Scaling Walls That Separate Our Leaders from Our Veterans

On Saturday, September 20th, a homeless 42-year-old veteran – Omar J. Gonzalez – was charged with trespassing and carrying a deadly weapon after jumping the White House fence. He served three tours in Iraq. Gonzalez was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after his first tour in Iraq, but he was sent back for a second tour, during which a portion of his foot was amputated when a homemade explosive device hit his Humvee in Baghdad. He was honorably discharged about two years ago. His wife reports he had such trauma during his second tour, something that “involved little children,” that he cannot bear to report it, and that he does not need punishment but help.

Omar Gonzalez is now in jail, being held without bail. The purpose of the legal and judicial systems are to administer and oversee the practice of justice, the doing right, being good and fair, always in line with what is true. However, how did Omar Gonzalez travel from honorable warrior in the combat zone to broken, alienated, and unseen at home? How did he become a throwaway rather than an honored citizen?

The three “signature wounds” of our modern wars – Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) – often occur in combination, and create such a complex of transformed and troubled thinking, feeling, perceiving and behaving that the afflicted person can become lost for life with devastating personal, familial and social consequences. We expend much time, effort, and resources on symptoms; we diagnose, then attempt to eradicate or control them. We thus overload individual vets with responsibility for their own suffering and miss the full portrait of war.

We do not treat war’s invisible wounds effectively because for many reasons we do not understand them accurately. We have inherited the trance and denial, what Robert McNamara called “the fog of war.” The misinterpretations of our times prevent us from seeing what is in front of us.

But we can let “the spirit” of war trauma speak to us. If we listen and understand it aright, if we truly let our veterans and their wounds have their say, we may hear what they are trying to tell us. Then we may develop a vision and respond in ways that restore and transform. And how do survivors want us to hear them? Not as disabled or less, not as throwaways, not with our complicated explanations of psychological and cerebral malfunctioning, but as whole people with honorable and necessary stories that must be shared.

Through more than thirty-five years of work with veterans, I had to recognize the full, complex, and transformative impact the military and war has on everyone serving and touched. Exploring the inevitable consequences to survivors and society propelled me onto a lifelong search into the myriad ways warriors and their wounds have been understood and tended through the ages. This comprehensive approach, true to warriors’ experiences and to the wisdom of other cultures and ages, determines we need a philosophy and practice for veteran restoration based on love, compassion, empathy, restoration, spirituality, archetypal wisdom and community involvement, all aimed at restoring the soul and healing society’s broken contract.

In 2006, in response to veterans and their loved ones across the nation, and in the absence of other comprehensive spiritually and community-based approaches to tending our veterans, my wife and partner, Kate Dahlstedt, and I founded a nonprofit organization. What is missing are exactly these dimensions of holistic care – the heart, soul, spirit, community, and purpose – that are harmed in war, at the source of the wound and most neglected by the modern world and its practices. To honor our veterans carrying invisible wounds and the ancient tradition of war-healing that we serve, we named our organization “Soldier’s Heart.”

We seek to create a comprehensive model that individuals, agencies, institutions, communities, and even nations can apply to the healing of their warriors, citizens, and war wounds. We wish the roots of peace to pierce deeply into our violence-polluted world. These roots cannot thrive until we attend to war-healing. War-healing is peace-making.

What are veterans asking from their communities and society? To be seen as they are, for who they are, for what they gave, for their struggles now – and to be loved and honored for their unchanging essence of devotion and sacrifice.

What might Mr. Gonzalez be symbolically asking through his behavior; what is his spirit trying to tell us? Perhaps that we must all become aware that he and thousands of others are physically and psychologically wounded and their suffering does not end when they come home. And that war hurts so much its memories and pains can be inexpressible and distort us beyond our normal selves. And that our nation must pay attention and respond not with punishment but with loving responsibility. And that the walls and fences that separate our leaders from our troops, and our troops and veterans from all of us, must be scaled. If the nation has not responded well enough to the alarming and tragic suicide rate among veterans, perhaps, he might hope, it will respond to one who climbs the White House walls.

Let us hope that justice is served to Omar Gonzalez, and the millions of other veterans who deserve to be helped, by addressing their emotional, moral, and spiritual wounds. We need to offer restoration and homecoming not only by treating disorders, but by also guiding survivors to develop new and honorable warrior identities supported by community, by restoring their spirits, and by provoking new post-traumatic growth and service.