The Gulf War Poet: How Poetry Helped This Veteran Process His Experience

“I wrote this book … as a way of seeking answers.”

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After military service, many veterans face the difficult prospect of transitioning back to civilian life. This not only means finding a fulfilling career, but it may also include finding ways to process traumatic experiences. For United States Army Veteran Anthony Aiello, writing and poetry was the perfect outlet.

Aiello, who served in the Gulf War, originally joined the military because he knew he needed to “grow up” before going to college. He wanted to develop discipline and focus. The military experience also offered him a way to afford college, where his goal was to major in English Literature.

The “Veteran Experience”

During his sophomore year of college—after serving for two years in the Gulf War—Aiello began thinking more about this military experience. He began reading poems, novels, and memoirs about war.

As he studied, he became fascinated with the “veteran experience.” Although he recognizes that there’s no “one” experience for all veterans, he started having nightmares about other soldiers’ experiences. He dreamt about fighting in Vietnam or being in the trenches of World War I.

“That became a more than 10-year journey to just figure out what had happened to me, and to figure out what happens [to] soldiers in combat,” says Aiello. “All these big questions started coming up. How have I changed as a result of combat? What did it mean to be responsible for the deaths of other people?”

Using Poetry to Process His Veteran Experience

In 2014, Aiello published Equipment: Gulf War Poems. “I wrote this book not necessarily as therapy, but as a way of seeking answers and a way of shaping my memories,” says Aiello. “It's an examination of a kid who goes to combat, and then the war as it follows him home.”

Aiello’s technique actually aligns with cognitive processing therapy, according to the American Psychological Association. This is a subtype of therapy that helps people who have experienced trauma. It helps patients challenge and tweak their beliefs about what happened. This can help them have a more helpful and less negative understanding of the traumatic event. Learn more about treatment for PTSD in veterans here.

Aiello wanted to get his questions down on the page, and even answer them. “I wrote it to give myself some sort of final shape for those experiences so I didn't have to constantly remember them,” he says. He hopes sharing his story might help other veterans, too.

Writing helped Aiello, but it’s not the only way to cope with military trauma. Here are coping tips for veterans with PTSD here.