Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Edward Tick. Ed is the founding director of [the] Soldier’s Heart veterans’ safe return programs. He has been honored for his groundbreaking work in the spiritual, holistic, and community-based healing of veterans with PTSD. Dr. Tick has been a psychotherapist for 38 years, specializing in working with veterans since the 1970s. He is a tireless advocate for war healing and peacemaking—lecturing around the world and leading semiannual educational, healing, and reconciliation journeys to Vietnam and Greece.
Ed is the author of the book Sacred Mountain: The Practice of Dream Healing, and the award-winning book War and the Soul. With Sounds True, Ed has published a new book called Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Ed and I spoke about the social contract between warriors and the citizenry of a nation, how broken that contract currently is in the United States, and how we can heal that broken contract [together]. We talked about the archetype of the Warrior, how it is a universal archetype, and what it means to mature into a spiritual warriorship [to] find meaning in one’s military service. Finally, Ed shared with us some ideas on how to talk to returning vets and best support them through sharing the emotional burden of their actions committed on our behalf. Here’s my conversation with Dr. Edward Tick:
To begin with, Ed, I’d love to know how you came originally to [work] with returning veterans. How did that become your life’s work?
Edward Tick: I’ll begin with a moving and beautiful story.
I can share aspects of my own background and trauma in my family history—trans-generational trauma. My uncle [and] godfather—my mother’s only brother—was a medic at the Battle of the Bulge and had the worst case of walking PTSD that I’ve ever seen. My father was an MP at the end of World War II, and he also had what we today call PTSD. So, I grew up with it—not knowing what it was, but surrounded by people who carried the wound.
I came of age during the Vietnam War. I turned 18 in 1969, at the height of the war. I had a student deferment for the first year and then the student deferments were done away with. A lottery system came along. I was working on my conscientious objector plea. I was also thinking that if I had to serve, I could/would serve as a medic because I would want to strive to heal—even in the horror zones. As it turned out, I got a high lottery number and didn’t have to do anything. For many of the college students at the time, that was relief, freedom. “I’m off the hook!” For me, it made the entire Vietnam era situation even more untenable.
Patriotism and morality—which should be, ideally, on one and the same track—split and separated for me during Vietnam. To be patriotic might not necessarily be to be moral. To be moral might be construed as anti-patriotic (regarding war and violence).
I do believe in universal service of some kind—not necessarily in the military. But we need initiation practices and processes to be a healthy culture. We need to teach young people how to [have] discipline, service, [give] back, and [think] beyond themselves. Some kind of service provides that. I believe our country is hurting from the lack of that today. I was looking for my form of service, and felt morally confused and ambiguous from not having to do anything from that high lottery number.
So, flash forward. That’s in the late ’60s. [In] 1975, when the war ended, I moved to a rural part of central New York state—and our rural communities are quite often loaded with veterans. There were many [recently returned] vets from Vietnam in that area. Also, it was close enough to New York City [that] a lot of New York City vets fled to the country to try to escape the stress. As a young psychotherapist, they began to come into my practice.
First of all, I thought, “This is an extraordinary opportunity for me to really unite with them as a peace activist [and] war protester—to work to bridge the split in our generation. Also, for me to learn as much as possible—for someone who wasn’t there—what war and military service was really like—what it did to people in both positive and negative senses. So, I began working with vets then in the mid-to-late 1970s, before PTSD was even a diagnosis.
Now, here comes the good story. I worked with three veterans as a psychotherapist by 1979. I was so upset by what I was seeing and hearing from them that I began writing at that time. My first published work on the veteran-suffering crisis was an op-ed piece for a regional newspaper on Christmas Eve of 1980, on what Christmas is like for alienated, traumatized Vietnam veterans.
A day or two after that was published, I got a phone call from the president of the regional chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. He said, “Are you the guy who wrote that article about us?” I politely said, “Yes, sir.” [Laughs.] He came in in a very strong way and said, “Well, we’re going to have a meeting. I need to talk to you.”
We had a half-day-long meeting. He told me his entire war story. He really drilled me to see who I was, and if I was able to take the stories sincerely devoted to the veteran population and to try to heal. Really, not trying to capitalize, but trying to join their cause.
He finally said to me, “OK, I’m convinced you’re one of us. You’re going to come to our post and talk about this new diagnosis that your colleagues just created, called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” It was just entered into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual then—in 1980. And I said, “I can’t.” “Why not?” “Well, I’ve only worked with three combat veterans thus far. I don’t know much.” And he said, “Yes, I know. I’ve talked to all of you in our region. Three veterans makes you our regional expert. None of you will work with us. You’re the only one in our county.”
I said, “I’m honored to do the work, but I still can’t. I wasn’t there. I don’t know that much. The guys won’t trust me.” And he said, “That doesn’t matter. I’ve talked your ear off. You listened to my story. I trust you. My brothers will listen to me if I tell them to listen to you.” And I said, “I still can’t do this. I don’t know enough. I’m not ready—not ready to fully enter the veteran world.”
He looked me in the eyes, he leaned forward, and he said, “Tick. Nobody asked me if I wanted to go to Vietnam. I’m not asking you. You’re drafted.”
