Transforming War Trauma: The Healing Power of Community

Transforming War Trauma: The Healing Power of Community

by Joseph Bobrow
Psychoanalyst and Zen master, Joseph Bobrow, PhD, describes his groundbreaking work providing healing retreats for traumatized veterans and their families. 


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"What's the matter? The war's over," someone said to a veteran. "Yeah, over and over and over," he replied.

Coming Home

It’s January, 2007, the first moments of the Coming Home Project’s first retreat for veterans and their families. Kenny Sargent and Rory Dunn are Iraq veterans who both sustained traumatic brain injuries (TBI). One was shot in the head, one was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED); both suffer from post-traumatic stress. As people mill around, Ken and Rory meet for the first time, up close and personal. Since neither can see very well, they touch each other’s wounds, comparing scars and experiences. They are like long-lost brothers. The process of making palpable emotional connections has begun.

We gather for our first circle—33 vets and family members from seven states, with four facilitators. In the opening moment of silence, as we remember those unable to be with us, Stefanie and Michael’s three-year-old son, Ben, is playing around the edges of our circle with Isaiah, his new three-year-old friend. Amidst the reverent quiet, we all hear Ben say, “My daddy died in Iraq.” We learn later from Stephanie that
Michael committed suicide six months after returning from Iraq.
Michael committed suicide six months after returning from Iraq. Out of the mouth of babes, the first words spoken at a retreat have their own truth: something inside Michael died in Iraq.

We go around the circle, introducing ourselves. Stephanie, Ben’s mom, feels isolated in Houston, where she lives with the heavy legacy of Michael’s suicide. Her church has ostracized her. The group’s reaction is palpable: Stephanie is taken in like a family by a swarm of other spouses and parents.

At the end of the workshop, as we are saying our goodbyes, Rory gets up, makes his way over and we hug. He was angry and bitter at the outset, not just about his injury, but about failures in leadership and his friends who died in the IED attack and. “No one but a vet can understand another vet” were his first words. I am not a vet myself but a Zen master, psychologist-psychoanalyst, and the son of a combat vet.

After we hug, Rory says, “You’re alright.” Near his seat I notice a scrap of paper on the floor, pick it up and ask if it’s his. “Yeah, it’s nothing,” he says. I look at it and see quite a legible note, with three family trees. I ask him about it. “It’s all the people blown away by my buddies’ dying,” he replies. I ponder it: girlfriend, baby, church members, mother, father, sister, and so on—three little stories, three little family trees radiating impacts that eat at him. I offer him the scrap of paper and he gently reclaims it.

Love is a Force for Change

After the attacks of September 11, like so many others I felt that if we, individually and as a country, could withstand and reflect on the dreadful trauma we were experiencing, and not react in a blind knee-jerk fashion, we could bring the perpetrators to justice and at the same time forge alliances and communities of nations that would provide a strong foundation for genuine security for all going forward. Many were thirsty for revenge, but many in the peace community were calling for love. I gave some talks that presented love as a force for change, not some naive fantasy that ignored the powerful forces that had been unleashed. I was disheartened and frustrated that, despite the voices of millions here and around the world, and the counsel of seasoned military leaders, the drumbeats to war were impermeable to reflection, forethought, and considered wise action. Knowing the carnage that was to come, I felt helpless and angry thinking of the great damage our country would inflict not only on this generation, but on generations to come.

Rather than stew in this state, it dawned on me that, given my experience with meditation, healing communities, and trauma, I could join with others and make a difference. It was 2006. Troops were returning stateside in droves and, along with their family members, they were falling through the cracks of the unprepared, overtaxed and outmoded healthcare systems of the Veterans Administration (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD). If we waited for the government to do something, anguish would only intensify and tens of thousands would fail to receive the care they desperately needed and had earned. Most service members who needed treatment, especially for unseen injuries such as post-traumatic stress and mild to moderate closed head traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) were loathe to come forward—afraid of losing their security clearances, their promotions, and, most of all, the respect of their buddies. I sensed that a compassionate, non-judgmental and welcoming community that included families could be an inviting and healing resource for them.
For veterans, the stigma of needing help is a major obstacle to getting help.

I gathered a cadre of San Francisco Bay Area therapists who began to provide free, confidential therapy for veterans and their families. We soon began offering retreats for veterans and their families—which we distinguished from psychotherapy so as to counteract the stigma of mental illness—that provided small peer support groups, expressive arts, wellness practices such as meditation and qigong, and vigorous recreational activities in the great outdoors. After a few retreats, we began to incorporate secular rituals into the program, and I enjoyed the dawning realization that the five elements that organically came to comprise the retreats were not a new “quick fix,” but were instead rooted in how we humans have, since time immemorial, worked to transform overwhelming trauma: Sharing stories in a safe environment (healing dialogue), resilience exercises such as meditation, yoga and qiqong (spiritual practice), expressive arts, being active in beautiful places (the healing power of nature), and secular ritual (adapted from reverent religious experience). Four core human capacities also emerged from these retreats—aliveness, bonding and closeness, self-regulation, and a sense of meaning and purpose—elements that help create a life worth living.

