Soldier’s Heart creates healing intensives that include veterans (male and female), family members, helping professionals, clergy, students and other interested community members. Over the three days we are together, we incorporate the components that are most essential to healing from the war experience.
Every retreat is unique in some ways depending on the participants, their particular needs, the resources of the venue, the group dynamic as a whole and the unexpected. We attempt to be as flexible as needed for the most positive outcome. However, we have a general format, proven to be effective over time, that we generally incorporate into our time together. The following is a description of a typical healing retreat.
We begin by calling out to our higher selves and creating an altar made up of military memorabilia and other special objects. Participants introduce themselves by telling the group about the special meaning behind what they are placing on the altar. Telling each other such personal information, however brief, brings a group of mostly strangers together in a special way, creating our retreat “community.” We then break for the evening, allowing the words and images to mingle with our dreams.
The next morning we begin with a guided meditation, taking participants to their own inner “safe place” that they can return to if need be. In this way, combined with building the altar the night before, we create a safe and sacred container to hold the healing work we are about to embark on.
Our next task is to come together in a circle all holding a section of rope that symbolizes our unity as a group as well as our unity as a nation. In this way we reinforce a sense of our connection with each other. We then slowly, one by one, peel off those who went to war and send them away from the circle to surround us in a way that represents their place of service and distance from battle. Those who served, but stayed stateside, stand in the middle, separate from the group, but not overseas.
As the rope begins to slacken and holes form in our circle, everyone begins to feel a powerful sense of loss. Those who were off to war share their feelings of fear, anger, isolation, guilt, envy, and grief. They were slogging it out in the jungle, the rice paddies, or the desert, while many of the others were home getting on with life, fearing for loved ones in the military, or protesting the war.
Many of the country’s most prominent factions are represented in our groups. Everyone has an opportunity to share how he or she feels as we re-enact our own histories regarding war. This is a powerful exercise that is never the same and always is enlightening. The important ingredient is the act of storytelling; storytelling in a sacred environment that invites our hearts to open and implies that we all have a piece of the larger “story.” We are all culpable and we are all injured, in one way or another. Like it or not, in the truest sense, we are all in this together, veterans and civilians alike. Until we acknowledge this reality and reach out to each other we will not heal as a nation.
To finish our ceremony and bring our veterans back, the civilians form two lines as a pathway and drum and rattle and sing as one of the civilians brings each veteran, one at a time, back in between us all. We shout their names and welcome each one of them home. We then proceed to lunch where all of the veterans are tended and waited on by a civilian of their choice.
After lunch we discuss the meaning of destiny and each veteran speaks to the group about his or her own destiny and place in history. They each then share the nature of their suffering since their war experience. In the evening, we make a sacred fire with words of gratitude for our coming together and a vow to keep our hearts open. We each feed the fire with kindling as we vow to let go of something we no longer need to carry—bitterness, despair, victim-hood, etc. Some people throw memorabilia, letters or photographs into the flames. More stories seep out as we gaze into the fire under the night sky, purging ourselves by sharing our wounds with the rest of the group. An intimacy and trust has formed between us as we share tears and laughter.
We devote our last full day to storytelling. All of the veterans take turns holding the truth stick, which symbolizes the right to talk without interruption. Each veteran tells the group about an experience they had in the military that has been weighing on their souls. Telling their stories to this community, that has bonded in love and trust and lack of judgment, opens the way for them to begin to understand, unload and forgive themselves and feel at home for the first time.
We finish the day with a ceremony of community forgiveness and a vow to carry each other’s stories. Our motto at Soldier’s Heart is “Caring Means Sharing the Burden.” This is how healing happens.
Our last morning together is a time for what we call Warriorhood Vows. After a memorial service and a blessing ceremony, the veterans in the group each vow one thing they are going to do as an act of restoration and restitution to counteract the destruction they have had to participate in. The circle is finally complete and everyone is changed.
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