That’s how it began. I guess we would call me “a lifer.” Since I was drafted, I worked very intensively at the time with that chapter—not only doing therapy, but also preparing and training other counselors and therapists to work with veterans. We created crisis response teams and went into the boonies—the mountains and very remote areas where veterans were in crisis. [We] helped them get through it and bring them to healing.
I guess I lived in that region for about eight years and worked very intensively with a very wounded and alienated veteran population who—as I said—fled to the mountains. Later, [I] returned under a VA contract and led a veteran treatment program in the Catskill Mountains for four years for these guys.
So, that’s how it started. I was looking for my form of service. I was looking for my own initiation, and didn’t know it was going to come this way.
TS: You were drafted.
ET: I was drafted—and didn’t try to avoid the call. But rather, I embraced it. And I’ve been walking it ever since.
TS: Now, you mentioned a couple of times this diagnosis—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—and how it’s come into our collective vocabulary. In your new book, Warrior’s Return, you talk about PTSD as a label that you’re not that fond of. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that—why not? And instead, what do you think is the most respectful way to describe what many soldiers experience upon their return?
ET: The first comment I’d like to make about that is that we [all need] to remember [that] warriors are wounded. They’re not crazy. They’re not distorted. They are disordered from the experience, but they’re not mentally ill. Many people think PTSD is a mental illness. They’re not medically ill. [For] many people, PTSD sounds like a medical diagnosis.
We need to understand that what we call “PTSD” today is as old as war. It’s probably as old as humanity. We do understand in the trauma field that there are inevitable human and animal responses to severe violence and trauma. So, PTSD—as we call it today—has been known by more than 80 names throughout history. It’s recorded since ancient times. It’s in the Bible. It’s in ancient Greek and Roman literature. Indigenous cultures around the world have known of it and called it, of course, by different names that are consistent with their worldviews. Many, many of the cultures understood it primarily as a spiritual wound, and gave it names that reflected that.
So, for example, the Sioux/Lakota people called it nagi napayapi, which translates roughly as “the spirit left him.” They said [that] when a warrior is traumatized, his spirit leaves. Therefore, healing is spiritual restoration of that warrior. They didn’t call the person sick—but rather, brought him into the center of the community and the entire community worked together for his or her healing.
In the Bible, King Saul—the first king of the Hebrew people—this is in Warrior’s Return. I did a case study of King Saul. He is what we would say is a PTSD victim. How the Bible expresses that is that, “. . . the spirit of God left him and an evil spirit sent by the Lord entered him.” So, “bereft of divine spirit” is a way to understand PTSD.
In the Greek tradition, there were many, many examples of what we call PTSD—throughout Greek history and literature. It’s recorded in their histories and well-portrayed in Greek tragedy. It’s in Homer—in The Iliad and The Odyssey. There’s many ways to conceive of it, but one is what the Greeks called “the Furies”—the powers of tortured conscience that tears the person’s soul and heart apart, such that joy, the affirmation of life, the understanding of who our friends are, [and] the ability to cooperate all leave the person. They are tortured by these fierce forces of justice that exist in the universe—in our deep minds—and torture us when we do wrong or cause harm.
So, when we study history—an especially the history of warfare and soldiering—we do understand that what we call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has been around forever. Wherever there’s war and severe trauma, there’s what we call PTSD.
Also, today, in modern trauma studies, we see that—as our world’s natural environment breaks down, various animal species are being hunted, their environments destroyed, and their social systems are being destroyed, they’re also being diagnosed with PTSD. We see very similar breakdowns in elephants, bears, dogs, cats, parrots, wolves, whales, and dolphins. So, we have to understand that what we call trauma—again, it’s not an abnormal breakdown and illness. [Rather,] it’s what the trauma field says [is], “a natural response to unnatural and violent conditions.”
It isn’t the universal response, and we can talk about that as well later. It’s ubiquitous but not universal. Every single member of the species doesn’t break down and the culture doesn’t necessarily have to break down.
So, to the question of what is challenging and difficult about the diagnosis of PTSD: It’s difficult to say. It sounds medical-psychological. Veterans hate the name. They do say, “We’re hurting and we’re wounded, but don’t pathologize us. Understand us and understand that we have become different people who have been reshaped by our experience.” They’re imploring the mental health community and the nation to understand that they are different, but not lessened—not damaged. They need and want our support in recreating their identity along the lines of these differences, restoring their spirit, and healing the broken social contract that we have with them from the severe neglect that we’ve imposed upon them.
Since we’re stuck with the acronym today—everybody talks about PTSD today the way during World War I when “shell shock” was created as a diagnosis. It’s quickly entered the popular vocabulary. It had originally been called the diagnostic category, but it—through the media and the veterans and the afflicted families—entered into popular speech. Everybody talked about shell shock, and that veterans had shell shock, and that it occurs from other things beside war.
Well, we’ve done the same thing with PTSD. We’ve drenched the culture—and, in fact, the world—in our American psychological language such that everybody talks about it and uses the phrase.
So, when we have to use the phrase “PTSD,” I translate it into other ways that express the depth of the wound. One is “Post-Traumatic Soul Distress”—to underline the degree to which it is a spiritual wound, a wound to the soul that needs to be tended. Also, “Post-Traumatic Social Disorder”—that it’s not the veteran, but our broken relationship and our broken contract with our warriors, our neglect of them, and our general society’s removal of themselves from exposure to war pain and the responsibility for our warriors and for how we use them.
