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Storytelling program created by actor Tom Skerritt helps veterans returning home

Helping veterans after they return home
Program works to help veterans assimilate into civilian life after returning home 07:50

Actor Tom Skerritt understands first-hand how storytelling could help U.S. veterans returning home after their military service.

The 90-year-old Hollywood actor – whose appearance in 1962's "War Hunt" led to roles in "M*A*S*H*", "Top Gun" and others – served four years in the Air Force.

In 2012, Skerritt met Evan Baily, who had recently returned stateside after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together, they worked to pitch the Red Badge Project, which helps veterans work through their issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and re-assimilate into civilian life through storytelling.

"It starts with that wanting to help someone else rather than talking about it," Skerritt said. "I just got tired of talking about this if I could do something about it."

The Red Badge Project. CBS Saturday Morning

Skerritt and Bailey were the perfect match for this program: Bailey knew which doors to knock on and Skerritt's Hollywood resume helped them open up.

"Tom is the most genuine," said Bailey. "He is not in this because he's a celebrity, but because he cares. With these vets, you can't fake it."

One year after they met, the project became a reality. The inaugural class of the Red Badge Project was conducted in partnership with veteran affairs centers and hospitals across Washington State. 

Howard Harrison, who served as a medic during the Vietnam War, is one of the hundreds of veterans to have worked with the Red Badge Project to share his story.

"You share things there that you may not have shared with anybody else, and you feel safe in sharing that with other veterans, and you really get to know them, year after year," Harrison said.  

Inside the classrooms, multi-media writer Warren Etheredge and author Suzanne Morrison teach the mechanics of storytelling. Morrison also leads classes for female veterans like Crystal Lee Dandridge, a torpedo man's mate adjusting to civilian life after 12 years in the Navy. She said she felt "displaced" until she found the Red Badge Project. 

A message to veterans confronting PTSD 01:27

Dandridge said the work she did in the classroom let her open up about a traumatic experience on her first day back at work after having her son. A shipmate's mother had gifted her a handmade doll, she wrote, but shortly after returning she found the doll "lynched by single rubber bands linked together to form a noose, dangling from a thumbtack, piercing my baby's picture straight through his forehead." Dandridge was later informed that the person responsible received disciplinary action, but was allowed to remain in the military.  

"Reading it out the first time, it was like I gained some awareness of it, like acceptance that it happened. This really and truly happened. But I also gained some healing and perspective of the whole ordeal," Dandridge said. 

The Red Badge Project has now expanded to five cities throughout Washington state. Over a thousand veterans have taken part in the program. 

"I tell my kids, when they ask me what I did in the military: 'We take care of each other,'" Bailey said. "That's what I continue to do through Red Badge."

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