Like many Americans I rarely thought about war vets. I didn’t until I bumped into one in the sleek lobby of a Manhattan office building. David stood there squat as a tank, wearing a perpetual frown, a flop of black hair, and an Iraq vets T-shirt. Innocently, I asked the sergeant when he had come home. “I haven’t come home,”he answered staring me down.” Some of us are never coming home.”
Haunted by that memory, David rode my shoulder like a demanding Jiminy Cricket forcing me to notice pain I had ignored. Making me search for anything that would help the psychically wounded vets who are unable to complete the journey back to their essential selves or to a country that doesn’t see them.
I phoned him to share my find about a psychologist who developed a therapy for vets based on the steps of a journey home. Most of the time I had been able to catch David between his organizing on vets issues, a crusade driven by his anger and smarts, by his skill and energy that usually overrode his war damage. Only, suddenly, he wasn’t answering his cell or e-mail. I worried. Wondered what hell of flashbacks and nightmares and distrust he might be in across the chasm separating citizens and soldiers.
To understand why he had disappeared into the woodwork, I went to see the psychologist who was expert enough on the journey home to be invited to lecture at West Point. I found him at an upstate NY farmhouse that was pure Americana, all rocking chairs and petunias. Its rooms would soon fill with the soldiers, the shadows, the remnants of the brutality that is part of war and its warriors.
Dr. Edward Tick was pouring himself a cup of tea in the vast, honey-pine dining room tacked on to the old house. A man of warmth and some fifty years, as we settled in at a long mess-hall table, he immediately shared my concern about David and the other vets hiding out. With a spill of words far from cold analysis, he offered one reason they can not come home. “Most Americans,” he said, “don’t reach out to them to offer more than college and a little therapy. That’s not enough. It’s not the same as saying bring your horror home and tell us your stories and we will feel it and we will take responsibility for what you did in our name. That is all missing and has to happen.”
Distress flickered over his round, ruddy face. Leaning his slight frame into the conversation, he did his j’accuse,” “It is the country’s psychic numbing of memories of war, not only the vets’ that leaves them drifting in limbo. Traditional cultures didn’t turn away from the ugliness of battle and knew a communal cure was needed for returning warriors.”
He was very present. Very concentrated. His empathy for soldier’s who couldn’t come home was personal. His father returned from World War II to sit in the living room, but never really recovered from the brutality he inflicted on others and himself as a military policeman. If as a child he was too young to help his father, he has spent the last thirty years trying to heal other soldiers.
It certainly included the vets who had come for the weekend retreat, and I wished David were with them. When the dinner bell began clanging to summon the soldiers from their scattered housing, I imagined his scowling face among the men straggling into the dinning hall in small clumps. The grey hair of some of the vets crowding the vegetarian buffet and piling spinach casserole on their plates seemed proof of the failure of society and standard therapy. Long after their tour in Vietnam, they were still desperately searching for relief.
Ed Tick, who respected these warriors for their sense of service, but had protested against war since he was 15, didn’t to go along with the prevailing therapy. Raising his voice above the rattle of silverware, he said his new approach tosses out the current practice of mainly managing symptoms, of rushing vets to their future without much looking back at their acts during the war. It no longer deals with their problem just as an anxiety disorder.
“Instead,” he continued, glancing often at the men testing each other at nearby tables,”I treat the core of the soldiers’ illness, the moral trauma and identity disorder caused by their behavior in combat. I use an experiential, approach to crack their frozen emotions in ways talk therapy rarely can. I’ve even adapted some of the communal steps practiced by warrior societies to bring their fighters home.”
The evening session was his version of a tending ceremony by elders, the first thing warrior cultures did for those returning from battle. There was a bit of everything else mixed in. With an informality that invited the use of his first name, he sat cross legged on the floor of the meditation center preparing a bowl of burning sage leaves. It was for purification as a way of making visceral the idea they could rid themselves of the burden of their past acts. Ed immediately began tinkering with their shame. Instead of letting them sit there with their sense of sin, he affirmed their identity as warriors and presented an alternative archetype.
