A slight, soft-spoken leftist who has worked with survivors of war for more than 30 years stands center stage in an auditorium full of environmentalists who have gathered north of San Francisco on a misty October weekend to dream of peace.
Choking back tears, he talks about the need to recast post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an affliction of the soul. He explains why veterans, too often abandoned by a country they risked everything to honor, wander our streets, fill our shelters, and take their own lives. About how, even after the physical wounds are treated, “oceans of pain” linger just beneath the surface, calling out for exorcism.
The room’s self-appointed conscience is camped out by the back entrance, half-listening, waiting for a pause so she can start chanting: “No more war. No more war.” As if we’re all standing on a picket line in Crawford, Texas. As if there’s anyone in this crowd of nearly 2,000 who doesn’t think the occupation of Iraq is a travesty and the Bush administration a chamber of horrors.
In retrospect, I see that it was inevitable.
In the midst of his presentation at the 18th annual Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California, author and psychotherapist Ed Tick, founder and director of Soldier’s Heart: A Veterans’ Safe Return Initiative, was interrupted by a tone-deaf war protester.
Mercifully, no one joined in—in large part because the stunt was so clumsy, so insensitive. Tick handled the whole thing with grace (“We’re working on it,” he said with a smile) and forged on with his talk about “soldier’s heart,” a phrase coined during the Civil War to describe the psychological pain that afflicted an untold number of survivors.
In the Middle Ages they called it homesickness; during World War II, shell shock; now it’s known as PTSD. “People have recognized the condition forever,” Tick says later while meeting with a few reporters. “It’s much more severe when there are moral and ethical questions involved—when the war itself is illegitimate.”
After chatting a bit about his 2005 book War and the Soul, a groundbreaking meditation on psychic battle scars, I asked Tick to revisit the day’s earlier disruption. I sensed that more than a few people in the audience, though they weren’t yelling out in protest, were conflicted about Tick’s message: We must hold our returning soldiers close, without admonishing them for what they were ordered to do.
“I’m the only presenter here who is publicly working with veterans and war healing,” he says. “And when I go into veteran communities, I’m often the only progressive, nonveteran there talking with the vets. This expresses a great divide in our society—how profoundly citizens and warriors are alienated from each other.
“And what’s the root of that alienation? People are afraid of vets. People don’t really want to talk about war and violence. It’s too painful. It’s too horrific.”
Another reporter, also a vet, wonders aloud whether some fellow progressives don’t also subconsciously pass judgment on those who choose to wear a uniform. Sure, war is hell, but most enlistees know what they are signing up for and get what they deserve.
“It’s an example of rejecting the idea of a virtuous warrior because you reject war and violence,” Tick responds. “I’ve met so many veterans with devotion and discipline, who strive for moral excellence, believe in higher ideals, give everything they have, and are willing to sacrifice themselves.”
In 2000, Tick led his first journey of reconciliation to Vietnam, where he’s since taken groups of veterans, their wives and siblings, professors, teachers, protesters, adventurers, and students through the country’s battlefields, shrines, schools, and healing centers. Experience has taught him that the wounds of war transcend generations, national boundaries, and politics. Supporting the troops is what’s most important, he insists, which is why he’s careful to be apolitical in public and holds his tongue when confronted. Even when I push him to address those who, in their zeal to support the administration or object to its militarism, lose sight of our common humanity, he looks for ways to build bridges.
“We have really good values on the left,” he says. “We believe in being peaceful and cooperative and loving one another. Men and women in uniform often have a higher level of structure and discipline that creates strong and solid and devoted human beings who can live up to those values. If we could bring some of our goals and some of their process together, it could make for an extraordinary synthesis.”