I’m focusing on both the spiritual and the social dimensions of the wound. When I speak with my vets, we talk about being wounded. Wounded in spirit and in heart—just as we recognize there are wounds to the body and the mind.
And trauma, by the way—one more thing. Trauma is an ancient Greek word that means “a stabbing wound.” So, we can translate trauma directly. We’re wounded. We are stabbed. We are penetrated by the violence of the world—spiritually as well as physically.
Vets are warriors and they appreciate—they want to be proud of their wounds. Again, in traditional cultures, warriors were proud of their wounds, and painted and decorated their wounds. [They] paraded them before the public. They didn’t try to hide them and pass as civilians. We need to make that kind of space in our national and world culture for our warriors to walk with pride—including in their wounds.
TS: I want to talk [for a moment] about, Ed, about this “broken social contract” that you’re referring to. In the book, Warrior’s Return, this is part of what you address that really moved me—it really affected me. This idea that, as a society, we don’t know—here in North America, today—how to honor our responsibility in our contract with soldiers. How to welcome them home. How to “honor”—to use the word that you used—and respect them properly.
So, I’d be curious to know not so much what the broken social contract looks like, but what you think it would take to heal that contract between our society and our soldiers.
ET: Wonderful question! And that’s one reason why we’re publishing Warrior’s Return together.
Quite seriously, the psychologist Paula Kaplan introduced the phrase “war literacy” and rightly teaches that we are a war-illiterate culture and nation. We need to educate the public and the citizenry in what war is, what military service takes, how it changes people, how profound the transformations are—from both military service and combat, because they’re related but not [equivalent]. Combat causes far more transformations after military training.
We need to awaken our citizenry to their responsibilities for our warriors. I’ll tell a brief story here that helps illustrate this. At one of our Soldier’s Heart healing retreats, we had an Army chaplain in uniform who was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. At our closing circle—after our four-day retreat—the rest of the group said to him, “Please, please take care of yourself while you’re in Afghanistan. We want you to come back. We want you to come back well.”
Our chaplain looked deeply into the eyes of everyone in our circle and he said, “I can’t take care of myself in Afghanistan. I’m a chaplain and a soldier. My duty is to take care of our other soldiers and give them as much spiritual support and comfort as I can—to get them through the war. If you’re concerned about me and our soldiers, you take care of me. It’s your responsibility as citizens to determine how we are used. We don’t have that power. We have to follow orders and have to take care of each other. And we have to try to survive.”
That’s truthful. I’m honored that I work extensively with the military now. It’s pretty extraordinary for a civilian who didn’t have any military experience to become intimate with our soldiers and be invited onto military bases to give trainings. I have been behind closed doors with commanders, colonels, and generals who said the same thing—in confidence and with a lot of pain. “We don’t like these wars. We think we and our soldiers are being misused. But we don’t have a choice. We have to follow orders. We need our citizenry to protect us and determine for us how we’re used, so that we don’t experience this horrible moral trauma and we don’t feel misused in the wrong causes, against the wrong people, for the wrong reasons. So, please bring that message out as much as you can to the country and help us.”
When I’m working with veteran populations, I often say, “You know, you’re not the problem. You did what you had to do. You took the wounds that were inevitable, and we all understand together that the wounding was made far worse by your treatment coming home. [Together,] we need to educate and awaken our citizenry to their responsibilities for you—and for how you’re used and for how we use war—tragically—as a political-social-economic tool rather than out of necessity.”
TS: Now, there’s a couple things in what you’re saying that I want to tease out. In this idea of how our soldiers are used: in your experience, is there a difference when someone feels that a war is just and is for a good reason—to protect America—versus a perception that a war is an unjust war? [How does that affect] a returning soldier in terms of this wound that you’re referring to?
ET: Yes. I’ll quote one Iraq veteran that I worked with. He was in the tank corps in Iraq. He had been in the Reserves for 20 years. He loved the warrior tradition. He waited his entire life to go to war. And his comment was, “My entire life, I prepared myself to serve the world in one of the great, history-shaping battles. I wanted to be at Gettysburg or on Normandy Beach or with the Spartans at Thermopylae. And all they gave me was that dirty, effing little Iraq War. It didn’t work. Rather than achieving the honor and my life’s purpose, I became horribly disillusioned and wounded, and did terrible things in Iraq that nobody should ever be asked to do.”
So, that’s just one of many examples of—we do have the concept today of “moral injury.” I pick that up in Warrior’s Return as well. I prefer to call it “moral wounding” to be consistent with the warrior experience. Warriors are wounded, not injured. Accident victims are injured. Passive people are injured. So, we have moral trauma from the wars. The mental health field today is seeing that what we’re called moral injury or moral trauma looks just like PTSD, but there are differences in the causation.
I’ll also refer [to] a full analysis in Warrior’s Return of the situation in Vietnam today. I’ll briefly state now that in Vietnam—though the war was over there and so much worse for the Vietnamese—we killed three million Vietnamese people. Two million civilians and a million military people. We lost 58,000 people, and it’s right that we grieve that. We also need to know the damage we do to other people, and we grieve that with them.