“Being a warrior is not just what a man does in battle. It’s his path and code and honor through life,” he said, sounding the essential note he would echo all weekend. He would keep chipping away at their inability to see beyond their guilt or move their paralyzed lives past their trauma.
He passed the bowl puffing smoke around the circle of 22 people. When the bowl came to Larry a straight ahead black marine, he announced, “When I first saw this stuff, I thought it was hocus-pocus.”
It was my initial reaction as well. Yet, rituals, whatever form they take, can bind the disconnected back to themselves and the community. David had stumbled on that himself, and used a Japanese tea ceremony with a zoned out soldier in NY. He was still very much the Sergeant taking care of his men. He was often more visibly moved, even to the point of tears, when talking to me about what was happening to his damaged, hiding-out vets than when speaking about his own life.
Not surprisingly, the circle contained only one Iraq vet and none from the first wave of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. Only one present out of the 20% of the Iraq and Afghan vets who were coming back psychically damaged according to press reports I’d seen. Michael had a dark goatee and intense face that would have fit above an Elizabethan ruff. “It’s kind of lonely,” he said, noting the absence of others from his generation. He noted another absence. On each of his arms, running from wrist to elbow like a black zipper, was a tattooed memorial to his two best friends, dead in a flash of war.
Stan, many years older, stared affectionately at Michael through steel rim glasses and said, “Looking at this young man is like looking at myself.” It was truer than he was willing to admit that night. He was still stuck seeing himself as the 19-year-old who had committed whatever unspeakable act. This gentlest of men with a droopy mustache that made him seem more draft resister than vet, would later murmur about his dark side. He was always waiting for the 19-year-old to explode out of him and kept the controls on tight.
The moral trauma was more overt with Jim, a man with a gruff face and temperament who gave off sour despair. His guilt came in many parts.”In my first tour in Nam, I bombed the hell out of everyone,” he said in a flat voice. “Between tours I read books that made me doubt the war. In my second tour, bombing was torture. One day I refused. They sent marines into the village instead. Some of them aren’t walking around today because I wouldn’t bomb. I did the right thing and the wrong thing.” He was trapped in that dilemma with psychic wounds deep enough to cost him three wives and thirty jobs in as many years.
After each man spoke, Larry put out encouraging words and a “Welcome home, brother.” The sympathetic marine fell into the familiar rhythm of call and response. No matter what warrior ceremony Ed was running, Larry was turning the space into a black church.
There were women therapists in the circle. They would represent society in the sessions. They had come for training. Ed encouraged them to steal his ideas on treating vets for moral trauma and identity disorder. He gave his concepts away in his book War and Soul and in his lectures. He wanted to spread his model of therapy so soldiers wouldn’t suffer for decades like most of the men in the room.
Next morning in the meditation center Ed began to explain the external steps of the journey home he would put them through. There would be more tending ceremonies, purification, and affirmation of their identity as warriors, plus storytelling, restitution by the community, and initiation. When he described the restitution phase in which society readmits the soldier and gives him forgiveness, crusty Jim had a sheen of tears in his eyes and the beginning of an emotional thaw. “I didn’t know absolution was possible,”he said, speaking for many vets so locked in their past behavior they seal out the universal traditions of penance, atonement, cleansing.
To take the soldiers into the felt experience of their physical return to the States Ed held a welcome home parade that brought soldiers and citizens arm in arm back to the dining hall. There was suppose to be immediate tending of the vets by the stand-ins for society. It, and all his journey steps, were what Ed wanted to see replicated in the actual society. Only the tending didn’t even really happen at the retreat. At lunch vets mainly sat with their own ignoring the citizens. Society had betrayed soldiers during and after too many wars for them to trust quickly.
