Giving voice to veterans and those affected by military life has come to define “continue mission” for Ryan Lanham.
The U.S. Army veteran is a second-year Master of Fine Arts student in the Department of English at Colorado State University, and he is facilitator of the University Writing Center’s Veterans Writing Workshop.
The workshop initiative welcomes anyone connected to the military to generate and share their own works of creative writing in a group setting.
“This is a place where veterans and military affiliates can share their stories and be heard,” Lanham said. “It’s a judgement-free, open group, and it doesn’t have to be writing about military experience. It can be… wherever the writer is comfortable going.”
The journal of their collected works will be Charlie Mike — the military phonetic alphabet designation for the letters C and M. For service members, this means “continue mission.” Lanham has adopted it as a call to action for pressing on in the face of military impacts on life, and it holds deep personal significance to his own journey.
The call to continue his mission, including facilitating the workshop, is the result of years of personal struggle beginning to peak around 2010 for Lanham. That was the year he left the Army, after returning from Afghanistan in 2009, and after related substance abuse through his last months in the military.
He entered what he describes as the darkest year of his life.
“I was drinking too much, as some of us do coming back from war, and I had this history of addiction that predated my time in the military,” he said. “I didn’t have the tools to stay sober at the time, so I quickly spiraled down to the blackest depths of addiction.”
It was after a suicide attempt about a year after leaving the military that he reached out for counseling and began a continuing effort to process trauma and improve his health.
He entered University of Colorado Boulder in 2014 to complete an undergraduate degree in history as his health and mental state improved. After graduating in 2016, he worked at the university as an academic coach.
“Day-in day-out I was telling students, ‘Reach for the stars, what are your biggest dreams?’” he said. “Then at some point I realized I wasn’t done dreaming myself.”
In 2018 he enrolled in the MFA program in the English department at CSU, where he now pursues his own coursework and thesis. He runs the writing workshop on Thursdays and reads submissions throughout the week. And while he continues to deal with emotional issues stemming from military service, he said that acting as facilitator and participant in the workshops has been therapeutic.
“I love it,” he said. “I love the writing and I love helping others tell their stories too.”
Lanham reflected on group interactions within the Veterans Writing Workshop sessions he’s held so far. They are spaces where participants like him write openly about things that hold emotional truth and resonance.
“What I’ve seen is a circle of strangers who are willing to let down whatever guards they have and be vulnerable in this space,” he said.
Participants shared similar sentiments and described the groups as providing an elusive type of community.
“I felt a sense that this small group of men and women were people I knew in my heart,” said U.S. Army veteran Jim Blok after his first workshop session. “These people were strangers in a literal sense, but they are my brothers and my sisters. It’s a group that I can sit here and open up with and feel completely safe… I’m home.”
U.S. Army veteran and CSU Health Network therapist Mark Cunningham (MS ‘18, Human Development and Family Studies) said personal interactions during sessions give power to his voice.
“I’m not serving as a therapist here, but it feels like there’s therapy going on in terms of just the natural, organic process that unfolds as people pour their hearts out,” he said. “Getting to read your writing and getting your chance to have them (workshop participants) reflect back what it meant to them has been very healing.”
U.S. Army Veteran Ross Atkinson (MA ‘18, English Education) took part in developing the workshop as part of his graduate studies before Lanham volunteered to facilitate. Now, as a participant, he says the informal structure incorporated by Lanham has opened doors to deeper interpersonal connection.
“That’s why it’s so powerful now for me to see,” he said. “We didn’t get that connection with the didactic student-teacher structure we had before. Now it’s just us participants; Ryan is a participant. He’s a facilitator, but he’s also a participant.”
Meanwhile, Lanham sees his role as cultivating an environment that incubates human interaction and deep expression. In the spirit of that expression, the thesis for his degree, which concludes over the next year and a half, is a memoir for which he’s completed a full draft.
“I’m hoping over the next two years to create a polished product that’s ready to go with me,” he said about the memoir. “And with the Veterans Writing Workshop, my goal is to produce a sustainable program that can be fulfilled by other student veterans coming into the pipeline.”
Charlie Mike will be published by CSU’s College of Liberal Arts and the Department of English. It will be distributed throughout the community surrounding CSU, and Lanham plans to organize public readings.
“Hopefully this becomes something that’s offered indefinitely at CSU,” he said, “with a hard copy journal being produced once a year where the writers can have their art, their voice, in the world.”
The Veterans Writing Workshop is open to active military, veterans, military families, and affiliates. Those who can’t attend are welcome to view writing prompts and submit their work online at https://english.colostate.edu/charliemike/. A schedule of sessions is also available at that webpage.