So, we severely damaged the Vietnamese ecology and infrastructure, and killed three million people. And there’s no PTSD in Vietnam as we have it here. Western psychology would say that’s impossible. If there is violent trauma, there will be this characteristic breakdown. But in Vietnam—because many things. They were only defending their country. They weren’t the aggressors. They were the defenders. They have a consistent and strong spiritual life, based partially in Buddhism, ancestor worship, and in other spiritual traditions that they held tightly to throughout the war and in their healing processes. They are a communal culture—so they all felt that they were in it together.
The warriors were all welcomed home and given immediate social support such as we’re still trying to establish today. In all the pagodas throughout Vietnam—when the warriors came home, they went to the pagodas in the villages. [They] gathered at the pagodas and said, “Brother. Sister. You’re home now. Tell us your stories. We’ll sit here and talk and talk and talk, and listen, and pray, and support you, and meditate until you’re clean.”
So, at the end of the war, the Vietnamese experts report there was—during the 1970s, at the end of the war—some degree of acute breakdown that looked like short-term acute PTSD. But they haven’t seen it since the 1970s for these spiritual and social reasons.
What we have to conclude is that it’s not inevitable—that it’s possible for a culture to be so organized spiritually and communally that it fully supports the warriors. And that the moral dimensions of war are utterly important to pay attention to, [as well as] a significant determining factor in whether or not there’s breakdown.
TS: So, it sounds to me like you’re saying one of the most important things we can do as a citizenry is make sure—when we send our warriors to battle—that we believe it’s a moral reason. And yet, here I can imagine many listeners saying, “I agree with you and I feel somewhat helpless. I feel helpless. I didn’t support this war, that war, the war after that. And yet, this is the situation we’re in. What can I do to honor the social contract that is still there—because I’m a member of this nation—with returning soldiers?”
ET: There [are] two parts in my response to that. One is that what we can do to honor our social contract with our warriors is to get involved with them and help them come home and heal. [To] be concerned about their well-being as part of the return journey. That’s absolutely necessary. And we do need to understand that if we neglect that, the trauma upon homecoming from abandonment and neglect can be as severe or even more severe than combat trauma.
Many veterans attest to that. “I went as a warrior. I expected to have to fight. I put myself in the kill-or-be-killed situation with other warriors. That was our job, and we knew it. That was not what was terribly traumatizing to me. But if I was used in the wrong way, for illegitimate causes, that was traumatizing. And when I came home and was neglected or spit on or protested—as after Vietnam. Or, today, I have to wait three months to get my appointment in the VA. Or I’m just given medications to squash my symptoms, but nobody listens to my stories.” [These] or other inadequate forms of treatment or social support cause trauma.
Inadequate and neglectful homecoming is traumatizing. So, one of the things that our citizenry can do is get involved with your veterans—warriors in your community. Find them. Reach out to them. Work with your faith organization to create veteran ministries. Host talking circles where they can tell their stories. Host reading groups, where we read their stories or books about them together.
Find the families in your community—find the military families and help them out. If they have people overseas now, become their friends and their support people. Do stuff with them and for them.
Also, please listen to, find the wives and the parents and the children who are suffering all alone. And be their friends, and listen to them. Because there are millions of them, and they’re all alone. They’re begging us to know. So, that’s half the answer.
. . . I’ll catch my breath and my runaway heart for a second.
The other half of the answer is [to] get involved. Americans try to be too apolitical. Get involved and talk and voice your concerns. Talk to your political representatives and let them know what you think, how you feel, and what you want done about these wars and the way we use our military.
Again, our veterans are begging us—as that chaplain said, “I can’t take care of myself. If you’re concerned, become politically active and take care of me.”
Our recent government administrations were very smart in not reinstituting the draft, but having an all-volunteer force—which freed 99 percent of the population from being touched by these wars. So, there haven’t been significant—at least, after the beginning of the Iraq War, there were war protests. But after that, there haven’t been significant protests, because people just hope it won’t touch them. They’re not trying to protect their children from going, so they think they don’t have to be politically and socially active.
Well, that’s an abandonment of our warriors also. When we’re not active—when we don’t make our voices heard—they know we’re not supporting them and not active in trying to determine how they’re used.
So, we need to be active. I’m not telling anybody what to believe politically. Many people believe in these wars, and we have to respect that too and be in serious dialogue about that. But I am saying that we do need to be veteran-sensitive, friendly, and supportive—and politically active. Wake up and take our country back. Tell our politicians how we want it to run, rather than turning it over to them and becoming passive, and just ducking and hiding.
TS: One of the points that you made in Warrior’s Return—and it was a small point, but it went in deep for me—was how, as citizens, do we orient ourselves around Memorial Day and Veterans Day? That can be a signifier of [whether we are] involved with this social contract or not. I thought to myself, “I often, usually, think of those holidays as long weekends that I can go on a road trip or something like that.” It’s not a time that I spend reflecting or blessing soldiers very much consciously. I wondered how many other people might have that same experience.
I thought that’s just such a small thing, but it’s symbolic.
