And his soul cried out to them, and he said:
Sons of my ancient mother, you riders of the tides,
How often have you sailed in my dreams? And now you come in my awakening, which is my deeper dream.
Ready am I to go, and my eagerness with sails full set awaits the wind.
Only another breath will I breathe in this still air, only another loving look cast backward,
And then I shall stand among you, a seafarer among seafarers.
And you, vast sea, sleepless mother,
Who alone are peace and freedom to the river and the stream,
Only another winding will this stream make, only another murmur in the glade,
And then shall I come to you, a boundless drop to a boundless ocean.
- Khalil Gibran, The Prophet
There is a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from doing this work. As a community of healing, we are doing something positive that supports a fellow, suffering Warrior. Each of us is on their own journey to bring what we’ve discovered to more who may still suffer, to participate in a larger discussion and to maybe leave our world a little better than we found her. We are also part of a bigger trend. We have never seen a time when more people could make history, record history, publicize history and amplify history all at the same time. In previous eras, to make history you needed an army, to record it you needed a film studio or a newspaper, to publicize it you needed a publicist. Now anyone can start a movement. Now any of us can make history with a keystroke.
What is new today is our ability to touch and shape our community if what we have to share is compelling, if we prove we have something to say – even more so if we have something to share that makes a meaningful difference in the lives of others.
To live up to our part of the bargain, we MUST think more deeply about the craft of what we endeavor to share than ever before. Lives. Are. At. Stake. Therefore, we must think deeply about what makes our work “work”.
Although clues exist from forty previous SAW Cohorts, there is no set formula for defining why they “work”. To a greater or lesser degree, every SAW Cohort is different. But there are some general perspectives I can offer. During a Cohort, the focus is on unearthing and exposing the seemingly impenetrable and hidden – wherever that takes us. We are here to inform, share and shepherd without fear or favor. As Anthony deMello reminds us, ‘Relief is temporary. The cure is always painful’. I would add that the path itself to our emotional truth is always painful, too. The “truth”, in and of itself, is often enough and has an enormous influence – but it’s always in direct proportion to how much it explains, informs, exposes and inspires us to act.
As we approach SAW’s five-year anniversary (13 APR 2017), I’ve come to understand that there are parts of ourselves that the conventional healthcare system – the traditional medical model – are not equipped to heal or nourish, adding to our suffering.
The only reason I know this is because I’ve come to learn that SAW is not only a program about Post-Traumatic Stress. Rather, SAW is also a story about moral injury and moral repair; perhaps yours and definitely mine.
Moral injury is a relatively new term for a very ancient idea: that we can be damaged in the cores of our personhood by life experiences that violently contradict deeply held, and deeply necessary, beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. I use the term “violently contradict” to distinguish between moral injuries and the consequences of the more gradual and normal reappraisals of the self and the world we all engage in more or less every day. Moral injury is not a form of damage to beliefs as ideas, themselves, nor is it merely a loss of faith or trust in any particular belief or expectation. Rather, it is a loss of harmonious integrity in the mind, heart, and the soul of the person who, over the course of their life, had woven into the fabric of their being the very beliefs that have now proven themselves to be absurd.
Certain beliefs serve as essential handholds for our core selves. Three beliefs, in particular, have been found in research to be shattered in people who were seriously injured by one or more overwhelming life events. These three necessary beliefs are: (1) the world is benevolent, (2) the world is meaningful, and (3) the self is worthy (Janoff-Bulman, 1992). In simpler terms, in order to reach our highest cultural potential as humans, we need to believe that the world is a good place; that we, ourselves, are good; and that our lives make sense somehow, that they are not just random chaos. Imagine, if you can, how drastically different your life would be if you did not wake up every morning secure in all three of these assumptions. Imagine, if you will, moral injury playing itself all the way out in the form of, or through the persistent fears (and shamed-based false beliefs) of, ‘I’m not enough, there’s not enough, I’m not going to get what I want, I’m going to lose what I have’, over and over again in our mind. Perhaps this is what brings us to SAW in the first place. If so, know that this – this moral injury thing – is often the “thing under the thing” that eventually lands us “in the seat”.
