We have to admit it; along the path of development as a society we’ve lost touch with some important aspects of our humanity. Our ancestors lived in intimate communities where their “property” was aligned with that of their neighbors, in a way that allowed them to help each other. Many Native American tribes positioned their homes in a circle, so that they could protect the people of their community. Of course, there’s no need for us to live that way now because we aren’t at risk of being invaded. However, we are at risk of imploding. Because we’ve isolated ourselves and become self-focused, we’re at risk of losing touch with what it means to be fully alive.

The Apaches were defined by their duties to one another. Their identity as individuals depended on how they lived for the other people in their community. The importance of others outweighed the importance of self. 

How are we defined in this society? 

We like to define ourselves by what makes us feel most important. Sometimes, that’s a good thing; and sometimes, that’s a bad thing. It is important to ask yourself, “What have others come to expect of me?” and then to follow that question up with, “What should they expect of me?” If others expect less of you than you know they should, then you need to take action to correct that. Real men and real women don’t just take responsibility for the things they’re responsible for; they also take responsibility for the things they’re not responsible for. 

Unfortunately, we live in a society where grown adults won’t take responsibility for their actions or their circumstances (when applicable), probably because no one taught them how or, owing to a lack of faith, they fear that they will not survive the consequences. And as a consequence (perhaps of our fear of consequence), we’ve lost touch with one of the most fundamental aspects of the development of real men and women; the initiation.

Throughout history and on every continent, initiations into manhood or womanhood were essential to the development of responsible stakeholders in their respective societies. To become a man or woman, it is best if you endure an initiation of some kind, although it must meet certain criteria if it is to be effective. 

Initiations must contain two aspects. First, it must teach you what your role in society is. Historically, it taught men about the sacred act of hunting and protecting the community, while it taught women how to bear and raise children. The most important initiation for the Apaches was for young women, as women were regarded as the strongest and most important members of society. Secondly, an effective initiation must contain a spiritual element, which forces boys or girls to “die” to their childlike ways and begin life as a man or woman. The spiritual initiation must also help them to understand their mortality and their purpose and relationship to the world and their higher power. Worth noting about spiritual initiation: it should occur in sacred space with ritual elders who are completely trustworthy. 

At this point, you’re probably wondering what the heck all of this has to do with our Warriors and Post-Traumatic Stress. Well, everything, really.

Unfortunately, as Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Airmen, we went through pseudo-initiations when we joined the military. We were taught to do things out of fear, rather than to feel fear and do it anyway – on faith. We were trained to numb ourselves and turn off our emotions, rather than to experience them and act despite their presence. Instead of being taught to rely on a power greater than ourselves (read faith), we were taught to rely on the US Military, which was bound to fail us from the start.

When we entered the initiatory field of battle, we experienced chaos and death. Because we were not initiated spiritually and lacked the maturity and guidance to deal with death, we demonized our enemy and let the rage drive us deeper into the darkness. We used our training to shut off the fear and sadness. When you numb one feeling, you numb all feelings, but only for a time. Eventually, all of that is bound to surface and when it does, it feels as if the whole world turns upside down. Panic, fear, and rage begin to dominate our emotions. (If you want to understand more about how war affects the brain, please read Part 1 of this series).

While there are important steps we can take to heal our brains, such as meditation, yoga, and prayer, we must also heal our souls. A spiritual experience and faith in a higher power are necessary for this type of healing. That’s one reason Save A Warrior (SAW) has been so much more effective than any other program for returning Warriors; the spiritual initiation and ritualized processes that occur there are uniquely designed to heal a Warrior’s soul.

Imagine it this way: As we Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, and Airman go through our military “initiations” in basic training, we are put through situations that teach us how to overcome trials of combat. Those situations range from basic rifle marksmanship, to the gas chamber, to road marches, to live fire exercises, to convoy training. We develop skills (shooting, moving, communicating) and learn to use tools (rifles, grenades, claymore mines, etc.) that will allow us to survive in combat. Also, we’re taught about our responsibilities (our respective creeds and general orders) and how to rely on the things we’ve learned so we can win battles.

Save A Warrior basically does the same thing: We go through an initiation that puts us in situations that teach us how to overcome the trials after combat. Those situations range from The Leap of Faith, to archetypal discovery, to Equine-Assisted Learning, meditative labyrinth walks, the preparation of mandalas (Jungian Depth Psychology), to rock climbing. We develop skills and learn to use tools (meditation, importance of 12-Step programs, importance of faith in a higher power, etc.). Also, we are taught about our responsibilities, which include the Five Pillars of Servant Leadership. It is important to note that what we learn at Save A Warrior shouldn’t be unique to the Warrior class. It could be taught to (and benefit) all men and women in our society.