ET: Yes. Yes—and again, our warriors, veterans, and military know that. Those two holidays have become sacred days for me. Holy days, as holidays are originally meant to be. They are for our warriors. Unfortunately—tragically—many of our veterans go into hiding on those holidays because they don’t like fireworks—because it brings back war memories. It might trigger them. They don’t necessarily like patriotic displays. While we have the parades and many veterans come out in uniform—and want some public recognition—very many veterans go into hiding during those holidays.
We would do great service to the nation and to our veterans if we restore the original, sacred meaning of those holidays and use them as times for reflection and for healing. I’m involved in helping faith communities all over the country create special liturgy and services for Veterans Day and for Memorial Day.
In those communities that do it, we had—here, on Memorial Day in Amherst, Massachusetts, for the first time the Unitarian Universalist Society dedicated the entire service to Memorial Day. Unitarians tend to be very open-minded and peace-loving people. They didn’t even know that they had a significant number of veterans in their congregation until we declared that we were going to have a meaningful Memorial Day service, dedicated to them. Then they came out of the closet and identified as veterans. [They] said, “Well, we’re a welcoming congregation—where we welcome people of different ethnic backgrounds, races, and sexual orientations. We’ve never included veterans and veteran families in our call to welcome people with differences into the congregation.”
So, it’s really quite extraordinary what can happen when we take Memorial Day and Veterans Day seriously—and use it as a time for reflection and community gathering. An entire community can wake up and transform by taking it seriously—[by] finding ways to make the day sacred, rather than just another vacation day.
TS: Now, what would you say to someone who—perhaps in their family or extended family or their network of relationships—knows of a veteran who obviously seems to have a wound that has a lot of suffering associated with it? But this person is like, “I’m not sure what’s appropriate—how to make contact, what questions I should or shouldn’t ask. I don’t know. This person, the returning vet seems pretty guarded. I don’t know what the right way in is.” What’s the right way to communicate?
ET: Yes. That’s an important point, because many of our citizens really are caring, well-meaning, and want in. But you’re right—they don’t know how to do it and they’re frightened that they might hurt or offend or trigger a veteran, and won’t be able to handle what comes out.
One of my friends, who is a Special Forces veteran, says, “If you’re going to ask me how I am today, I don’t want your drive-by caring. Don’t ask me or a veteran how they are unless you’re prepared to sit down and listen to an hour-long answer—[as well as] hear things you might not want to hear. Like my nightmares last night.”
So, it’s true that if we want to seriously engage veterans, we really have to open our hearts and our mind. [We have to be] be prepared to listen deeply, hear painful things, keep our hearts open, share that pain, and be affected by it.
That said, well—veterans don’t even necessarily like, “Thank you for your service.” One vet—I was at a conference in which a vet stood up and scolded the audience. “Don’t thank me for my service anymore, because my service was to kill people.”
So, we can say, “Welcome home.” We can say, “Thank you for your sacrifice.” We can even say, “I don’t know what to say to you. I care. I’m concerned. I want to hear your stories. I want to know how you’re doing. And I don’t know how to do this. Help me know how to talk to you.” That’s OK.
But, “How many people did you kill?” is not OK. And, “Thank you for your service,” is not even necessarily OK.
So, it is right to be very respectful—to defer to the veteran and see how much he or she wants to talk. Just let them know you really care and want to get involved, and you’re willing to listen, to be affected, and to b[e] hurt as necessary with them—in order to be involved and carry this story. Caring for our veterans—like for other suffering people—means sharing the burden together [and] not leaving it on them all alone.
That’s the key factor—to communicate, “I am willing to share your burden with you and I feel responsible for you, and for the burden that our citizenry has made you carry. I’m willing to carry it also.”
In traditional cultures, when the warriors returned, there was a transfer of responsibility from the warrior to the community. That’s really what we have to practice. This is about restoring the social contract—and give guidance to civilians about how to talk to veterans. The transfer of responsibility means that the civilians say to the veterans, “You served in my name. I thanked you. Our country thanked you. You acted in our name. Therefore, I am responsible. I am willing to carry the burden of your actions and experiences with you, and accept that responsibility.
One psychology professor I work with—who is very good with veteran students on her campus—she was confronted by a vet. “Why do you care so much? You don’t have to do this. You can just be teaching psychology. As a woman psychology professor who has no military background, why are you the head of our Veteran Club? And why are you working so hard for us?”
Her answer is, “You went to war, but I thanked you and I paid for the bullets. So we’re in this together. I’m responsible.”
So, messages like that. I care. I’m responsible. I’ll carry the burden with you. How do we do this together? [This] is what our veterans need to hear from us.
TS: Now Ed, you’ve been talking beautifully and eloquently about the social wound that can exist for the returning warrior. You mentioned that there is also a spiritual wound—a transformation of identity that a returning warrior goes through [and] has to work with. Can you talk some about that? What do you see as this identity transformation process? And how can we support warriors in that?
ET: Becoming a warrior is really a lifelong journey. We have the term “warpath,” from Hollywood and popular culture. What our Native American brothers and sisters meant was really “the warrior’s path through life.”
All of us have an inner warrior—the warrior archetype. Those that go into military service have that archetype developed in certain, culturally and politically specific ways. It is not necessarily the full expression of the archetype, and it’s certainly not necessarily a training for spiritual warriorhood.
