Stories Connect Us: The Power Inside a Homefront Foundation Event
Storytelling does not require skill or talent but a willingness to be vulnerable and authentic.
It wasn’t very long ago I found myself saying, “What can storytelling teach me, a military officer and combat veteran, about leadership?” Now, I hold that thought in my mind going into every workshop we facilitate. Storytelling has not been part of a servicemember’s development or a veteran’s transition program—but it needs to be.
Storytelling helps start conversations and break down walls
The Homefront Foundation’s goal is to teach veterans and servicemembers how to tell their story. In partnership with Ariel, we’re working to teach people how sharing their story—and often being vulnerable in doing so—can be an invaluable experience. Even beyond this, when veterans and servicemembers share their stories, they’re giving their communities an inside view of what they have dealt with, or are currently dealing with. Through single-day workshops broken into three phases: discovery, development, and delivery, participants are guided through a process to help them tell their story in a meaningful way.
We recently held an event for a group of veterans who were all hoping to learn how to use their story personally and professionally. I’d like to walk you through this event and the value of those like it, to help you fully understand the powerful results we see from storytelling.
We began the day as always with introductions, discussing leadership, setting ground rules, and then asking the following questions: What’s going well? Where are you going? What’s getting in the way? What relationships are helping? What are you committed to? These questions help everyone open up—we could already see the emotional walls coming down. People start to feel comfortable and share their struggles:
“I’m not committed to anything, really,” claimed a US Air Force Senior Officer, after expressing feeling like his past hadn’t had much of an impact on others. Then this accomplished and overly modest medical doctor was interrupted by another participant.
“I know you…I know you. You don’t recognize me. I am a different man today because of you.” This participant went on to say that two years prior, following a bad accident, this doctor was the surgeon who had saved his leg and the reason he could walk today. Creating bonds and building relationships like these at the start (this was 45 minutes into a 5-hour workshop…) using personal stories is an incredible way to lead to the rest of the day: discovery and development.
Discovery and development
In the discovery phase, participants reflect back on their life’s events and then discuss in small groups one single event they are comfortable sharing. The stories told often have never been told before and may never be told again—this becomes a safe space for veterans and servicemembers to share things that are deep and real, and that they don’t often get to (or want to) talk about.
My group heard a story of the Vietnam War. The story started with a tough kid from the Bronx knowing he needed to get out of the city and the way to do it then was by enlisting. Not long after, he found himself on a river boat in the middle of the jungle: “I remember standing on the back of the boat; it was a beautiful night. We had just dropped off our marines the day before, and then it started: I began seeing the tracer rounds going over my head.”
He went on to tell us how it felt watching, knowing it was his friends fighting—some even dying for him and his country. He finished his story by referencing his personal connection to the final scene of Saving Private Ryan: Ryan, visiting the grave of his Captain, says, “I hope at the end of the day I have earned all that you have done for me…tell me I have lived a good life, tell me I am a good man.” Being able to share an intensely personal story like this allowed this vet to turn a painful memory into something more—into a way to let others in on a piece of his life.
In the afternoon, we shift to the development phase where time is spent creating messages, linking stories, and teaching various storytelling techniques to build a 3-minute story that truly has meaning. This part of the day is where we link the body, words, and voice with the story. This is often a challenge with a group of men and women who would be more comfortable marching or standing silently in formation than possibly looking silly.
This day was different. The facilitator, Doug Hall, an actor and theater director led a few exercises that even made the marine of the group let loose. Doug reminded us that when telling a story, with words, voice, and body, it may feel wrong but it looks right. Using these techniques and a suggested story format, the group was partnered up and assigned coaches to work on their story. During this time, we try to remind everyone that it’s a process, not a product.
What’s the outcome we look for at an event like this?
We know that sharing stories has value for veterans and servicemembers, and we know that hearing stories has value for family and community members. All we are looking to do is help these people uncover their story and use it as a strategic tool to heal, grow themselves, and build relationships with others—whether in a personal or professional environment.
As a closing for every workshop, the group is brought together and everyone is encouraged to share their story.
We heard of a young soldier’s need to re-enlist to provide for his newborn son and how hard decisions and sacrifice have led him to where he is today.
We learned from an Army medic who used her story of treating soldiers in a combat zone to understanding the need to be strong for others.
A Navy sailor and mother told how she was inspired to help children with learning disabilities after refusing to give up on her own son who had been challenged at a young age.
An Air Force medic told us how he truly discovered life’s higher purpose when helping a young Afghan girl after losing her leg to a roadside bomb.
A recently retired Army Ranger told the story of saving a young man from drowning during a dive accident and how he was inspired to start his own scuba diving company.
An off-duty police officer and former marine told his heroic story of how he risked his life to stop a man who was shooting at innocent people at a bus station and just now, years later, has found closure.
And then the story from the non-veteran, one that impacted me and everyone in the room: a bike accident victim and coma survivor shared how he learned to interpret PTSD to mean “Post Traumatic Self Discovery,” and how while others may see you as a fall risk, in life you must risk falling to grow.
Clearly, the techniques we teach can be applied across a wide variety of audiences and situations. We’ve personally seen so many positive outcomes and heard so many deep life lessons, like the ones I’ve just shared, and that’s what motivates us to continue sharing the power of storytelling as a strategic tool for veterans and servicemembers.
Since forming in 2016, The Homefront Foundation has worked with over 300 veterans and servicemembers and their families to help them tell their story. With the support of Ariel and others we continue to strengthen communities through these heroes’ stories.