After lunch we went out into the garden and, informally, the men began to tell stories of their experiences returning to the States. Michael, as he slouched unsettled in his chair with his memorial tattoos flashing said, “I became a conscientious objector in Iraq.” It was part, he explained, of his disillusion with a war that didn’t seem noble and a model of manhood he didn’t want to learn. As a conscientious objector back in America, he said he was rejected by vets as well as by the the larger society. It added another layer to his sense of the world as a place where “It’s so lonely.” Although in existential isolation and grief for his friends, Michael hadn’t seen enough combat to be totally destroyed. He was planning to start an organic farm as a halfway house for vets. Whatever the farm did for others, Michael was making a home for himself.
Larry stopped by my bench and began to Ma’am me. He was very military in manner and bearing. Yet, he returned from serving in Vietnam to hear someone say of him, “He’ll get this job only if he paints his face white.” American racism was endemic. It was in him.”I should have known better,” he said, “but I called the Vietnamese gooks, abused them, pushed them off their pedicabs. He came back ashamed and confused. It was part of what made him stop-start college. He ended up homeless.”I didn’t have anyone to guide me,” he said in retrospective regret. When his pastor and Ed became his wise elders, he started his real journey home. I said he seemed at peace. He corrected me. “Let’s say I’m less stuck.”
Under a nearby tree Jim and Gary sat like joint Buddhas exchanging wisdom. Gary, who long ago lost his soldier’s fit physique, was having a hard time coming home. For decades when asked when he left Vietnam, he answered,”Last week.” He had taken steps. Yet, there were dark corners of memory he hadn’t dared. He was eager to try, almost puppyish in his eagerness. “I’ve got to take care of myself,” he kept repeating like a prayer.
Despairing Jim continued to present himself as a hard case. “Nothing helped me,” he had said at the opening dinner and carried that expectation still. But as he talked to Gary his body seemed more relaxed. I even saw him smile. “You’re looking better,” I said as I passed his tree. “Looks are deceiving,” he growled.
The formal storytelling session about their attempts to come home took place that afternoon. It added an essential ingredient for healing, the active presence of a supportive society represented by the women. Having the symbolic community at the retreat listen to their storytelling gave the vets acceptance, a home in society despite their acts during the war. It created a safe place for them to begin their search for catharsis. Only begin. Ed told me the most difficult step on the inner psychological journey home was to get a vet to go fully into the pain of his moral trauma, to reexperience all the original feelings instead of numbing them, to shed sacred tears, grieve his acts, and, ultimately, forgive himself.
Jim was among the first who dared to start into the past. Not just staying with tales of homecoming, he told raw and bloody war stories, walking in circles around the room, and speaking with great intensity. After he collapsed in his chair the women spontaneously surrounded and hugged him.
He got something else he needed, absolution. Each women spoke to him and to the other soldiers lifting the sole responsibility for their war deeds off their shoulders and putting it on the society that sent them to kill. This restitution with forgiveness and gratitude from the community was key to healing. It let the vet begin see himself not just as an evil person, but as a servant of society. It let him begin to move on without negating the need to answer for his own actions. In his private practice, Ed affirms his part in the collective culpability. At the retreat, he told tales of ancient warrior rituals transferring the stain of blood guilt to the whole tribe.
After the session, Jim said to any vet willing to listen, “My head is spinning. With all the marine propaganda I got in my lifetime, I’ve never heard anything like this warrior bullshit. You said this stuff helps you. I never figured it would start to happen to me.”
To relieve the intensity, Ed and the vets went splashing in the stream at the bottom of the garden. Stan didn’t go. He stood in the dining hall unable to move towards pleasure or the first step of his journey home.” His intelligent eyes were troubled behind his steel rimmed glasses.”It’s hard sitting on secrets,” he said his head hanging down as if speaking to the floor. Then more to himself than to me he asked, “Do you think I can get my innocence back? Do you think I can get my soul back?”
Ed kept talking himself blue trying to convince Stan and the other vets that a cure was possible if they risked the steps of the journey home. The enormous energy he put out to help them took a toll on his health giving him a temperamental stomach now and secondary flashbacks in years gone by. Yet, his effort could pay off. In the face of his passion, the community’s support, and the flames of the outdoor purification ceremony, the next day Stan began to spill a few of his secrets. In the second storytelling session, he extracted some of the horrible war tales buried in him like shrapnel and festering his identity.