But, warrior is an archetype. It is a spiritual identity. It has been treated that way throughout history, in many different cultures.
We’re all aware of the martial arts from Asia, of course. The martial arts’ goal was to train spiritual warriors whose spiritual sensibility, morality, value system, discipline, service, [and] work ethic were all highly trained and shaped so that they could serve the society as warriors. [This was] not necessarily with the primary goal of going into combat and defending, but rather with the primary goal of preserving and protecting the best and highest in their culture and among their people. Serving the society—their society—actually reduced violence.
So, in societies that have developed warriors—among the Native Americans and [Japan’s samurai] as just examples—the societies were domestically more peaceful, because the warriors among them kept down the violence. They reduced it. They could confront it and keep it from erupting.
Our society is so terribly violent. We don’t have warriors like the samurai wandering the streets or in the troubled inner city schools, facing down the violence. Nobody knows how to deal with that. We need our warriors in those situations to reduce and inhibit the violence, rather than encourage it.
So, warriorhood is a spiritual identity. But, in our culture, [we] don’t nurture it that way. We create a military identity, and that is part of the identity transformation that people who go through the military achieve. In our present American military, spiritual fitness is called “one of the pillars of warrior readiness.” But it isn’t really practiced except with the encouragement to work with your chaplain and practice your home religion. That’s not what warrior spirituality is. Warrior spirituality is, really, a specialized spiritual path that includes study, discipline, moral cleansing, connection to divine sources, and seeking one’s inner spiritual support in whatever tradition they’re working in—using them and shaping a new identity.
So, what we call PTSD can be understood as incomplete or interrupted initiation. We’ve begun the identity transformation by people entering the military, having their civilian identity taken apart, and replaced with the identity of a soldier, sailor, Marine, [or] airman. That’s not the same as a full warrior’s identity. But they have a new identity, and they have extraordinary values and skills from that identity.
But then we send them to war, and they experience the violence and moral trauma that we were talking about. That identity is wounded or starts to break down. Then, when we bring them home, we pretty much say, “OK, you’re on your own now.”
What we’ve done is only half [of] the Hero’s Journey. We’ve departed from the ordinary. We’ve changed the identity. We’ve given them their journey in the Underworld—their time in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, downrange in war. And then we turn them loose. We don’t give them the return part of the journey. We don’t complete the initiation process.
So, what we really need to do is understand that warriorhood is a full, psycho-spiritual, archetypal journey that includes that map that Joseph Campbell left us—of the departure, the initiation, and the return. Our warriors who are traumatically wounded are stuck in the descent into the Underworld with an incomplete initiation, and haven’t completed that return journey. We really need to meet them there and help them complete their Hero or Heroine’s Journey through return and psycho-spiritual development—restoration of their spirit—so that they can fully embrace the identity of spiritual warrior.
TS: I’m curious, Ed: in your work with veterans, do you feel that that’s a type of spiritual warriorship for you?
ET: Hm! Yes. Thank you. [Laughs.] Sure. I don’t know if I want to say more than, “Yes, thank you,” to that question.
Well, OK. As I said earlier—way back in the ’60s, when I was struggling with how I would serve, I thought conscientious objector-ship with alternative service would be meaningful. I know many people who were COs or were in the Peace Corps, and did feel like they achieved an initiation through that kind of service. I was also thinking that if I had to serve, I would volunteer as a medic to give healing service.
One of the most important personal moments I had on this entire journey was when a man who became a dear friend and brother—he had been a reconnaissance patrol sergeant in Vietnam. Very, very heavy combat. What he taught me was, “You don’t have to be there with us. But I will always judge men by the same standards as I did in combat. ’Do you have my back? Will you stay by my side? Will you stick by me through the most difficult and hazardous conditions?’ And if I judge that you could be a man who would do that, then you pass muster—whether or not you were ever in the service.” Bless him: he said to me decades ago, “I would choose you for my squad. And I’d make you my medic.” He said, “You’re too soft to kill people. You wouldn’t want to do that. But I know that you would never abandon me. You would guard my back and go through hell with me, and do everything you could to protect and preserve my life no matter what happened.”
That was one of the most important moments of my life. I was amazed and shocked at the time—but understand now that it’s related to your question. I was developing and discovering my own spiritual warriorhood through this work. [I] actually did become a medic—a homefront doc. One of the greatest honors I have now is that many of the veterans I work with just address me as “Doc”—which affirms that spiritual warrior identity.
One more contribution here is one of the lessons from our Native American people—Sitting Bull is one of my teachers and role models. Sitting Bull taught that the most important role that he played for his people was not warrior [and] was not chief—but was medicine chief of the Hunkpapa Warrior Society. So, I rely heavily on that role model: medicine chief of warriors.
Warriors need their spiritual leaders and elders. We send chaplains into service with them, and they provide that role to a certain degree. Beyond that, we need to understand the warrior archetype—its spirituality [and] its necessity to a full and healthy soul. Our warriors need medicine men and medicine women who can nurture that spirituality in them.
So, yes. This service has awakened and developed the spiritual warrior in me.
