A crowd gathers under a red and white striped tent. An emcee introduces Ryan Lanham, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who lives in Fort Collins.
He’s working on a memoir about the horrors he faced as an Army infantryman intertwined with his years of alcohol and drug abuse. His vignettes are “snapshots of existence,” the emcee says, “that form a gestalt mosaic of a life upended, a turning away from the light, his dark night of the soul.”
This happened at the recent Lit Fest, put on by the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.
Lanham, who will later this year lead a creative writing program at Colorado State University for people with military stories to tell, steps into the applause. Then he reads from a piece called “Clearing Instructions for the M-4 Series Weapon,” about his Army-issued rifle.
First step: important details, like placing the weapon’s selector lever on safe. He adds his own reflection: “When I’m shaving at the side view mirror of my truck, dipping the razor into a cold cup of water; when mortars begin to fall out of the clear blue sky exploding all around us, I won’t know which direction is safe.”
Word by word, his accounting becomes more intense, more life or death. It culminates with the emcee encouraging listeners to take a deep, purifying breath.
Researchers with the Department of Veterans Affairs found in a 2015 study of 1,300 Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans that creative writing reduces post-traumatic stress symptoms. The veterans also reported lower levels of anger, distress — even fewer physical complaints — along with a heightened sense of belonging and social support.
Lanham agrees with those findings and is preparing to bring such benefits to Northern Colorado. His own story mirrors the trend. He’s far removed from the dangers he faced in the war. His home in Fort Collins sits on a tree-lined street. It’s safe. Lanham has a kind smile, shaven head, and goatee. He grew up in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I was kind of a shy kid, a wallflower,” he says. “So I stood back a little bit. My dad was a preacher on Sunday mornings to kind of a small congregation. Living room preacher kind of guy. So, conservative background.”
By the time he was in high school, though, he fell into drugs and drinking, initially as a way to numb the emotional pain of a failed relationship.
“I had whatever that X factor is that of an addict or an alcoholic: blackout drinker from the first day, problematic for the next 15 years of my life,” Lanham says.
For three years in his mid 20s, Lanham’s home was a couch. When the lifestyle caught up with some of his friends, taking their lives, Lanham saw it as a wakeup call. At the same time, other friends had entered the military and were getting out. They told Lanham to think about joining.
“So I thought about it for a while and I realized, ‘Okay. I need a huge change,’” he says. “‘I’m flatlining here. I need to do something different.’”
When he met an Army recruiter in 2007, he had a long list of substance-abuse offenses to overcome. Yet the Army gave him a chance. So at the age of 27 he became an infantryman and was based at Fort Drum in New York.
“The Infantry route seemed like a way of having some crazy, life-changing experience,” Lanham says.
Before he knew it, he was at a forward operating base in Afghanistan’s dangerous Logar Province south of Kabul. He was shot at and he shot back.
He recounts what happened and what could have been worse. One vignette he wrote is called “Almost.”
“It’s this idea of almost something happening,” he says, reading an excerpt from it.
A month ago, the first IED exploded under my truck. I was seated below the gunner near the rear. The blast was deafening. Time grew still. I watched as the innards of our metal beast lurched skyward. The black bands we used to strap down equipment inside the truck stretched with the force of the explosion. If one snapped, whatever it held down would become a projectile.
Lanham returned from Afghanistan in late 2009 with his old problem: drinking and run-ins with the law. He wound up in the Army’s substance abuse program, which helped him stay clean through his final months.
Afterwards, he went home to Fort Worth and enrolled in community college. There was a new problem to add to his list — the emotional trauma of serving in the war. He backslid into drinking.
“Somehow that was still a better option than whatever my regular state of mind was and sure enough within a year I spiraled down as low as you could get: wrecked the car, spent all the money, lost my job, got kicked out of school, was losing the apartment,” Lanham says.
He was 31 years old then.
“So, with all the drinking, I was doing drugs and all the residual stuff from war, you know, the scenes from there, I just thought, ‘Nope. Gonna end it,’” Lanham says.
He failed in his suicide attempts and then succeeded in finding help, including treatment in Carbondale at the Colorado Addiction and Rehab Treatment Center, a place called Jaywalker Lodge. There, he latched onto a simple suggestion to help him stay sober: have fun.
“So when you show up there, part of the cost gets you a ski pass and you do mountain bike trips in Moab and you get a gym membership and yoga,” he says.
That was more than seven years ago. Sobriety stuck, as well as another seed that was planted there: that Lanham could write about his life as a form of self-therapy.
Writing for veterans
After getting a history degree at the University of Colorado-Boulder, he enrolled in CSU’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative nonfiction. Yet oddly, writing about the war had not crossed his mind until one of his mentors at CSU asked him about it. From there, the vignettes began to flow into his memoir.
Now he wants to help others harness the powers of creative nonfiction.
“What about all the people who are silenced?” Lanham says.
The silenced? They’re veterans, Lanham says, and with CSU’s help he is going to give them a voice. He welcomes them all, even the ones who think they can’t write, to stitch together words into stories that others may have never thought to ask them about.
“Those are the people we want,” Lanham says.
In this way, Lanham also aims to bridge what experts dub the miltiary-civil divide. The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service is studying the issue this year, preparing recommendations for everyone from the average citizen to the president. The concern is that the public knows too little about the sacrifices of troops and their families.
CSU has created a two-year internship position for Lanham to reach out to Northern Colorado.
“I will be in charge of turning this into a really well oiled machine that hopefully exists in perpetuity after me,” he says.
The vision is to publish stories annually — and to create a pipeline of student-veterans to lead the project in the years ahead. The door is open to more than students and veterans of all eras, Lanham adds. He hopes to hear from military families — anyone with a significant military connection and a story to be told.
MORE: To learn more about CSU’s veterans writing program, contact Ryan Lanham via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.