Those of us who have never gone to war—and today that means about 90% of us—how able are we to imagine it?
I thought I could. I thought I had a good enough imagination, aided by all the movies I’ve seen about war, by all the books I’ve read about war. And most of all by all the interviews I’ve done of WWII veterans.
But this past weekend, I learned how all that enabled me only to imagine the surface of what our veterans lived and carry.
I spent three days at a retreat organized by Soldiers’ Heart, a nonprofit group dedicated to healing the trauma of our veterans. Its directors, Dr. Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt, brought together a group of veterans from Viet Nam and Iraq with civilians for three days in which the veterans could experience a warrior’s coming home. After studying Native American rituals and ancient Greek and Roman mythologies, Dr. Tick created a model through which veterans can begin to understand and heal from the spiritual wounding of war. What society pathologizes as a physiological disorder—what we call PTSD—is actually a manifestation of a soldier’s humanity. The atrocities war permits violate every moral code of our society; yet we expect our soldiers to return home spiritually unviolated and fit back into their former lives, as if they haven’t witnessed or participated in killing and devastation.
“Society disowns the suffering war creates for soldiers, and the abandonment of them is as much a cause of PTSD as is the war itself,” writes Tick in his 2005 groundbreaking book, War and the Soul.
Our purpose, at the retreat, was to create community for a group of veterans in which they could feel held, cared for, and safe, safe enough to begin opening up to their pain to make healing possible. Opening up to their pain comes through telling their stories to civilians who show that their hearts are fully open, that they want to know because they want to claim responsibility for the stories, because these men and women went to war in our names, whether or not we supported or agreed with the war itself.
Supporting our troops is a separate issue from supporting the war. Supporting the troops requires a whole other level of engagement than bumper stickers or sending care packages or thanking them for their service. Supporting them demands that we surround them with our presence and take in their stories so that the memories can become collective rather than personal. Then a veteran can have the chance of recovery.
I saw how when a veteran sits present among fellow veterans within such a community, he or she will tell stories of a whole other depth than when they are by themselves.
Many of them spoke of shame, of deep shame that the civilians present would see them as monsters if they revealed the truth of what they had done or had desired to do. They often spoke the word “monster” or “beast”—a part of themselves that war gave birth to or revealed that now causes profound feelings of self-loathing, even while that part still feels powerful and seductive.
The veterans needed assurance we would not turn away from them after such truth. And how could they know we wouldn’t? Their courage as much as their pain opened my heart.
In telling their stories, in hearing us civilians vow to hold their stories in our hearts as our own stories, the veterans began leaving the wilderland that war exiles soldiers to after it breaks their hearts and souls. Seeing our faces and ears take in their stories of death and loss and anguish, these men and women re-entered community and saw the possibility of purification, atonement, reconciliation. The transformation in their faces from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon was astounding to me. One veteran said, “I am leaving with hope. On Thursday I wanted to bolt; I thought none of you could possibly understand. But now you are family. And I feel I might still be alive.”
All our veterans need the experience of this veteran. All civilians need to have the experience I and the other non-veterans did. To begin healing the wounds that occur in our name.
—Leila Levinson, author of Gated Grief: The Daughter of a GI Concentration Camp Liberator Discovers a Legacy of Trauma
- Author portrait courtesy of Leila Levinson. Used by permission.