TS: Now, you mentioned in the beginning of our conversation this idea of universal service—something that you recommend for our culture. Tell me what you mean by that. What’s your vision here?
ET: Back to the concept of initiation: in order to grow through the initiation process, we need to help people evolve from a child or adolescent identity into an adult identity. That means going from thinking about “Me” to thinking about “Us” [and] from thinking about acquiring things to thinking about giving away. From wanting and taking to giving and serving. The military is right in saying, “Serve something bigger than yourself.”
We don’t presently practice that initiation. So, our young people try to initiate themselves. Some people give various forms of alternative service. Many people go into the military seeking initiation. They know there’s something they have to complete and grow up.
And I do want all of our listeners to know that, within the military, it’s also tragic—back to the social contract—that our citizenry doesn’t know our military. There are such extraordinary people serving who are unknown to the general population. They have really high values. They want to preserve and protect. They are disciplined. They are determined. They complete missions. They sacrifice.
And I don’t only mean going to war. It’s also running 10 miles a day, [which] is also a sacrifice. It’s spiritual as well as physical training.
They’re thinking about the collective rather than the personal. So, we need to create people like that. Lots of them.
What I mean by universal service is that I really believe that we need the initiatory processes that traditional cultures have and that the military provides [for] some of us. Walkabouts for aboriginal youths. Vision quests in the Native American tradition. There are many, many forms of difficult initiation that we can point to.
We have the Peace Corps—or we had it. And Teacher Corps, and AmeriCorps. There are many forms of alternative service. But the key is spending a significant time of your life—during the formative years—giving to the collective. Serving the collective. Learning to discipline and sacrifice your personal comfort for the collective well-being. And coming out of that, feeling like you helped the world be a better place, and gave something to it that’s of lasting value for all of us. That transforms the individual from that adolescent me-orientation to a disciplined, adult, collective orientation.
So, I don’t think—everybody is not meant to serve in the military. It’s really important that we not force everybody into it. But, some form of universal service—I believe in it. I want to call the nation to reestablish that and give people choices about how and where they want to serve. Forestry Service? Helping to heal our environment? Or going into inner city schools? [These] are as important or more important, perhaps, than military service.
But the key is giving self-sacrificing service for the benefit of the collective. That transforms us into much more responsible, disciplined, and generous adults.
TS: Ed, I just have two more questions for you. One is: I’d be curious to know, in your work with returning veterans, if you’ve seen special issues that arise with women coming back from service.
ET: Oh, yes, and I’m glad you brought that up. So, thank you for that question.
All right. This is a new experience in American society—to allow women into the military and into combat. Well, not into the military [in general]. Women had served, but I mean into significant, challenging combat situations and also to enter the profession of arms in significant numbers.
We hear a lot about the degree of military sexual trauma. It is rampant in the military—on both men and women. The percentage of men is smaller, but the actual number of sexually abused men in the military is greater because there are so many more men in the military. But, the reports are that about a third of women serving and a quarter of men serving experience military sexual abuse. That, of course, adds to trauma and causes much more severe traumatic wounding in the long run.
In addition to that, our women in service do feel like they are in a man’s world. Many of them serving are sometimes the only women in a unit and sometimes there are only a few women in a large unit. The trauma, abuse, and mistrust that has happened has been so severe that sometimes women report, “I can’t even go to the latrine at night because it isn’t safe to walk there. I have to use a chamber pot or try to train myself to hold it in all night because it’s not safe to leave my bunk.”
So, women do feel significantly challenged and [threatened] in a man’s world in the military.
In addition to that, the warrior archetype is of course present in both men and in women—but we don’t understand it that well. Depth psychology is teaching us that the warrior archetype in women develops differently—at a different life stage and in different developmental order. So, the warrior archetype awakens in men first—in adolescence and early adulthood. That’s when men tend to join the military and look for their warriorhood.
In the women’s developmental cycle, the lover archetype develops first. Women look for bonding, mating, reproducing if they’re oriented that way. But the warrior archetype awakens later on after those years pass. So many women—as they approach their middle years or finish their child-rearing—then become quite active, energetic, and worldly-oriented, and get back to their careers. That’s a sign of the warrior archetype awakening and looking for expression in women.
So, when we take women into the military and awaken the warrior archetype early—before it’s naturally awakened—and when we expose women—who are the life-givers—to combat situations and make them life-takers, the trauma can be much more severe. I have seen that in many women who have been through combat. They later awaken to their womanhood and, “I am a woman, and I was put on Earth to create and preserve life—not to take life.” The trauma of taking life can be significantly more severe on women.
For all these reasons, women have significant challenges and can have significant wounds that are beyond what their male counterparts suffer.
TS: And Ed, just one final question, which is: I’m curious if you could share with us—here at the end of our conversation—a story. Whether it’s from a different culture—an indigenous culture—or whether it’s from someone you’ve worked with. [Share a story] that you would call a real healing story of a warrior’s return. Something that might bring us this image of what is possible when we repair the social contract and when we really honor our returning warriors.
ET: Give me a second, because there’s so many stories flashing through my heart right now. I have to decide which one to share.
OK. I tell this story at the end of Warrior’s Return, and this is what’s pressing most strongly on me. I think I want to talk about two people. One is an American Vietnam veteran named Bob, and the other is a survivor of the My Lai massacre.
