This is by Joe Barrera, one of the people in my book, Finding Home: How Americans Prevail, who has discovered that telling one’s story has salubrious effects.
By Joe Barrera
In 2005, I was a member of a group of Vietnam War veterans who became aware that many returning soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were exhibiting some of the same symptoms of alienation and aimlessness that had plagued soldiers coming home from Vietnam in the 60’s and 70’s. Colorado Springs, home to the large Fort Carson Army post, saw many returning veterans. We decided to do something about the loneliness of many of these soldiers and began to invite the younger men to sessions that at first we called “Impact Panels.”
The format of the meetings, which we held in community rooms at libraries, on college campuses, and later in bars and restaurants, was informal but structured in the form of a “post-mission reports,” or “debriefings after combat action.” This worked pretty well, especially because the younger soldiers and veterans seemed to like talking to older men who also had served in combat in Vietnam. This has always been one of the successful characteristics of our sessions, that we bring older men, veterans of previous wars, to hear the younger men, veterans of the present wars, tell their stories. This is a formula that unlocks the reluctance of men for self-disclosure–young veterans talking to older veterans.
At first, we focused on the relatively small number of soldiers who had actual combat experience, as opposed to the vast majority of troops who spent their time in the war zones in the base camps. Combat veterans have a great need to talk, to share their stories, and to unburden themselves of the heavy load that war always lays on soldiers. But it has to be done right, in a safe environment with respectful listeners who understand the telling of war stories. We have since invited non-combat veterans to speak, and their stories are just as significant as those of the men with actual combat experience.
We quickly noticed that many of the men we “debriefed” kept talking about their wives, their children, their friends and other people in their lives with whom they seemed to have lost connection. We saw that there was a very real need to address this reality of loss that war always brings. We decided to expand the audiences during the sessions to include not just veterans, but also their families and friends. We added a third circle, the community, when we realized that many returning war veterans need the symbolic permission of the community at large in order to re-enter society.
This is the structure of the Veterans Remember Community Dialogues as we do them now in Colorado Springs. There are three circles always present:
1) The veterans and soldiers
2) Spouses, families and friends
3) The community at large.
The sessions typically can take up an entire day and last into the evening, with breaks for lunch and dinner. Often, we adjourn to a restaurant and continue the stories. People take turns talking. No one is required to speak, of course.
Participants can stay as long or as short a time as they desire. We don’t get into the politics of the wars. That is not allowed. We do not allow anti-war or pro-war activists. We have learned that these types can very quickly kill the delicate sensitivity to emotional pain and trauma that are always manifested during the Dialogues. The Veterans Remember Dialogues are about creating the space and time for healing. The prerequisite for this is always non-judgmental acceptance by the listeners for the soldiers telling the stories, and acceptance of any and all experiences.
The listeners engage in dialogue with the soldiers and veterans. Many times this is the first time that any meaningful communication about war experiences between husbands and wives, families and friends, occurs. People invariably say, “This is the first time I have ever heard him say those things. I had no idea about what he had gone through.” The main reason this true communication happens is that soldiers are talking to other soldiers, and the families, friends and community members are listening in. And then the soldiers get real feedback from their loved ones.
We have now expanded the Dialogues to include all military experiences. We have hosted WWII veterans (they tell some of the best stories), Korean War veterans, Cold War era veterans, Vietnam veterans, Desert Storm and OIF (Iraq War) and OEF (Afghan War) veterans. All veterans are welcome, including women veterans.
One of our most successful panels was entitled, “Women and War.” We have also hosted sessions in which the wives of soldiers are the focus. We tell the wives that they are also war veterans, because their husbands bring the war home with them. This is especially true for families where the husbands, and sometimes the wives, have deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan. The military wives panels are always especially poignant because they reveal the huge emotional pain of women and children waiting for their husbands and fathers to come home, and the fear, anxiety and even panic that comes from not knowing what has happened to their loved ones.
Joe Barrera retired in 2010 from teaching Ethnic Studies and American Southwest Literature at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Texas in Austin. Joe’s contact: firstname.lastname@example.org