Ron Pickett, who retired as a captain after 26 years in the Navy, said the San Diego County Veterans Writing Group has given him a chance to describe what it’s like to fly the Douglas A-1 Skyraider and other airplanes — an experience that might have otherwise been lost. Courtesy photo

Writing group helps veterans find their voice

ENCINITAS — The feeling of hopping into a plane in the middle of the night and preparing for a nuclear strike might seem like the domain of a fiction writer. 

But Ron Pickett, who flew airplanes for the Navy for 26 years, described the real sensation in a short story called, “Three Minutes to Engine Start.”

“There is something about holding the lives of perhaps a hundred thousand people in your hands, or more precisely, under the belly of your plane, that sobers, matures and ages you,” Pickett wrote in the piece, which describes his time piloting a Douglas A-1 Skyraider in the late 1950s at the age of 22.

This week, Pickett said that fortunately he never had to drop a nuclear weapon, though the sights and sounds of frequent drills remained with him. It’s unlikely he would have chronicled the experience if he hadn’t joined the San Diego County Veterans Writing Group.

“Documenting the experiences of military members is what I’m trying to do,” Pickett said. “There are fewer people involved in the military today as a percentage than in the past. I want to pass on these senses, these experiences to help civilians relate with those in the military.”

The group, now in its third year, meets once a month throughout the county. On May 20 at 6 p.m., they’ll be at E Street Café during a feature presentation at open mic night. The members span generations and conflicts. But they share an unabashed love of writing.

Pickett said the group is a way for some veterans to examine and overcome difficult issues they experienced while in the service. For him, he said the group is more about documenting the experiences of pilots on aircraft carriers.

“I don’t necessarily write very deep things,” said Pickett, who lives in Escondido and joined the group more than a year ago. “What I like do is nailing down the sensory inputs of being on an (aircraft) carrier.

“It’s interesting to observe,” he added. “There’s tons of people on the carrier. There’s this ballet of various colors and equipment moving around all at once when missions are happening.”

Pickett’s stories, first and foremost, paint a scene. And although not overt, his pieces also pick apart stereotypes of veterans.

For instance, he said military members are often depicted as having “very fixed, archaic approaches to leadership and life.” That doesn’t square with the veterans he knows and captures in his stories who are “very open-minded and intelligent,” he said.

And he said some wrongly believe that skills learned in the military might not transfer to civilian life.

“You learn how to work with people from around the nation and world,” Pickett said. “Having this breadth of experience, what could be a better way to prepare you to succeed in life and be a well-rounded individual?”

Even before he picked up a pen to write about flying, he was dispelling simple characterizations of those in the military. In the early 1970s, after serving two combat tours in Vietnam, he was working on his master’s degree in leadership management in Monterrey, Calif. Many students in the area were vehemently against the war and those involved.

“We were referred to as names like ‘Yankee air pilot,’” Pickett said. “And yet, they knew me as this guy who was working hard and tried to be compassionate and understanding.

“That was kind of the genesis of my commitment to breaking down the wall between civilian and military,” he added. He noted that it’s easier to reach more people through the written word.

Pickett said he enjoys hearing the variety of perspectives presented during the meetings, from young to old — and female veterans as well.

Marine Corps veteran and San Clemente resident Stacey Thompson said that she writes poems to chronicle and ease post-traumatic stress disorder. She wouldn’t have put pen to paper without the encouragement of like-minded people in the group.

“I was timid at the first meet up,” Thompson said. “After a while, I saw it was a safe environment for the subject matter. I felt I could open up.”

She explained that initially she was ashamed to have PTSD, believing it shouldn’t affect her. But hearing others in the group share their experiences with the condition made her realize how common it is.

Prior to entering the military, she often wrote for fun. Yet she found out just how cathartic the act can be, letting her pinpoint her fears and look at them in a new way.

“Veterans take the war home with them,” Thompson said. “They need a way to get it out.”

The Los Angeles Writers Guild Foundation holds writing workshops with the San Diego Veterans Writing Group.

Through the workshops, she was put in touch with Tactical 16, a publisher that recently signed her. Her upcoming book, tentatively titled “Plausible Deniability,” will feature a mixture of poetry and prose that delves into her teenage life, as well as developing post-traumatic stress later.

Gail Chatfield, the co-founder of the group, said that she’s seen substantial improvements in many in the group who are dealing with PTSD and other issues.

Some in the group, she noted, write about topics that aren’t necessarily related to their time in the military.

“Writing helps them tap into a deeper place, no matter the subject,” Chatfield said.

“We want them to have the tools to do so,” Chatfield added.