So, Bob and I went to Vietnam together. He was in his second marriage. He had the symptoms that we associate with a traumatic wound—nightmares, explosive rages, alienation from his children. He was on the verge of divorce when we went to Vietnam.
In Vietnam, Bob fully embraced the spiritual interpretation of the Vietnamese people. We were driving through the rice paddies. As he was looking out our bus window, he saw the spirits of the dead slogging through the rice paddies. He used to see that in his nightmares during sleep. But when we were in Vietnam, he saw the spirits while he was awake.
He accepted that those were restless souls—the Vietnamese call them “wandering souls”—that the soul is real, and that the dead from war need prayer and concern and ritual in order to rest. They need their stories told. They need to be remembered and witnessed. He accepted that. He prayed for them. He did ceremonies in their cemeteries and in Buddhist pagodas for them. We went to My Lai together, and I’ll tell the story of that visit afterwards.
Finally—the first person that he killed was a 14-year-old Viet Cong boy. Bob had been seeing that boy haunting him in his dreams for decades. When we were in Vietnam, he went to a Viet Cong cemetery by his old battlefield, and he read all the tombstones. He looked for 14-year-olds. He lit incense on their graves and prayed for them. I’ll tell you what happened at My Lai afterwards—because that was on this visit.
And finally, at the end of our journey, we were at a pagoda. Bob asked the monk to perform a ceremony for the boy’s soul, which we did. Bob was staring into the distance and the mountains. He had a vision, then. He saw the spirit again—he saw the boy. But this time, he was clean. He wasn’t damaged. He wasn’t bleeding. He was smiling. He was dressed in white and his arms were extended. And he embraced Bob, and said, “I am at peace. You be at peace now. From now on, we walk together. I will be your spirit guide and helper for the rest of your life.”
Bob affirmed and embraced that vision. [He] said, “Together, we will be spiritual warriors.” His nightmares stopped after that. He hasn’t had nightmares since. He sleeps like a baby. He’s healed his marriage. He’s reconciled with his children. He finished his college degree, and he’s a hospital-based respiration therapist working with at-risk children. [He] gives warrior service to them in the hospital. When other people abandon cases, he stays with them. When somebody’s in danger of dying, Bob sits with them. He’s saved lives that other people have given up on.
He says, “It’s because I was a warrior and can tolerate this. [I] became a spiritual warrior through my healing process, and will serve for the rest of my life as a spiritual warrior. Being a disabled veteran labeled with PTSD just gave me a broken identity. But affirming that I was a spiritual warrior and reconciling with the souls of the fallen in Vietnam transformed me so that I can serve as spiritual warrior the rest of my days.” And he’s a happy, healthy, strong person serving his community beautifully now.
Now, let me finish Bob’s story by sharing what happened during our visit to My Lai. At My Lai, we met an old woman who was a gardener there. When we met here, she was in her 70s. She looked like she was just the right age. She might have been there.
I had this conversation with her. I politely asked her, “Grandmother (ba in Vietnamese), can you please tell me what you’re doing here, what this service means to you, and were you here during the massacre.” And she said, “Oh yes, I was. In fact, my entire family was killed. I’m the only survivor of my family.”
“Well, how has life been with you since then, Grandmother?” I asked. She said, “It’s been very painful. Very terrible. In Vietnam, family is the most important thing to us. I have no family to grow old with and die among. I don’t have any survivors that are going to pray for my soul when I’m gone. I wished I had died that day with them instead.”
So, I said, “I understand, Grandmother. And I grieve with you. I’m here to know this and to witness with you. Also, please tell me: how do you feel about us Americans coming here?” She said, “Oh, please—don’t avoid me because of this pain that I have. It’s very important that you come and that you hear our stories. We all need to know this history. I need to know that Americans care.”
I said, “Thank you, and I am here for that. I really do care. But I wonder how you feel about our veterans. They were here. Many of them killed your people. Some of them may have even been involved in the massacre. How do you feel about American veterans coming back?”
This is the key for spiritual warriorhood, no matter who’s carrying it. She said, “I have come to understand that the purpose of my life—the purpose of my survival of the massacre—was so that I could live to this distant day, to meet American veterans, take their hands, look into their eyes, forgive them, and help them forgive themselves. That’s why I survived. That’s why I’m still here. That’s the purpose in my life—to help everyone find forgiveness and peace and healing after such horrible times.”
So, Bob and this grandmother are both spiritual warriors who have achieved healing through meaningful service—by helping others heal—and finding their soul’s purpose in surviving war. These are the kinds of people we want to help create.
TS: Ed, I want to thank you for your book, Warrior’s Return, the work of your life, and this particular conversation. I feel like you’ve really upgraded my consciousness about this social contract that I think—in many ways—I have not honored. I feel grateful to you and I hope—for our listeners too—that your work continues to create this shared field of responsibility. It’s really powerful, and really important. I want to thank you.
ET: You’re very, very welcome. I’m honored to do this work, and we both know that spiritual riches are the ones that really count. So, let’s continue working together to help restore souls and spirits, not just of warriors and their families, but of our suffering nation.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Ed Tick. He is the author of a new book, Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.