We must continue our SERVICE to others. We must STUDY so we can continue to learn about what we face and how we can heal. We must CONTRIBUTE to causes because the giving of ourselves financially helps to turn the focus from ourselves towards others. We must practice ACKNOWLEDGEMENT because being grateful helps us to recognize all of the good things and people in our lives. Finally, we must practice PRAYER and/or AFFIRMATION because if we are to experience healing, we must rely on something greater than ourselves. These practices are crucial if we are to continue to grow spiritually.

Going through Save A Warrior and not practicing meditation – or the Five Pillars – after leaving one's Cohort would be like going through combat training and not using any of the skills or tools when you actually go to war. You must be proactive. You cannot sit and wait for the enemy to attack you, because you will lose the battle. Furthermore, not actively participating in a 12-step program or other Community Resiliency Models (CRM) after SAW would be like going through a close-quarters “shoot house” alone. You must train the way you fight, and you cannot fight – and win – alone. Seek out and find a community to heal with, and commit to it. You’ll find that the people within 12-Step programs are full of wisdom, and just being there helps you to learn and become a better person.

Community is essential. We all require support. I require support. I assert you require support. We all know people who require support. Without community, we lose our true identity. We lose ourselves.

The Apaches made an important distinction between the terms “Soldier” and “Warrior.” A Soldier is surrounded by other Soldiers. Their purpose is to fight, and from the Apache perspective, that was nothing to be proud of. On the other hand, a Warrior is surrounded by other men, women, and children, because their purpose is to serve and protect the community. They were defined by their duty to others. For all of us who have been through Save A Warrior, we have made the transition from Soldier, Marine, Sailor, or Airman, and now we are Warriors. Our purpose is not to fight: our purpose is to serve others.

Save A Warrior isn’t providing services or therapy to “troubled Veterans,” as I have heard some people say. Save A Warrior is producing Warriors; men and women, who are Servant Leaders defined by their collective duty to others. The initiatory process is one that heals heart, mind and spirit and teaches us what it means to be fully alive, even when we experience pain.

In his book, “What it is Like to Go to War,” returning Vietnam Warrior Karl Marlantes mentions an old Navajo story of two brothers who went on a journey to find their father, the Sun. When they found their father, he armed them, and they became Warriors and fought the wild monsters that threatened their tribe. The fighting changed these Warriors. Their energy changed. Paintings of the brothers showed them with bolts of lightning and vibrant energy coming off of them after they returned to their village. The community became afraid of the brothers because they had changed so much, so they told them to leave. However, a matriarchal figure called Sky Woman took them in and taught them to sing about their battles to the people. After the brothers began to sing, the people were no longer afraid and they invited them back home. Without learning how to process their trials and share about them in a constructive way, the Warriors would be lost. By learning to sing, however, they experienced healing.

Marlantes says this about the story, “This book is my song. Each and every one of us veterans must have a song to sing about our war before we can walk back into the community without everyone, including the king, quaking behind the walls. Perhaps it is drawing pictures or reciting poetry about the war. Perhaps it is getting together with a small group and telling stories. Perhaps it is dreaming about it and writing the dreams down and then telling people your dreams. But it isn’t enough just to do the art in solitude and sing the song alone. You must sing it to other people. Those who are afraid or uneasy must hear it. They must see the art. They must lose their fear. When the child asks, “What is it like to go to war?” to remain silent keeps you from coming home.” (Page 207).

For those of us fortunate enough to have been through Save A Warrior, we must learn how to sing in our own way. Singing is literally the best medicine for the Warrior’s spirit. 

A month ago, I had the privilege of experiencing the fullness of what it is like to truly sing. For months, I worked to develop a Save A Warrior Beta Cohort for Kansas City, Missouri. It wasn’t easy. There were moments of doubt and failure. It really challenged me, but I knew that my fellow Warriors’ lives were far too important for me to simply give up. I also knew that I had been called to do this, so I had faith that it was going to work.

When the weekend finally came, all of my anxieties melted away because my work was done. Now, it was time for my Creator to do the rest. It was a relief to finally have all of those Warriors in the room, along with our providers and Jake Clark, Creator and Executive Director of Save A Warrior. 

As the Project began and the Warriors started to open up, all of my hard work seemed worthwhile. However, there is nothing more beautiful than watching a Warrior come back to life after taking The Leap of Faith; and there is hardly anything more rewarding than having a Warrior hug you with tears in his eyes and whisper, “Thank you for saving my life.” 

Now that I have experienced what it is like to sing, I cannot cease. It is my medicine, my oxygen. Also, I cannot cease to participate in community with others on this parallel path of healing. It keeps me from my fixed way of being. Lastly, I cannot cease to practice my responsibilities to others, because this is what it means to be fully alive.