the next phase of the program.
HEADLINER: Isaura Ramirez participated in the program’s Comedy Boot Camp this past spring.
Photo by Skip Rowland '83
“A lot of our programs are ready to go up there; it’s just about finalizing that partnership with whichever university we hope to partner with,” said Pressler, who is ASAP’s president.
For Pressler, who just graduated this spring as a government major, the choice of what to do after college was an easy one.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else after graduating,” said Pressler of the program and its potential. “I didn’t want to look back and regret not following through with it because it’s so meaningful to me, it’s so meaningful to the people involved.”
Over Memorial Day weekend, CNN featured Joe Bruni, a World War II veteran participating in the writing clinic at the William & Mary Center for Veterans Engagement. Bruni’s poem, “Ode to Joe,” about a fallen friend at the Battle of Iwo Jima, was included in a segment filmed on campus at Miller Hall.
See the piece on CNN for more.