In Peru, Illinois, two grandparents in their sixties beg help in tolerating their fear and pain over their son's service in Iraq. He has only been there a few weeks, they say, and he has already changed beyond recognition. But worst is the way their granddaughter suffers by the minute as she lives without her daddy. She cannot sleep or talk coherently or stop crying or perform in school. And in spite of consulting with therapists, the grandparents can find no help for her. Our present war is destroying three generations of this sweet, good family.
In a tiny midwestern crossroads coffee shop not even on the map, a 100% disabled veteran told of his grandfather's endless torment after WWI and his father's after WWII. "Never glorify war," his father taught him after "the good war." This vet confessed that he was never in combat. Rather, he was severely traumatized during his training to be a helicopter door gunner "in a Huey that was shot down 6 times in Viet Nam." He says, "It was enough to destroy my mind just to learn that I could kill hundreds without blinking." But his final initiation into disability was effected by his commanding officer on his first night overseas. The officer got him drunk, then raped him. Afterwards, the c.o. spread sexual rumors across the base so that the grunt's peers turned against him and beat him with 2x4s until he sustained brain damage.
I heard similar stories everywhere I traveled during my recent 10 day book tour to launch WAR AND THE SOUL in the northern Heartland of our country -- up and down the western coast of Lake Michigan and west into central Illinois. In Racine a homeless veteran emerged from his alley carrying unremitting pain decades old. In Wheaton another vet, shoeless as his final attempt to gain grounding, revealed that he participated in the military's drug experiments to wipe out normal fear and create monster-soldiers. In Marseilles, a Viet Nam vet waited in the back of a bookstore until I was alone, then crept forward to confess four decades of suffering and isolation that he fears will never lift. In Oakton, a man confessed for the first time in his life that during WWII he had crouched hidden for six hours with his mother in their shattered basement, sitting on a can while bombs destroyed their village and his guts lost all control. "I've felt ashamed my entire life," he lamented. "Why have I never told this story before?"
In these many poignant moments, one occurred in Marseilles, Illinois where I prayed in front of their new monument. It is perched on the banks of the Illinois River, just across from the locks of the dam built during the depression. The monument consists of 8 stone pillars, each about four feet wide and high. They are etched with the names of the 2,080+ servicemen and women killed in Iraq thus far. The bottom rows are freshest. New names are carved into these pillars regularly so the monument stays up to date. New for America, many women's names are scattered through the list of war dead. And two stones remain blank. The locals say with sad shakes of their heads, "They won't be empty for long. We're just awaiting the newest casualties. We're frightened we didn't erect enough pillars to carry all the dead this war will create." Most poignant are the reminders -- boots, letters, children's toys -- placed beneath the names of lost loved ones. Imagine a 6 year old leaving her yellow stuffed doggy beneath Mommy's name on the cold banks of the roiling midwestern river.
All these people and more came out for events connected with WAR AND THE SOUL. In my book, I explain that what we call Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is not an individual psychopathology, but has its roots in our community and spirituality and can only be healed by communal and spiritual means. War's unrelenting destruction and suffering are too big to be healed by conventional methods. It belongs to all of us. These book events became events for some of our Heartland communities to gather, to share and witness, to confirm this suffering, and to lift the burdens of war pain for all our afflicted veterans and their families and share them with the community.
I learned some very important lessons in our Heartland. In the pain of war the distinction between "red" and "blue" states disappears. These Heartland folks are all very good people. They love their farms, their small towns, their children, neighbors, and cows. They deeply love the ideals our country represents. They were good people following their country to war because they believed what they were told, that we were under severe and immediate threat, as though some evil empire wanted to take their farms from them. They did not know beforehand of the lies, of the terrible deeds they or their loved ones would be called to commit, of the sacrifices their entire families and communities would have to make, and the unrelenting pain and loss they would suffer, and the disillusionment they would feel that spreads like poison through us all.
During these healing events that WAR AND THE SOUL engendered, there really was no distinction between red and blue, old and young, liberal and conservative, healer and afflicted. We all joined to share the pain and loss that truly belongs to all of us. We were all united in concern for our veterans past and present, for their families, for the harm done to our country's ideals and moral stature, and to the planet. How ironic and moving that the pain of this war can be a wound that unites us all.
These stories from the Heartland arise from the wounded heart of our country and its people. May we all learn from they and unite in healing.