After the Rev. John Schluep met a veteran who had committed horrendous acts in Vietnam, for whom counseling just wasn’t working, Schluep found himself unable to help the man. “He didn’t believe in God anymore, and the institutions he felt he was coming home to didn’t help and support him,” he recalls, adding, “I told him there wasn’t anything I could do except walk with him through this time.”
Shortly after, Schluep, a senior pastor at First Congregational Church of Tallmadge, began researching warrior culture, especially the low occurrences of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within tribal social systems, which led to the idea of Warriors’ Journey Home. Now, 14 years later, Schleup has led a number of local veterans, along with friends and family members, through these tribal influenced healing circles, which has helped address these “soul wounds,” or invisible wounds, of battle.
The healing circles combine “community, healing and ritual,” says Schluep. “The United States has never gone longer than six and a half years without being involved in a conflict somewhere in the global community or war within our own borders.”
And despite this constant conflict, “We fail miserably, I believe, in bringing our veterans home in a good way.”
Putting the pieces back together
For some, like Andy Mull, these healing circles have served as a breakthrough for coping with battle-related trauma.
“PTSD is very fragmenting for the psyche, and the goal is to try to put as many of those pieces back together. I feel a little calmer, a little more confident. I find myself climbing higher on the ladder than ever before since I’ve been a part of this group.”
Mull was deployed to Beirut as a young corporal and it was the first hard combat he had seen since the Vietnam War. He also was involved in one of the first waves of the War on Islamic Terror, which he refers to as a “high minded peacekeeping ideal I believed in. And then it was derailed by a suicide bombing, which killed 241, and that caused the withdrawal of the mission. I had nearly been killed, I had lost good friends and we were abandoning the people I had committed to save. It was very embittering.” In this case, it’s what he didn’t get a chance to do that traumatized Mull.
Says Schluep: “We sign up to serve in the military for a good cause, and when that noble cause is compromised it results in a soul wound — something that we can’t reach with medicine and we can’t talk our way out of. Things like forgiveness and reconciliation and restitution have to be made to heal that wound; it doesn’t mean the injury goes away, that injury remains but you can live through that and make something good come of that.”
Mark Dean, a member of the National Guard, says of Warriors’ Journey Home: “It’s an extremely safe place. The first time I was here, when we do the clearing circle, when you look at everyone in the eye, I knew I was home.”
He adds: “I shut my emotions off to go do what I did, and I still haven’t turned them back on. I’ve got a lot of stuff inside that I need help with.”
People of Strong Heart
Along with veterans, Warriors’ Journey Home involves Strong Hearts, or friends, family members and other supporters of veterans, which are critical to the healing process.
“We need to have people of strong heart, called civilians,” says Schluep. “In tribal culture, these ‘people of strong heart’ had an obligation to protect the warrior when he returned from battle. It’s a shared responsibility and that’s one of the things I think we’re missing from our culture.”
Carolyn Neidert’s husband was in the first Gulf War, in the 101st Airborne. He had some emotional and medical problems when he returned, and she stood by his side, first as a friend for 16 years and later as his wife. As a Strong Heart, the circles have helped her too, because she had a lot of anxiety worrying over him. Even after he passed away last year, she kept attending the healing circles. “I still kept coming to the circles because they would help me heal as well. The military family is really strong, and I thank God every day for that,” says Neidert.
Mull says his wife Liz’s participation has been critical to his progress. “She’s at my side throughout all my life,” he admits. “When I first went clinical with PTSD I was practically her shadow. I couldn’t be away from her. She was my source of strength and support. I think the Strong Hearts balance out the negative energy that the warriors bring.”
“It’s a sense of community,” says Liz Mull. “It’s OK to admit what we’re struggling with and how hard it is. There is no judgment.”
Warriors’ Journey Home also has sponsored trips to Vietnam for vets, so they can find healing with the country and people there. These veterans also receive a hero’s welcome when they returned, a welcome they should have received the first time they served there.
The nonprofit also hosts an annual gala event. “The important thing would be for the community to open itself up to opportunities for us to share how they can more open and receptive to veterans and veterans’ issues,” says Schluep.
For more info, visit www.warriorsjourneyhome.org.