One of the dubious benefits of "voluntary" recruitment into the military, rather than a draft, is that presidents can more easily conduct wars despite a skeptical public, and another is that some civilians can regard service as mainly another cash transaction, as if to say, "nobody forced them, too bad if they claim to be invisibly hurt."
How can warriors be welcomed home by us, including those who have passed up the opportunity to enlist? Regardless of how we regard the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and earlier in Vietnam, what's a decent way to help reintegrate soldiers who have served in our name?
One answer is shown in the astonishing film, The Welcome, which premiered last weekend at the Ashland Independent Film Festival in Oregon, and which won the audience award for the best documentary. The film was produced by a couple, psychotherapist Bill McMillan and film-maker Kim Shelton, who also organized the events they depict.
Not about fighting abroad, but about telling the truth about it at home, and about listening to that truth, the film takes us inside a workshop for returning veterans led by Michael Meade, who has worked with Robert Bly and who is praised for "his hypnotic and fiery storytelling, street savvy perceptiveness, and spellbinding interpretations of ancient myths...."
At the start of the workshop, held in a sylvan setting, many vets sat with arms crossed, with looks of polite skepticism. In the course of several days together, they were led first to talking about their experience of war, then to writing truthful, heart-wrenching poems about it. After a bus ride into town, they shared some of these poems with a sell-out audience, on Memorial Day, in a 650-seat theater of the Ashland Shakespeare Festival.
Reviewing the film, a critic for the state's biggest newspaper began by writing, "sometimes you stumble into something out of a sense of duty or good intentions only to find yourself absorbed and overwhelmed beyond anything you might have anticipated." Judging by the sobs and gasps that I heard, the screening provided more than a minor catharsis for the audience; and as confirmed by the standing ovation in Ashland's historic armory, the film was brilliant in its intimacy, pacing, and novelty.
After the screening, ten or so of the people in the film took the stage for questions, including a mother who fought for the rehabilitation of her son, who had been grievously wounded in an explosion.
During the editing of the film, Bill McMillan explained in a video interview that "for many vets coming back, they go from the intensity and hyper-vigilance and the clarity of purpose, which primarily means taking care of each other; they come back and the intensity isn't here, the focus isn't here. They often can't find jobs."
Ed Tick is a clinical psychotherapist who has written War and the Soul and who has taken point in healing vets since the Vietnam war. "Years later," he explains, "veterans still have nightmares and flashbacks in which the old battles still rage. They still watch for threats and stand poised for danger. Their hearts respond to everyday situations as though they were vicious attacks...." For a returning vet in his (and now her) mid-twenties, post traumatic stress might last up to half a century or so.
The question now is, to what extent can the film help national and local organizations provide a model for workshops and ceremonies elsewhere for returning warriors? Two of the relevant organizations are The National Veterans Foundation and a group called Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
This story is part of Military Families Week, an effort by HuffPost and AOL to put a spotlight on issues affecting America's families who serve. Find more at jobs.aol.com/militaryfamilies and aol.com.