SERVANT LEADERSHIP - Thoughts from Save A Warrior's President & Founder, Ronald "Jake" Clark

SERVANT LEADERSHIP - Thoughts from Save A Warrior's President & Founder, Ronald "Jake" Clark

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”.  

Me too.

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, 

- jake

2016: A Year of Rebuilding for Save A Warrior™

2016: A Year of Rebuilding for Save A Warrior™

2016 has been an incredible year for rebuilding, refitting and retooling Save A Warrior™ . From transitioning to a more Warrior-led conversation, to welcoming new Warriors to the Project, as well as welcoming back “old friends”, 2016 has shown us what more is possible as we turn the page and launch into what will prove to be an unforgettable 2017.

Cohort 040 - The December to Remember

Cohort 040 - The December to Remember

Over the past year, “SAW” conducted eleven (11) Cohorts (030 – 040), serving and supporting more than 150 active duty Warriors, returning Veterans and First Responders. Our operational year culminated with Cohort 040 (Malibu) and was – as promised – a “December to Remember”; an experience that will resonate for all involved for some time to come. Resources were such that we even managed to sponsor a female Alumni event with our good friend Clara Te Velthuis that was equine-focused and great healing was experienced by all. We thank Brian Hagerty and all the Shepherds for making all of our enrollments, registrations and operations possible. Those “in the seats” on Sunday afternoons in Malibu and Lexington are the lifeblood of SAW, the reason so many of us find purpose and meaning in our lives.

None of what happened could have been possible without the efforts of Teresa Rivera, SAW’s Director for Marketing and Business Development. This year, Teresa was key to securing a three-year grant that will help sustain our efforts to serve our Warriors. Over the life of this grant, SAW will touch 300 more lives of those whom we seek to serve and support. Additionally, more than two dozen new and legacy events held on the behalf of SAW occurred all around the country and Teresa made sure they all ran smoothly. We take a moment to thank each and every Shepherd who took time away from their own lives to appear at these events and share their experience, strength and hope. You’ll never know the difference you made in the lives of those who attended and supported these events – so that others may live.        

Lastly, over the next 180 days, members of an ad hoc exploratory committee will seek to solidify plans to secure a retreat and conference center here in Central Ohio that will one day be known as Warrior Village. Yes, this dream of ours since Day One is finally upon us and coming to pass. I can hardly wait to share more with all of you as details become available. Make your bed, meditate, give thanks, lend a hand, come back and Shepherd a SAW Cohort. Most importantly, friends… LIVE!!!   

Paying it forward,

Raychad Vannatta

Executive Director / Chief of Programs

Save A Warrior



Life and a grey shirt

Life and a grey shirt

This guest blog was written by karl palmer of cohort 030

As I sit here with racing thoughts over my morning coffee awoken by the nightmares of a life gone by, a thought comes to mind. The common occurrence of a grey shirt in my life when I needed it the most.

As a child, my dreams were not like most. I did not want to be an astronaut, or a sports player, or a fireman. I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to protect those that could not protect themselves. I wanted to serve.

When I became old enough to register for the Selective Service Act I was excited. I took the ASVAB and readied myself to see what Uncle Sam could offer me.

While I was waiting for an Army recruiter to talk to me, a slick Navy recruiter seized the opportunity and invited me into his office. I wasn’t interested in anything that floated on the surface and as soon as he mentioned submarines I was sold.

My trip to MEPS was filled with excitement and anxiety as I wondered what possibilities lay ahead. The early morning duck walk, poking, and prodding was a blur up until the colorblindness test. Regardless of ASVAB score I was now limited in my job selection with a 15% colorblind result. I didn’t care I pressed on and was processed through.

My recruiter said congratulations and handed me my first grey shirt which said “Welcome Aboard”

I was filled with a sense of purpose and excitement.

The time came to “ship-out” to basic training at Naval Station Great Lakes.

Throughout my career and each command, I would report to after that, I would be given a grey shirt. Some said NAVY others had the name of the command I was attached to. But, they all had the same purpose and thing in common. I was a cog in the big machine of something greater.

Fast forward to 2008. Close to nine and half years in, too many sea deployments to list, a trip to Afghanistan with the Army, and an early retirement at the age of 28 due to injuries.

