Monday, October 14, 2013

Rites of Return: Helping Our Warriors Come Home

Every year around this time, I post this article in honor of our warriors -- those who have returned, those who still serve, those who will never return.

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 last Thursday, October 27.)

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 a distant and unhelpful government that sent them to war; with few listeners to whom they can tell their stories, help them grieve their lost innocence, or witness their struggle to return home, Iraq and Afghanistan vets -- as have so many veterans before them -- have become 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."


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