Guilt, shame, slaughter without purpose, alienation from homeland and life itself—this was the legacy that Günter passed on to his son Walt from his combat service in Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Walt was born in the United States shortly after his parents emigrated here from Germany. Growing up in the Cold War 1950s, Walt longed to be an all-American boy, but he was always the Indian to his friends’ cowboys, the “Kraut” to their G.I. Joes.
When he turned 18, Walt volunteered for Vietnam. “I wanted to finally be one of the good guys,” Walt said. He could not know that, instead, he would return with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), feeling less than ever like “one of the good guys.”
Our troops do not enlist because they want to destroy or kill. No matter the political climate, most troops seek to serve traditional warrior values: to protect the country they love, its ideals, and especially their families, communities, and each other. In my work counseling veterans of several wars, I’ve seen that PTSD is, in part, the tortured conscience of good people who did their best under conditions that would dehumanize anyone.
Almost all cultures, past and present, have had warriors. They have also had complex stories and rituals to help them recover from combat and guide them through the life cycle. In traditional cultures, boys and men studied a “warrior’s path.” In these societies a warrior was not the same as a soldier—not merely a member of a huge, anonymous military institution used for the violent execution of political ends. Rather, warrior was one of the foundational roles that kept societies whole and strong. Warriors were fundamentally protectors, not destroyers.
People respond to the same call today. Michael, a Marine who served in Afghanistan, proudly declares that at age 18 he was the first in his state to enlist after 9/11. Nick, an Army officer who served in Iraq, signed up because of a lifelong desire “to be like Hector defending the gates of Troy.”
Warriorhood, however, is not valued or nurtured in modern society. A veteran, especially one with disabilities, appears to many, and sometimes to himself or herself, as a failure in terms of normal civilian identity.
In Native American, Zulu, Buddhist, ancient Israeli, and other traditional cultures, returning warriors were put through significant rituals of purification before reentering their families and communities. These cultures recognized that unpurified warriors could, in fact, be dangerous. The absence of these rituals in modern society helps explain why suicide, homicide, and other destructive acts are common among veterans.
In Vietnam Walt had exhumed bodies of enemy dead from mass graves and reburied them. He felt like he had dirtied and damaged his soul. Nick declared that, though he had wished to be a great champion of his people, “all they gave me was this dirty stinking little Iraq war.”
Walt entered individual and group psychotherapy for combat veterans. It helped to tell his stories, have his feelings and losses confirmed by other vets, and receive honor as part of a brotherhood. But he was in search of more cleansing, blessing, and soul healing than traditional therapy could provide.
He eventually partnered with a Native American woman. He studied her culture and participated in sweat lodges and other rituals. He attended a powwow where he was honored as a returned warrior. He was accepted by the Native community far more than he had been by mainstream America.
Most conventional therapies teach healers to avoid talk of morality. But war is inherently a moral enterprise, and veterans in search of healing are on a profound moral journey. Healers and communities must walk with them. As a society, we must honor those wounds in ways that recognize the depth of psychic suffering.
Warriors in traditional societies served the need for protection, and all that was done was done in the tribe’s name. They had rituals transferring responsibility for actions during warfare from veterans to the entire culture. Ultimately leaders, not ordinary troops, were held responsible for the results of battle and for the deaths that occurred.
Without this transfer of responsibility, the veteran carries war’s secret grief and guilt for us all. During my healing retreats, veterans tell their stories, civilians speak of their lost loved ones, and everyone shares their damaged values and broken dreams. Our vets enter the center of our circle and civilians pledge to accept responsibility for any harm done in their name and to help carry the veterans’ stories for the rest of their lives. By sharing this burden we become a community united in service to war-healing.
Walt, who died of Agent Orange–related cancer last year, received acceptance from Native American communities. In my seven trips to Vietnam, and with every veteran and civilian I have met who has visited Vietnam since the war to reconcile, the Vietnamese people have offered acceptance and forgiveness. In contrast, since Afghanistan, Michael says, “I still love America, but America does not love me.”
Edward Tick is a psychotherapist and author of War and the Soul and three other books. He has worked with veterans for three decades and is director of Soldier’s Heart, a return and healing project for veterans; www.soldiersheart.net. Excerpted from Yes!(Summer 2008); www.yesmagazine.org.