In Ken Burns’s new PBS blockbuster, Vietnam, veterans interviewed for the series express a range of emotions.
They express pride that they volunteered; sorrow that they survive while their closest comrades, and, for some, the men under their command, died; rage that they were sent to fight a war that politicians knew could not be won; guilt for the death and suffering they caused; frustration that privileged young people hated them for what they had to do; and more sorrow for themselves and all the other innocent young men who were forever changed by their bitter experience. One vet said there were two casualties – the person he may have killed, and the innocent young person he had been.
Of course it’s not only Vietnam vets who bear those invisible scars. The war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan have been especially difficult because of their distance and shifting goals. But even when wars are seen as justified, and the cause and the enemy are clear, fighting – facing mortal danger, killing other human beings, losing comrades – and then returning to civilian life, where few understand what fighting is like, can be deeply traumatic. For women in the military, sexual assault can add to the burden.
But recently, I’ve become aware of a Vermont non-profit that exists specifically to help veterans face and resolve their traumas. The Warrior Connection brings groups of veterans to six-day retreats in Dummerston, where a vet and another trained facilitator guide them through activities designed to help them bring the often conflicting feelings they’ve buried to the surface to be addressed. And there’s a separate group for women who experienced sexual trauma during their military service.
For one officer, the Warrior Connection was a safe place where he was finally able to confront his guilt about the men in his unit in Vietnam, and to share what he couldn’t with anyone who hadn’t experienced actual combat. Warrior Connection founder Anne Black says that many participants have never even imagined that they could deal with feelings that have been under emotional and mental lock and key, sometimes for decades.
“There’s a soul that’s gone into hiding to stay safe, and it’s that part they’re protecting,” she said. “Walls go up.”
The Warrior Connection helps veterans break through those walls and finally lay their burdens down.