I am now no longer a cog in the machine… Yes, I am a father of two wonderful children and a husband. But I feel adrift, lost… I feel this way for a long time.

I search for meaning and purpose… accepting the labels and title of “Disabled” is not an easy one. Asking for help is even harder. 

I finally suck up my pride and register with Wounded Warrior Project and I am approached about attending a program they call Project Odyssey. I sign up and almost don’t go. Getting on the plane was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. No one wants to go camping for a week with strangers and talk about your feelings around a camp fire. But I arrive and soon realize this group of guys are in the same boat as me. We share, we cry, we bond, we grow. 

At the closing of the trip we are awarded… you guessed it a grey shirt! It is only given to those that complete the course. With new friendships and a renewed outlook on life I return home.

The “Honeymoon” period does not last long though before the backslide into darkness comes. Living in a rural area is not conducive for any relationships outside said area, and I soon find myself searching again.

Adrift and lost again… Going through motions of playing Mr. Mom and husband, I miss the sea, I miss Afghanistan… yes I miss it - the smell of diesel and gun powder. I search for meaning and understanding in god, religion, life, but nothing seems to click. I hit a new low. What is my purpose, why am I drawing breath when there are so many worthier than I six feet under the ground?

I feel like I've failed.

Then just when I'm all out of options and googling whether or not my VGLI will cover suicide, I get a phone call. “Hey brother! This is Jake from Save a Warrior, how the hell are you?” I don’t know this guy from Adam, but soon I’m telling him everything. He tells me to come out to California and I will not regret it.

I buy the plane ticket and arrive apprehensive and closed off at first. I am greeted at the airport with a hug, love, and a "welcome brother!" I am thrown off by the affection.

As I go through Jake’s program with fellow veterans and brothers from all branches and walks of life I realize that I am not alone. I do have a purpose. I am worthy of the air I breathe. I forge new friendships that will last a lifetime and have a new outlook and lease on life. I feel refreshed, happy, full of life and ready to go out into the world to kick some ass again. No longer held back or pulled down by the demons. 

The closing ceremony is one I’ll always remember. A silent walk into the labyrinth to be joined by brothers in the center, that on day one was filled with tears and runny noses, is now replaced by laughter, smiles, and an embrace. 

Upon completion of the week we are given… you guessed it a grey shirt with the Save A Warrior emblem on it. I shall cherish this and wear it with pride as it marks a huge change in my life. I am now part of a brotherhood that is there day or night, high or low, a phone call away. I am not alone.

Filled with a new sense of purpose. I return home looking for something that I can do to give back. To serve again. One of my brothers mentioned Team Rubicon, so I decide why not.

I register and knock out the training and then see that there is an event down in Detroit. “Come earn your grey shirt” they say. I don’t hesitate. The first morning of training to become a Sawyer I am handed my grey shirt and put to work. As each day passes friendships are forged and I feel refreshed. I see the faces of the community we are helping and I am filled with pride and a sense of purpose. I am contributing again. I am a cog in the machine serving a purpose for the greater good.

As I return home I am on a high… yes they warned us about Post Op blues, and it hits. I feel guilty about Ops I can’t attend. But after a talk with a few good friends and the great leaders above me I realize that you do what you can when you can and that's what matters. 

Winter is knocking at the door and an event comes up on the calendar. Outward Bound is doing a week long camping trip for Team Rubicon at Joshua Tree. I don’t hesitate and within a month I am camping and hiking with fellow Tribe members in some beautiful country, reflecting and learning, as well as growing. I find more peace for my soul and my life in a desert of all places. I forge new friendships and leave feeling refreshed again. Upon completion… you guessed it a grey shirt with Outward Bounds quote. “There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.” -Kurt Hahn

Throughout all of this there are high and low points. Major life changes in relationships and health. But one thing is constant. The grey shirt mentality of “Getting shit done!” I no longer look for excuses or reasons not to do things or hide behind conflicts in schedules. I press on, tired or not, serving others is worth it and fulfilling.

So, as I look back and upon my collection of grey shirts one thing comes to mind. Each one is a reminder that people care, life matters, and we are all a part of something greater than ourselves. Sometimes we just need someone or something else great to show us the way.

So now that the coffee is gone and the sun is up the story must come to a close. A new day awaits and there is shit to get done!