Can the War Be Taken Out of the Warriors?

As this troubled year begins to close amidst protests and economic turmoil, the war in Iraq is supposed to come to an end. The troops are finally expected to return from the second longest war in American history. It's nearing nine years from the questionable beginning to the doubtful end -- almost as long as it took Ulysses to find a way back from the Trojan War.

Yet, the odyssey of return doesn't end when the soldiers reach American soil as veterans seem to find it harder and harder to make their way home. According to a recent report, in the fiscal year 2009 alone, almost two thousand veterans of the latest wars acknowledged attempting suicide upon return. According to the Veterans Administration, a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes. "Faced with the stigma of post-traumatic stress, high unemployment rates, and the loss of the military camaraderie, many veterans report feeling purposeless upon returning home."

Even those who found a sense of purpose in going to war can wind up lost upon return and living on life's anguished margin. Leave all the politics aside, whether a war is deemed successful or disastrous, the effects of battle continue to rage inside the soldiers in wounds that torture the body, in dreams that shatter common reality, and in traumas that continue to trouble the soul. Veterans can become literally homeless -- abandoned in and by their own communities after sacrificing parts of their bodies and souls for their homeland.

There is a great and growing disconnection that leaves many men and women out in the cold, unable to adapt to civilian circumstances, feeling unwelcome in the exact communities they intended to serve. Make no mistake, the war always comes home with the warriors and too often makes simply being at home impossible. As one officer wrote at a recent retreat for vets, "I walked down my ramp alone, returning to a reception of none. No welcome home party, because like so many others, I'm not home."

It is not just that veterans have experienced aspects of life that their friends and families don't understand, although that is most often the case. It is also that their psyches remain caught in a betwixt and between condition and in an unresolved state. No amount of body armor can keep the shredding shrapnel and screaming pain of modern war from penetrating the soul and tearing at the spirit of one's life. Even if we manage to get the warriors out of the war we often fail to get the war out of the warriors.

War presents a particular kind of "underworld initiation" in which life turns upside-down and inside out as well. Death becomes a constant presence -- a dark revelation waiting behind each boulder, bunker or bush. As life's surface layers are stripped away soldiers enter not just a foreign territory, but an explosive "otherworld" where the intensities and horrors of battle can alter the mind and the heart in ways that seem irreparable.

The red fog of battle brings out the most terrifying aspects of humanity as well as deeply courageous and altruistic qualities. Heroic loyalty and callous disregard for life can erupt in the same person -- self-sacrificing courage and paralyzing fear can exchange places moment to moment. Even those who return physically unscathed are forever changed within themselves.

The words of a medic still trying to find a way home from the battle fields of Vietnam echo a reality that many veterans know all too well. "Most of the boys I put into body bags I got to know while bathing, changing dressings, and feeding them. We would talk about their families, where they lived, their fears. I have no idea how many young, brave souls, I put into those bags. After six months I refused to do it any more. Now I do it nightly in my sleep."

Unless meaningful healing happens at the level of the soul, most veterans remain captured by aspects of war that have penetrated too deeply to simply be put behind them. Those who return from war carry a darker knowledge of life, but like most traumas, the effects of battle are not limited to those who experienced them directly. Unresolved battle traumas rattle the sleep of entire families; post-traumatic stresses become inherited forms of anxiety, as the war continues to live on inside a culture.

Just as veterans deserve the highest quality of medical care to treat their physical wounds, their inner suffering and sacrifice must be acknowledged at a genuine human level. Many traditional cultures developed ways to "take the war out of the warriors." Native American, African, Irish, and many other groups understood that those who send souls into battle must also retrieve those souls from the underworld of war. A genuine rite of return involves a caring and careful clearing of the soul as well as a thorough healing of the body.

In years of working with vets I have found that no matter how confusing or devastating it may seem the unique story of each veteran becomes the language for healing, the essential ground for recovery, and the path towards finding a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. Not only that, but the stories must be heard and the souls must be welcomed back by caring and compassionate representatives of the community that sent them off to war.

It may be the government that calls people to battle, but it is the families and communities of those wounded by war that must welcome them back -- that must help them to heal both the visible and invisible wounds they will carry the rest of their lives. Only an open and compassionate community can fully acknowledge the wounds of those who return from battle and help grieve those whose lives ended in the unforgiving fields of war.

I meditate upon this odyssey of return and how the war follows us home as I prepare for a retreat that brings together older veterans with those recently back from Iraq and Afghanistan. For five days we will gather in a remote camp and try to tell the real stories of war. Not the simple sharing of "war stories," but an emotional return to the most traumatic events in order to give full expression to them and shape them into artful forms that can help hold and heal them.

On the night before Veterans' Day we will bring the essential stories and poems written for the occasion to a church in San Francisco and pour them out to whoever might care to listen. The traditional role of the community is to witness and accept the veterans as they actually are upon return, with wounds and scars, with penetrating memories, with nightmares and flashbacks and confounding confusions. Only an attentive and compassionate community can welcome those returning on their own terms as living voices of both the tragedy and the nobility of human life.

Like war itself, the shape of such a welcome ceremony will only become evident in the making of it. However, one thing I have learned is that the veterans will bring the same courage they had for entering battle to the telling of the struggle to return home. They will also find compelling ways to support each regardless of which war they are trying to return from.

The voices of veterans offer the anguished speech of war, but also express the essential human desire for healing and for meaning to be found even in the most tragic experiences of life. As one of the veterans asked us all, "Can we create a village as strong as a war?" I will report on our attempt to forge a community of healing after I return.