The Dialogue of Our Demons

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

I woke up this morning with the greatest idea for a story that I’ve had yet. The characters and their plight rolled around in my head as I ascended the stairs to the living room. I dug around in my assault pack for the leather-bound notebook I use to write down my ideas and began building my outline. The thoughts and ideas flowed out easily, building up the excitement of starting a new project. Then, all of a sudden, it hit me. The story line was much like a story I’d read before and even seen on the big screen. It was just Fight Club without the underground fighting, so it’s okay to talk about.

It’s funny to think about. A good friend of mine and I had a good laugh about it over text message. My disappointment over the fact that I won’t be writing a literary masterpiece is even humorous in its own right. The incident got me thinking, though. It got me wondering about what triggers my creativity, what makes me feel compelled to write, and what brought me to come up with a plot that is based on the duality of human nature and the fragmentation of psyche. Most creative works are born of experience in some way, shape or form, so I suppose my idea was my inner “Tyler Durden” coming out.


I had a psych appointment this week, a reevaluation for my VA rating. I dread the psychologist’s office and have, by and large, avoided going since my untimely departure from the US Army. To me, talking about the things I have been through to a stranger is a significant emotional event. Speaking the words is much more difficult than writing them down. Somehow, talking about it out loud invokes that rottenness and evil in me to bubble to the surface like the Ouija Board calls spirits into your kitchen. Writing it out doesn’t make my experiences any less true, it just doesn’t bring out those deep dark feelings and memories that I keep buried way down in the recesses of my mind the way that talking does. Talking about it reminds me that there is another person sharing little pockets of my brain. It’s like having a split personality for a short time. Talking about it is like having a conversation with a guy you were cellmates with in prison. You no longer live together, but you’ll always be cellmates. You’ll always have shared horrors and memories. A part of you will always be in prison with him. Writing about him is like telling a fiction story, but talking about him makes it real. Writing is liberating to me. Talking about it feels like being in a prison.

That’s it though isn’t it? The trigger is the stress involved in having to express all of the horrible things I’ve seen and done to another human being. The stress of talking about it is what compels me to write it out. It’s a safer alternative. Thousands of people have read the articles I’ve written. A vast majority of them are strangers that I will most assuredly never meet in person, though a small fraction are people I know. Even fewer are individuals that I know well. One could argue that I habitually express myself and how I feel about my experiences through the articles that I write, and that it’s the same thing as talking about it. I agree with that to an extent. The difference is that I can say what I want on my own terms and in my own words without being asked a series of standardized questions designed to help someone analyze my problem. In writing and posting what I write, I am afforded the luxury of distance from those that read my words. It’s that distance from the reader that makes my method of dealing with the trauma of war effective for me.

Maybe I should write the story anyway. J.D. Salinger once said “I like to write. I live to write. But I write for myself and my own pleasure.” I should write it for nothing else but for my own sanity and to let go of the things that my cellmate subjected me to. The more I write, the less my time in the mental prison is painful, the less room my cellmate takes up, the better I feel. Maybe I should talk out loud about it more though? If that’s what gets the creativity flowing and gets all of this out of my head, then maybe I should subject myself to the talking aspect more often in order to get it out more effectively through writing.

Maybe the dialogue of my demons can exist in both places.

Submissions Call for Think Pieces

Military Experience & the Arts is now seeking writers to contribute opinion editorial pieces for our weekly, Tuesday release. Subject matter should pertain to Veteran issues or experiences and should be at least 750 words and no more than 1,000 words. Not all submissions will be selected for publication. Please submit opinion editorial pieces to



An Interview with Jason Poudrier

by Vicky Smith

Military Experience & the Arts (MEA) brought together military and civilian cultures during its second national symposium, held May 14-17 at Cameron University.

According to a press release, MEA is “a national 501 (C) 3 non-profit organization dedicated to serving military veterans and the artistic experience primarily through honoring unbiased creative expression.”