What happens in warfare sometimes relentlessly attacks, and sometimes utterly defeats, necessary moral beliefs in warfighters. There are many ways to connect the dots that bring us to SAW, but here’s a succession of possible milestones on my road to moral injury. First, I was a two-time Soldier, a police (peace) officer and a federal agent for an elite law enforcement agency: a “special” agent in the mold of an ancient champion or medieval chivalric knight, to whom the word “hero” retained some of its original Greek meaning of “protector”. I was an apple that didn’t fall from the tree planted by my Vietnam era Marine Corps father. Despite her severe bouts with mental illness, a devout, Irish Catholic mother insisted I regularly attend mass, serve as an altar boy, enroll in catechism classes as well as private school to further embed these “heroic” and chivalrous values. I volunteered (read “voluntold”) for all of the above because I wanted to be seen as good. It wasn’t that I felt that it was my sacred moral duty to be a better human being, or to protect and to serve OTHERS. No. This was never the case. For why in heaven would I ever have any reason to feel that way when this was “ideal” behavior was not consistently modeled by those in whose care I was entrusted?
‘Spiritual maturity can grow rapidly if we know what to look for. It’s called initiation’ - Karl Marlantes; author of What It Is Like To Go To War
Suffice it say that many of us have learned a great deal from Karl’s writing and from Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, two of Mr. Marlantes biggest spiritual influences.
You see, had I been properly spiritually guided or initiated, and then held accountable for my behavior by someone who, in turn, was being held accountable for their own “spiritual ways of being”, perhaps my innate talents and ambition would have taken me places where my character could have kept me. To do these Athlete/Warrior jobs well, I had to learn to absorb and mimic the cultural norms and beliefs attendant to those positions. An Athlete/Warrior through and through, I basically had to learn to pretend that I wasn’t pretending. Upon approaching moral dilemmas that often “came with the job”, I was poorly prepared or equipped to meet them. That means I took the path of least resistance and profited nothing from these experiences. The bottom line is that a handful of respected agencies could teach me how to arrest and kill; however, none of them gave me the tools to clean up my messes; at least none of the tools that would really work. No, old timers in AA and other community resiliency models, truly selfless folks like many of you I’ve encountered through SAW, have taught me these principles by way of example and for that – and for you – I am truly grateful.
One of many insights I have come to rely upon is the realization that a great role is played in traumatic stress injuries by the accumulation of stress from all other, less-than-traumatic sources piled up over a span of time, as is inevitable in a year-long war-zone deployment; or 20-years working for the LAPD. Through the actions of stress messenger chemicals in the brain and body, cumulative stress erodes our abilities to adapt to new challenges as they arise, to sort through options logically, and even to inhibit unhelpful or distracting emotions, thoughts or impulses. Over time, cumulative stress can actually destroy neurons in the brain that are essential both for making sense out of life experiences, and for maintaining authority over our actions. Why do you think we are so ‘pain-in-the-ass’ insistent all week about a solid, ‘Daily Practice’ of good, self-care that includes meditation? Our brains are probably hosed and require some “rewiring”. Meditating does this for us. Making my bed every morning while saying my prayers is just another way to prompt myself a la, ‘Oh yeah, I need to meditate too’.
Why did it take until I was 31-years-old for my “shadow” to catch up to me and crash my life? The answer to this question can be found in the nature of moral injuries as compared with, say, injuries to skin or muscle or bone. Moral injuries are wounds to beliefs and secondarily, to the identity of the person holding those beliefs, inflicted by events that violently contradict them. Contradictions between expectations and reality are often not immediately apparent to the person whose brain is laboring to reconcile them. Contradictions and betrayals of trust often take time to sink in, to get past all the compartmentalizing and denial and all the other tricks we use to protect ourselves from such internal dissonance. But as contradictions sink in – as they are being processed in sleep and wakefulness – cumulative stress not only continues, but it actually grows over time, as the moral meal of war (life, the job, “it”) is slowly digested. I did not just live with my father for the first 17 years of my life; I was at war with him almost continuously up and until the day he died. Working with y’all and other resiliency groups spared me not having that “final” moment at his hospital beside. Thank God.
The greatest lesson I, personally, have learned from being involved with SAW is the unique role of spiritual initiation, of finally and once and for all waking the hell up. We each create our own identities over the course of our lifetime by building on our innate talents and instincts through effort, and experience, trial and error. Tragically, our most prize creations – our own identities – can be dismantled by events that take only a millisecond to occur, even though their full impact may not be fully appreciated immediately. Following a lifetime of mostly-self-inflicted moral injuries, Save a Warrior is the repair process by which I reconstruct – on incredibly profound levels – my own moral identity. Doesn’t it make sense then that moral repair would also require an act of creation? SAW’s body of work stands as a record and a testament to the re-creation of my moral identity, through the effort and trial and error over the past five years, until I could find meaning I required to put my former life where it belonged… in my past.
