Beginnings – Why We Do What We Do

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In the beginning……

Mike and I set a tone: this experience was to provide, at long last, a reckoning between vets and civilians – civilians who represented themselves and also the society.  The civilians were there willingly to execute their responsibility and their caring.  This is what we did and did not do:

  • We established a norm and rule in the group: no judging, no criticism, no diagnosis, no analysis.
  • No treatment. We avoided using “therapeutic techniques,” nor did we allow therapists in attendance to  “treat symptoms.”
  • There was a norm of attendance throughout the entirety of the experience and in every aspect of the experience.  People could “pass” and not share if they determined it was not good for them to do so.
  • Music was used as background and accent.
  • Brief energy exercises were used to help move energy, provide grounding and to build the sense of a “group body.” 
  • Each night there was a vet who volunteered for “night duty” meaning, every night, someone experiencing distress could get support.

Over four days Mike and I presented a series of “Elements” which were composed  of ritual and verbal presentations.  We covered the material in this order:

  • Introduction and Why Are You Here?  – Vets and civilians.  The veteran on our team, in front of the entire group “swore in” the civilians to listen without judgment, to maintain confidentiality and to serve as witnesses to the warriors.
  • Unpacking the Rucksack – what have you been carrying that you need to leave here?”

  • The Wound Ritual in which wounds are safely acknowledged and held by and within the entire group.

  • The Grief Ritual in which names of deceased and injured war buddies are entered into a book.
  • There is a way out of hell  –  Here the emphasis is on transforming pain and suffering rather than transmitting it.  Each person reflects on a time when they were responsible for inflicting damage on another and then ponders the questions: How do I emerge from this?  What constitutes redemption?

  • The application of the Covenantal Social Contract.  This section is useful to explore the moral and ethical dilemma of war, duty, moral wounding and responsibility taking. Here we also consider the experience of mercy for self and others.

  • Ceremony of Transition from Warrior to Elder Warrior  and the processing of the termination of the retreat.

  • The Closing Circle Farewell

What We Saw, What We Heard

Vets and civilians spoke of experiencing “healing” (notice I did not say anyone was healed).  Honesty, acknowledgement of responsibility and acceptance had a healing effect.  At least in this experience, the splitting-off had ended.

We knew the retreat had been effective because we heard vets saying they felt lighter, they had slept better and intrusive thoughts and dreams had subsided.  The civilians thanked us and the vets profusely.  The civilians felt they had an opportunity to participate in a profound way and felt honored to do so.   Everyone was, to a greater or lesser degree, connected. We were not a group of vets and a group of civilians.  We were a group.

No one who was there believes that the retreat made the struggles, the grief, the anger, the loneliness or the sense of betrayal go away for the vets.  No one believes the vets are “cured” of PTSD.

The consensus seems to be that the longed for moment; the society opening to the vets and receiving them – did occur, for everyone’s benefit.  Period.  That helps. Period.

That was the concept.  The concept was proved.

© Peter Sternberg, 2015

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