Even though the symbolic community was again willing to share the responsibility, telling their war stories brought the men treacherously close to feeling all the pain of their moral trauma. It was dangerous new ground different from typical medical treatment that dulled vets’ feelings and symptoms by doping them up or desensitizing them to remembered sights and sound of battle with virtual therapy. It was different, too, from the numbing some soldiers did with street drugs or alcohol. At the extreme, it was numbing by suicide.
So, the men in the meditation center were cautious. After much hesitation,one vet told his tale of being in a chopper that was being shot at from below. The incoming killed most of the crew. To save himself he sat on the dead bodies of his friends and took the feel of their flesh into his nightmares.
Hearing the story, I remembered and shared David’s rage at the soft-bellied Black Hawks that are so risky for soldiers.”The government,” he had said to me, spewing his anger, “put no more armour on the bottom of the choppers used in Iraq than they did on humvees. Guys stole batteries out of the humvees so they didn’t have to go out in them. Living with that fear all the time no wonder we smoked villages. No wonder some of our guys came back basket cases all...” His body went slack. His jaw drooped. His eyes became vacant.
Rebuilding the identities of David’s vets and the others was central to Ed’s therapy. ” If there can be post-traumatic stress, there can be post-traumatic growth,” he assured me. He began to create it during the weekend by having the symbolic community constantly reenforce the idea that the vets weren’t just sinners, but also servants of society. He gave the soldiers ancient myths that provided a larger image of themselves as warriors who, out of decency and duty, could aid their community throughout their lives, not just do the brutal things once required of them. He urged them to expand their positive sense of self until their behavior in the war was only a small part of their identity. One way of doing it, he suggested, was by performing acts of service. Larry, the marine who was homeless for a time already worked rescuing homeless vets off the street. “It’s helping me,” he said.
As part of the effort to fix their identity disorder, Ed often took soldiers back to their old battlefields for atonement. The vets at the farm teased Michael with a promise to go back to Iraq with him. A number of them had traveled to Vietnam with Ed to make amends. A documentary of their trip was shown that evening. In it Larry apologizes to a Vietnamese women for his racism humanizing her and himself. Gary, as part of his decades long struggle to come home, presents a peasant with a water buffalo needed to farm. It was penance for all the animals he had killed as target practice during a war that diminished both victim and executioner.
On the last day their was an initiation into warriorhood that was also designed to give them a new sense of themselves. The vets vowed to do specific good acts to give them back their pride and honor. Most affirmed their identity as warriors bound to serve society and share their wisdom about the true nature of war. Stan was still stuck and refused. He was too bitter about his particular Vietnam war to sign on for the archetype. Lonely Michael had the archetype thrust upon him. He was given a cap worn by Vietnam vets and welcomed to the universal tradition of warriors. The initiation ceremony was more aspiration than an actual passage back to their essential selves. They still had a long way on their journey.
Evaluating what was accomplished, Ed said, “I’ve given them a blueprint, a series of steps they and society can practice until they can come home. “At the end of another retreat,” he continued, smiling his satisfaction, “a student told me before her fiance got back from Iraq, she was going to his parents, to her parents, their minister, his former teachers, and get everybody ready to listen to his stories, and share the responsibility for his actions.”
I wish I had been able to do something like that for David. It might have made up for the night in a drafty school auditorium when he was on a panel telling his war stories. Slowly, a trickle of people began to walk out. Then more of them with averted eyes made their way up the aisle until half the seats were empty. Stunned, David turned to a British vet on the panel to ask why they were leaving. When he and the British soldier went out for beers after, David, always an innocent, surprised anew each time by human failings, was still asking why. The Brit finally blurted out, “They left because what you were talking about was bloody horrible.” David kept echoing “bloody horrible” in a cockney accent as his memories slipped from the auditorium to Iraq, and he sank deeper in his beers.
Listening to his war stories and sharing his burden might have kept him from disappearing into the woodwork.