Sometimes, a response can attack the question.
Q. What shall we do about shell shock? Combat fatigue? A. Pretend it doesn’t exist. We don’t want anyone to know that war is dangerous to our troops’ health.
Or, it can try and hide the problem with a Band-Aid and pretend everything is fixed and now okay.
Q. What shall we do with combat vets who have flashbacks, night terrors and other symptoms of post –traumatic stress? A. Post-traumatic stress is a disorder. Medicate them.
But once in a while, effort is made to not only treat the symptom, but address the causes.
Q. What if medication isn’t enough to treat post-traumatic stress disorder? A. Then we need to look at the mind of the person. Let’s try therapy and get to the problem itself.
Oh, yes, yes, there is a school of thought that reasons if you relive the trauma, you’ll be cured.
Huh!?! Er…well…who am I to say? I only know if I got run over by a bus, the experience of going back to the bus and having it come at me like it was going to run me over a second time would NOT cure me of the first time. Of that I am certain. But perhaps for someone else, it would be exhilarating. To each his/her own. Most of the veterans I know who suffer with PTSD, however, would only acquire an additional layer of trauma upon meeting said bus. So instead of one cause for PTSD, there would be two, and the wound would be twice as large.
Thus has been the progressive and historic attitude towards post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in combat vets.
Formerly known as “shell shock” or “combat fatigue,” PTSD was not officially diagnosed until after the Vietnam veterans were home and began showing common symptoms of this disorder. Only then was it labeled accurately and appropriate treatment could begin. Now, there is not only more awareness of the disorder itself, but there are multiple approaches to easing the burden of it in our veterans. Medicine does help some, therapy does help others, and service dogs are proving to be an invaluable commodity to many in calming the veteran when a trigger (i.e., something that sets off the symptoms of PTSD) is in his/her environment.
There is a truly debilitating trait to PTSD. Although the pain of PTSD is understood in another sufferer, PTSD isolates. Each combat veteran has had an individual, unique experience that no one can share or fully grasp. Different wars, different backgrounds, different traumas, different genders.
PTSD never goes away. It remains a raw, aching wound.
Under such daunting realities, rarely does someone go beyond the initial denial, medicine and therapy, into the wound itself to look at the spirit of a combat veteran who suffers from PTSD and been willing to face the raw and overpowering pain that throbs within that combat vet. I know of no instance in which a combat veteran him/herself would even want to do that.
I repeat. Rarely does someone go beyond the norm.
Yet someone did. Many someones. The documented treatment and results is recorded in The Welcome, directed by Kim Shelton, and produced by Bill McMillan.
What is The Welcome all about?
In May of 2008, 24 veterans came together in Ashland, Oregon, as one group in a show of trust for Michael Meade, a mythologist and story teller. The veterans were completely willing (albeit skeptical) to try yet another way to help them carry the burden of their emotional wounds. Once brave in combat, they were courageous yet again in facing this oh-so-personal, oh-so-unpredictable few days of turning their psyches over to a stranger, in the hopes of finding some comfort. For these veterans were not just going on a five-day retreat in a quiet section of land; they were going on a five-day journey into the wall of PTSD and through its solid bricks of fear, anger and isolation. They didn’t know, but they hoped, they would somehow come out the other side still intact.
After watching this unique drama unfold from scene to scene, I am hoping with all my heart that this approach to treating PTSD in combat veterans will no longer be rare, but the norm.
What is different about this approach to combat vets with PTSD is where it went: straight through the mind, the medication and the wounds, into the sense of betrayal the soul felt, being exposed to such as war. What I am talking about is going beyond the human body…and into its spirit. I’m talking about getting into the veteran and touching the core of that human: his/her very soul.
Before you think I’m getting all Zen and spiritual or voodoo on you, let me explain.
I’m talking about the little girl in the grown up woman who woke up on Christmas morning at 9 years old and found Santa had left her not only the perfect doll, but a buggy, too. Or, the boy in the grown up man who got on that pitcher’s mound at 11 years old and struck out the best batter on the opponent’s team and won the game for his school.
Now THAT’S what I’m talking about…the thing that makes us unique, the energy that we have always had inside us that makes us stand alone as a separate entity, and that will always define us. It’s more than a memory, it’s an essence. A spirit.
Are we clearer on this point? Good.
The retreat into healing in The Welcome was threefold: the sharing of pain; the use of creativity to transform hurt into beauty; and, the reception that was denied these warriors.
The drum beat, the chant was said and the ritual of Native American healing was begun.
The sharing of pain.
The soul cried out sexual assault, racism, discrimination, and misunderstanding. The veteran asked, “But how can you deal with my pain if you can’t accept me?” Anger poured out with the tears. Pain screamed with injustice. Faces turned to stone. Arms crossed over the chests. Heads bowed.
But the talking continued. The anger and pain blended and mixed and understanding spread across faces. Arms unfolded and gestured to make a point. Heads turned in salute to another warrior from another war. The bonding had begun.
The use of creativity.
The use of creativity is not a new concept. The creative mind was identified by Anna Freund as one of the tools to survival. The veterans were told to write poems to express themselves. They felt as if they were walking through blood all over again. Very few thought they could do it. Everyone did. The results were astonishing. The words jumped from the pain cliffs of their brain to the smooth land of the page. One picked up his guitar and sang his poem.
The Welcome is also about what it states: the welcome back so blatantly denied many of our combat veterans. The ritual of welcoming home the warrior was a going back in time to honor the one who faced death and so was now a wise person to be respected.
Ashland, Oregon, must be a fantastic place to live, for its people are remarkably warm and compassionate.
The town was invited to welcome home the veterans by attending a show in which each veteran shared his/her expression of war through their poetry.
No one at the healing retreat knew if anyone would show up.
On Memorial Day the veterans took a deep breath, boarded a donated bus, went to the center, crossed their fingers and hoped…somebody…would show up to hear them.
If there had ever been a healing moment in the lives of these warriors, surely one had to be when these wounded, gentle veterans, hesitantly looked out to the seats to see if anybody would come…and saw…no…empty…seat. The place was sold out and packed.
Yes, indeed, soldier…welcome home.
As a veterans advocate and writer, I have learned over the years not to be surprised by anything a veteran would tell me, and most importantly, not to flinch. The horrors experienced by this special group of human beings is something I hope never to face. One of my proudest moments was when I listened to a young Iraq veteran unburden himself to me by describing how he picked pieces of a baby off a wall. Suicide bombing, and the baby was used. I was so proud of myself… I listened and nodded while my heart broke into pieces for him, for the baby, for every person who is thrown into these nightmares called war.
But I was very glad I viewed this film in the privacy of my own home.
When each veteran stood up and read his/her poem or sang, and the crowd cried, applauded and cheered, I did, too.
I saw the documentary months ago. It still haunts me, just like poignant words of the poems, or the vet who said he just wanted to go back to who he was before he left for the war.
I have felt pain. I recognize it and know what it looks like in others. Pain doesn’t surprise me.
But I have never seen redemption. The Welcome showed me a glimpse of it. That surprised me.
If you are a veteran, watch The Welcome. The path to peace might be this.
If you are not a veteran, watch The Welcome. The path to hope might be this.
Welcome home, veterans, and thank you for your service. May your healing have finally and deeply, begun.
To learn more about this retreat, its veterans and their poetry…the documentary and how to purchase it, click on The Welcome.