The press release also stated that the event offered over 70 skill-building workshops, daily meals, transportation, “a safe environment for social exchange among veterans” and four featured performers, including Exit 12 Dance Company, keynote speaker Benjamin Patton, theater actor Doug Berky and Oklahoma flutist Albert Gray Eagle.

Director of the MEA symposium Jason Poudrier, who is an instructor in the Cameron University Office of Teaching and Learning, said the main purpose of the event was to “directly connect military veterans with the arts.”

Poudrier said the turnout of the event was wonderful.

“Overall, we had about 175 [people] involved. That’s despite the storms,” he said. “Everything I wanted to offer, as far as the event goes, was offered.”

The featured performers are nationally recognized, and Poudrier said he enjoyed each one.

“As far as the most moving performance,” he said. “I would have to say it would be the collaborative, [improvised] performance of Albert Gray Eagle and Exit 12 Dance Company…You could see the push and pull of the arts happening as Albert Gray Eagle played and the Exit 12 performers danced. It was magical.”

Although he was pleased with the event, he said he hopes more local veterans can attend future events, since the majority of veteran attendees were from out of state.

“One of my main reasons for bringing it to Lawton, Okla., was that I believe it was something that the Lawton/Ft. Sill community so needed,” he said. “I wanted this event to be a start of several other events…The participants that did arrive have already reached out to me to organize other smaller events, so we know it will build in this community.”

Poudrier said veterans and their families actually experienced healing through the arts, which was a goal of the symposium.

“We actually had an email afterwards talking about a couple that…brought their kids along,” he said, “but they actually weren’t their kids. They were the kids of a military veteran.”

Poudrier said the military veteran could no longer care for her kids and had recently chosen to be homeless.

“They [the couple] said it was wonderful to watch the kids experience the arts,” he said, “[and to] actually watch them work through some of their emotions that they have with the relationship with their mom.”

Other goals of the symposium were for veterans to experience healing through sharing their stories and through connecting with representatives of organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).

“One of the cool things that happened during these art workshops was people talked about their stories in safe environments,” he said, “and then you have DAV reps there, and they can ask, ‘So do you get compensation for that? Have you filled out the paperwork to do this?’”

Personally, Poudrier even experienced healing through directing the symposium.

MEA Staff
MEA Director of Events Jason Poudrier

“I think the biggest thing for me was a rebuilding of confidence,” he said. “When I was discharged from the military, I faced depression; I faced survivor’s guilt, post-traumatic stress, and I lost a lot of confidence in myself. When I was in, I had a very successful military career until I was diagnosed with PTSD, and I was profiled from deployment.”

He said in order to receive a medical discharge, he had to prove how disabled he was.

“I literally had to fill out forms saying how dysfunctional I was,” he said, “and so that basically destroyed a lot of my self-esteem…I became very afraid of taking on tasks because I felt as if I was going to personally destroy them or I was incapable of doing them.”

According to Poudrier, the symposium enabled him to heal because it showed him once again what he is capable of doing.

“It was a success,” he said. “I can be the leader that I was when I was in the U.S. Army and I was at the peak of my career. I can do that now in the civilian world, and I can do things that are meaningful and helpful to others.

“I want other veterans to know that just because they are filling out those forms for the military doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be able to function in the civilian world. They [can] continue to work through those things and become somebody who is actually greater than they ever were before from their military experiences.”

For Poudrier, Cameron University was his safe place when he transitioned from the military to the civilian environment, so he was happy with the campus-wide support he received throughout the event. He received help from Professor Katherine Liontas-Warren with the Cameron Art Department, Mr. David Bublitz, student James Wilson and the custodial staff – just to name a few.

“I think the event really reflected positively on Cameron,” he said. “Everyone was like, ‘Wow, Cameron’s a beautiful campus; this place is awesome.’…I want more soldiers to know how wonderful Cameron can be, how personable most of the instructors are [and] how willing they are to work with you.”

For people who were unable to attend the MEA symposium, Poudrier hopes they are able to attend future events in the Lawton/Ft. Sill area.