Prior to the events of 9/11, the subsequent protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Save A Warrior simply could not have been possible. There was not enough room in our collective “listening” for candid introspection by those among you returning from war. Twenty years ago, those wanting to attend a SAW-like experience would have been advised by anyone and everyone to just don’t go there. One concern would certainly have been that the mere existence and availability (and an increasing demand) of such an experience would reflect badly on the military as an institution, and on the nation as a whole. My motives would surely have been called into question; too few would believe that such an experience could possibly have been created by someone with a pure heart or intentions; someone who was genuinely motivated by his civic duty to confront a growing social injustice to share his hard-earned wisdom with the rest of you by someone who’d never spent a year (or two, or three, or four, etc.) in Iraq or Afghanistan. The mere existence today of fully-fledging SAW means that things have changed, at least somewhat. We are now better able to receive the benefit of the doubt and actually be heard about what it is we have to say – and share. We, who have crossed the “return” threshold of our “Hero’s Journey” now have the power and wisdom to serve OTHERS.
What insights have prepared us for SAW? What changes in our fixed ways of being about the world and ourselves have opened us up for the possibilities offered by this community resiliency model – other than the brutal realities many of you have witnessed over the last decade and a half? I believe the way for SAW was paved by awareness that there truly are limits to human endurance; that war, by its nature, pushes people to and beyond their limits; that bullets and bombs aren’t the only dangers service members and their families face during wartime; that no one should ever be blamed for the injuries they themselves sustain while faithfully serving their country, whether those injuries are physical, psychological or spiritual; and that our national interests are better served by empathizing with our fellow service members and returning veterans, and listening to each other, than by reproaching one another for not living up to unrealistic expectations or, worse, wanting others to feel sorry for us for being weak or unlucky, or whatever curse they think led to our undoing.
I won’t list the possible sources of these insights, although I can assure there are many; just as there are many for this article. In my own fixation of “getting to the thing under the thing”, know that nary a stone is left unturned; at least none that I am presently aware of (and the list continues to grow, hence the revised SAW Suggested Reading List). The list of those offering insights that has become this work is both prodigious and voluminous.
The final group I will single out is you, the SAW alumni; the active duty and returning Warrior and First Responders who have openly acknowledged having been injured by the stress of war – and pre trauma (or “the job”) – yourselves. By coming to SAW, you have given OTHERS the courage to accept their own injuries, and most importantly to take responsibility for their own healing. You did that and I acknowledge and thank you.
I vividly remember the first time I “mistakenly” called a returning Veteran who had let me blather on and on about this idea I had back in the summer of 2012 until he finally interrupted me, informing me that it was a friend of his whom I was actually wanting to connect with; a friend he was letting folks telephone his particular telephone number until the friend could secure another phone, who himself then asked, “hey man… you got the wrong guy. I’m so and so’s good buddy and he’s really hurting… and while I have you on the phone, could I maybe have one of those spots in that beta thing you’re talking about running? I’m struggling too”. For someone who didn’t know whether or not this “thing” would even work, that was the shot in the arm needed to move forward. In my opinion, SAW was “delivered” during that “accidental” phone call with “Doc” (Cohort 001). More than four years on, he’s returning to SAW Cohort 041 (FEB, 2017) to Shepherd; then he’s heading home to begin a Masters in Social Work (he just finished his Bachelors of Science in Human Services) and dedicating his life to serving and supporting our brothers and sisters. That fact, alone, makes all of this worth it.
In my wildest dreams, something like SAW was nothing I could have ever imagined. I am a man who is rich with memories for having taken this journey with so, so many of you. Among an endless list of life-changing “a ha” moments, I have been graced to see the sunsets high above Hilltop at Camp Hess Kramer, experiences over which I will never get; the kind of once-in-a-lifetime moments where people pull their cars to the side of Pacific Coast Highway to get out and simply marvel at the spectacle of creation; moments where on those very same days many of you had leapt with a faith you didn’t know you already had inside of you, furthering edifying my own. I have watched so many of your lives change on these days. Oftentimes, there are no words to describe what had happened, or what we’d all just borne witness to. However, words didn’t matter. Because no matter how clever they might have been, these words would have fallen woefully short. For before, where there was nothing, there is now a knowing that connects all of us, yes? I hope to one day see all of you again on the “parallel path” where – as Ram Dass likes to say – we take our turn walking each other home.
So much love,