Thursday, November 5, 2015

Rites of Return: Helping our Warriors Come Home

Every year I publish this article in honor of those who have served, who still serve, and those who will never come home.

No one has described the challenge of homecoming for combat veterans better than U.S. Army chaplain, Fr. Sean Levine (OCA). Speaking at a conference on integrative therapies for vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Fr. Sean poignantly described the loneliness of return and the need for transitional programs to help veterans tell their stories of war, grieve their losses, and begin the arduous process of rebuilding a true warrior identity.

Ironically, veterans' alienation is exacerbated by the speed of their return. One moment a soldier is packing up in their barracks in Baghdad or Kabul and nine hours later they're sitting on the couch in their living room. That's the beginning of the new war for a veteran -- arriving home with a knowledge of things about which home doesn't want to know. Just a few decades ago, soldiers coming home from war traveled on ships, a voyage that took a couple of weeks. During that time they shared their stories, cried together, and began the healing process.

Fr. Sean described the first 36 hours at home as ecstatic. Back in the familiar embrace of family, the veteran can barely believe he or she made it. Then comes the crash. Bodies have rejoined; stories have not. The veteran is no longer the same husband and father, wife and mother that they were before deployment. War has changed them -- forever. The family has changed too, learning to cope without the deployed member, with the spouse who stayed and even the children taking over many of the roles and authority of the absent one.

Within the barracks, the family had become safe and reassuring figures on a computer screen -- anchors, familiar and loving. But now in their midst, without the military structures of war, filled with a jumble of emotions, grief, memories, and a growing anxiety, a veteran may even wish at times to be back in combat. Instead, they repress the storm and try to get on with life.

Desperation grows, until one night a 6-year-old tugs at a pants leg once too often, and the veteran throws a plate. Breakdown begins.


"They have arrived from hell, old before their time, initiates among innocents," writes the late James Hillman in his book, A Terrible Love of War. (Hillman, a Jungian psychotherapist and scholar, and founder of archetypal psychology, died in 2012.)

Post-traumatic stress disorder
is a misnomer, writes Hillman. In fact, the trauma of war is not "post" -- but present; an indelible condition in the soul; a living ghost in the bedroom, at the lunch counter, on the highway. The "disorder" is the remnants of war carried home to a society where there's no place for expression, release, or witness; no platform on which to rebuild; only a culture whose language and psychology are inadequate to the ordeal from which they have returned.

One of the reasons for so much of the ongoing maladaptive behavior of Vietnam vets, writes trauma psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, MD, in his books Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, was just this: a lack of communalized witness. With no one to whom they could tell their stories, help them grieve their lost innocence, or witness their rehumanization, Vietnam vets -- as have so many veterans before them -- became the archetypal orphans of our culture.

Yet Hillman also writes about the ambiguous nature of war. Alongside the horror and death, the aliveness; the transcendent, almost religious experience of what is best in human beings: courage, self-sacrifice, altruism, and being part of something greater than self. He quotes a World War II veteran: “My combat experience was the most meaningful part of my life. I have never felt so alive, before or since.”

How can people who have been through experience at the furthest -- even mythic -- edge of life begin to fit back into an ordinary world? How do they find their way back into families, jobs, communities that knew them as a person they once were, but that no longer exists?

Not possible, says Hillman. "A veteran cannot complete an intact return from combat until he or she undergoes some kind of detoxification as long and thorough as the ritual of boot camp training -- a rite of return."

There's not room here to describe the work of Soldier's Heart, developed by Edward Tick, Ph.D. and Kate Dahlstedt, MACP. This program provides a unique model to address the emotional, moral, and spiritual wounds of veterans and their families. Tick's excellent book, War and the Soul, explores ancient and cross-cultural warrior traditions that facilitate successful warrior return. The Soldier’s Heart Model applies these traditions to heal the effects of war.

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.


by Eva Usadi, MA, BCD

This program from Trauma and Resiliency Resources is one of the many innovative and holistic programs designed to embrace our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and reservists without further wounding them. We know that the way in which a trauma survivor is responded to and cared for in the aftermath of the trauma is, at times, more significant to their healing than the original event or events. Trauma rarely happens in isolation. With combat soldiers in particular, trauma happens in the context of a highly disciplined, cohesive, interdependent group. For this reason, healing needs to involve the acceptance of a group, not only of fellow soldiers, but also of civilians who are able to listen without judgment, bear witness, and ultimately shoulder some of the guilt and blame so that the warrior does not need to carry it alone.

The mission of Warrior Camp is to create an environment in which the trauma of war can be addressed. The camps are week-long retreats located in serene and secluded locations that foster the development of a close-knit community within which healing can occur. They include a healthy balance of trauma therapy, relaxation and leisure activities.

Group activities consist of modified debriefings or meetings, team building activities, writing workshops, equine assisted psychotherapy, yoga, and hikes or other sports. Participation in individual treatment, while strongly recommended, is always on a voluntary basis. Individual treatments include EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) sessions, massage therapy, private yoga instruction, and private equine assisted psychotherapy.


Photo by Susan Bloom

The application of equine assisted psychotherapy to the treatment of traumatized individuals, including and especially combat veterans, is a new and important development. Exposure to traumatic events produces a massive upheaval in the arousal system. Many trauma symptoms express themselves as either hyper or hypo nervous system response. A few of these are irritability and anger, sleep disruption, hypervigilance, and an exaggerated startle response.

The other system that is disrupted with multiple traumas, trauma of extended duration or that which is interpersonally inflicted is the attachment system. This gives rise to many of the symptoms now considered to be complex trauma, some of which are impaired relationships with family and friends, a generalized social withdrawal, and a loss of previously sustaining beliefs, among others. Working in close proximity to horses seems to be of extraordinary help in addressing these issues. There are a few reasons this is so:

1. Horses live in the present moment. They respond to what is and to intention. Interacting with them teaches mindfulness, which can be a window into reclaiming life as it is lived in the here and now.

2. Horses are active. Working with them necessitates movement and grounding, which decreases arousal and dissociation. Mindfulness, grounding, movement and working in the present moment all increase the individual's capacity to experience the present rather than responding to the traumatic past.

3. Horses are social animals. Their natural curiosity and playfulness is, at times, so powerful as to supersede their interest in food. Being invited to interact with them overcomes isolation and supports people's interest in novelty. This helps to re-engage the frontal lobes, increasing the capacity to think.

Many of the veterans we have worked with have noticed that the horses are acutely attentive to and aware of them, and have found this profoundly comforting.

If you are a warrior in need of support or know of someone who might benefit from this experience, please contact Trauma and Resiliency Resources for dates and application process.

If you would like to be a benefactor for this program, please contact us through our web site. Thank you so very much for your support.

(close-up horse photo by Susan Bloom, Bloom Studio,