“You have to take advantage of those moments when they’re here,” he said, “and you have to look at your life and say, ‘What’s the most meaningful thing I could be doing with my life right now?’

“You start realizing how things that you think are important, in the grand scheme of your life, may not be as important as you think they are in the moment in which they seem so important.”

Poudrier said that the next national MEA symposium is expected to be held in 2018 and the location is under final deliberation. If anyone is interested in organizing a local event that involves the arts or veterans, Poudrier said he is willing to help provide guidance.

“They can email me [at]” he said. “I’ll put them into contact with the workshop leaders in order to bring them out…The infrastructure’s there.”


Living With Killing: Lifting the Weight of Moral Injury

by David P. Ervin

In “What’s It Like to Kill Someone?” Travis Switalski delved into the depths of an important question. He answered it adeptly, employing the kind of candidness that makes that conversation enlightening and worthwhile. It’s a dialogue that we are afraid to have with ourselves, much less with the vast majority of the society in which we live. It is a necessary one. And, of course, like any provocative piece of writing, he also raised another important question.

What’s it like to live with killing in war?

We live with it by going through a crucible of sorts, navigating our way through some dark psychological terrain. As Switalski wrote, calculated indoctrination and reflexes enable us to cross the threshold initially. Then the abstract justifies it for a time. For in doing this deed we have followed the rules of war. We have preserved the safety of our fellow soldiers. We’ve fulfilled our duty. Overall, we’ve participated in an act of violence that’s morally sanctioned by the state, something done to advance an endeavor intended to liberate others and protect our country. For a while, those metrics apply – long enough, at least, drive on and finish the mission.

But after a while those aren’t the means by which we measure ourselves and our conduct. We don’t look to them in the middle of the night to comfort ourselves.


In order to kill we tapped into something in ourselves that is frightening and grotesque. When the context of training, duty, and politics is stripped away, we feel we’ve perpetrated something that is terribly wrong. We deprived people of something far more precious than any number of abstract ideals. We deprived them of their life. We know that despite the goal of providing people with freedom we showered them with violence, misery, and bloodshed. It’s enough to shatter our beliefs about the world and our place in it, and it does. Killing can create a phenomenon known as ‘moral injury.’ It’s defined as the psychological impact of transgressing core human values and beliefs.

That is the part we don’t live with. Dealing with a moral injury fosters a plethora of damaging behaviors and beliefs. Overall, we consciously stop believing we deserve life, especially any semblance of a good one. It can be a major catalyst of suicide. Even if not taken to that extreme, it impacts us in more subtle ways. We sabotage relationships and isolate ourselves from the world because we feel our souls are somehow poisoned. We have a peculiar tendency to believe that anything good that happens in our life is a mistake that requires correction. We think any good fortune is an anomaly because the world is an inherently malevolent place. You could say that it darkens our horizons.

But it doesn’t have to.

Someone once told me that, “You should be the best man you can be because that is the most real way that you can provide justice in an unjust world.” Those words have resonated deeply, and I think of them often. There is more truth in that statement than there is in the belief that we don’t deserve to see the brighter side of life. And there is, in fact, a way to cement that more positive mindset.

The real atonement for perpetrating and witnessing such horrors is to transcend them. They can – and probably should – define us for the rest of our lives, but how we shape that definition is up to us. We can regain our belief in the goodness in ourselves and in others by being a good person and serving selflessly. There is a multitude of ways to do so. We can be helpful to our neighbors, generous with our time, and magnanimous in our daily conduct. We can volunteer in the community or simply be a comfort to someone going through rough times. By engaging in the type of altruism that makes the world a better place we can see that it is not all so dark. We can carve out a small place in it that we know is good.

By guiding others to a brighter place we’ve helped create, maybe one day we’ll find ourselves in it. Of course, even if we don’t, we’ll know that in our time we’ve given the world something more than misery and bloodshed. Above all, we’ll know that there’s something good in ourselves to give.