For veterans, the stigma of needing help is a major obstacle to getting help, but we noticed it evaporate by the end of our retreats, as isolation lifted and they experienced a sense of being in this together, of belonging. We knew we were onto something when, during the closing circles, participants’ comments began to echo across retreats. They said they’d never experienced an environment this safe, this trusting, where they could be real and reconnect with their fellow vets, their families, and themselves—where they could experience the belonging and camaraderie of service again, and feel free to open up, as much or as little as they were ready for.

Since beginning in 2007, the Coming Home Project has offered 25 retreats and workshops for families, male and female veterans, student veterans, and caregivers. We have brought in local health, education, employment, housing, legal, financial and other services so participants can connect with needed resources, and we recruited local volunteers to be part of our logistics team, enabling the veterans and civilian communities to get to know one another better. In their 2012 review of post-deployment reintegration programs, The Defense Centers of Excellence, a joint VA-DoD agency mandated by Congress to identify, study, and disseminate best practices for psychological health and traumatic brain injury, stated that “the Coming Home Project helps rebuild the connectivity of mind, body, heart and spirit that combat trauma can unravel; renew relationships with loved ones and create new support networks.” We were the only reintegration program of thousands studied that met all their criteria (successfully integrating psychological, behavioral, social-family and spiritual dimensions) that also had significant outcome data and whose pioneering research on post-traumatic growth with veterans and their families and caregivers was published in a peer reviewed journal of the American Psychological Association.

It’s March, 2007, and we’re preparing for our second retreat. Former Marine officer and Zen priest, Colin, and I pick up the van and await the arrival of several families in a Hawaiian barbecue restaurant near the Oakland airport. Fifty people from twelve states gather. 

Later in the day, in the safety of the small veterans group, 15 vets meet. Stephanie tearfully shares how she feels like a failure: as a soldier (she served as a Captain in the Army herself), as a wife, as a mother, as a person—in every way. She didn’t appreciate the gravity of her husband’s distress and couldn’t prevent him from killing himself. Sadness and self-reproach run deep. Several jump in to reassure her: “You have not failed.” They offer good points: God had other plans for you; you now can be of help in ways you couldn’t have before, and so on. But Stephanie’s expressiveness and emotion dry up as she seems to compliantly agree. When a third person prefaces his remarks by saying that he will offer something to lift the mood, I say, “That’s okay,” trying to keep alive the space for acceptance and disclosure that reassuring and uplifting comments often unintentionally foreclose.

In a pre-retreat roundtable Rory expresses how betrayed by the government he felt after he was injured—by their lack of responsiveness and accountability. His anger is powerful, but rather than being transformative, it seems to progress into a loop of escalating rage. The more angry he gets, the more the energy of the group intensifies, amplifies. Two people leave the room—one takes issue with Rory’s facts, another feels his comments are too polarizing. Rory, of course, has every right to express his outrage and sense of betrayal, and yet as his complaints become increasingly politicized, he alienates himself from the group. His TBI makes it especially difficult for him to regulate his emotions.
Rory's anger is powerful, but rather than being transformative, it seems to progress into a loop of escalating rage....His TBI makes it especially difficult for him to regulate his emotions.

Over the course of the retreat, however, Rory begins to shift in a way I’ve never seen. Through frequent, long conversations with a high-ranking officer and fellow vet, one of the facilitators, he becomes noticeably lighter, more open to hearing others’ stories. He begins to share his experiences with a sense of measure, calibrating his impact, modulating it and bringing it to a close. The recognition and containment that his fellow vets give him is deeply moving to witness. Maybe Rory doesn’t have to repudiate everything about his military experience after all.

Claudia is a female Iraq veteran who came with her 18-month-old daughter and her sister from Tucson. She had met Tonia and Ken, fellow veterans on the retreat, while on the TBI ward at the Palo Alto VA. She is friendly and sincere but appears vacant and taciturn. During a breakout group she stands around the perimeter, but toward the end she beings to speak, tentatively. Although she says she doesn’t want to read what she had written earlier during a journaling exercise, it seems that a part of her longs to do so. With a little encouragement, she begins to read: “My world has narrowed from what it was....” Her voice trails off. She describes her TBI and the difficulty she has remembering simple but important elements of her past. She feels that a crucial piece of who she was has been taken from her: she can’t even remember her daughter’s birth. She needs her sister’s help with tasks of daily living, as her short-term memory is also impaired. She is battling to retain custody of her daughter. Claudia’s reading has a palpably catalytic effect on everyone. When families gather later, the aliveness of her young daughter, the glimmer in her eyes, juxtaposed with Claudia’s memory impairment, her sense of vacancy and helplessness are striking, poignant and sad.
Claudia feels that a crucial piece of who she was has been taken from her: she can’t even remember her daughter’s birth.

At the big morning group early in the day, Mauricio provides comic relief when he states that of the two master sergeants in the group, he is on top of Ken. Everyone laughs about who is on top and who on bottom. He kids us about status and rank and we all laugh harder. In the smaller vets group, however, he is quiet. After Claudia reads, Mauricio opens up about how difficult it is to not be himself in mind and body. He can’t remember important parts of his childhood and it is a continuing blow to his esteem and to his view of himself, particularly given his role as master sergeant of the men under his command. It is an identity crisis of a different order from the normal developmental kind. It isn’t what he says as much as how he says it that makes an impression. He speaks slowly, with an undercurrent of deep emotion, but shows few visible signs of feeling, save a slight crack in his voice.

Jessie was a sergeant major in the Army, blinded in an IED blast while serving in Iraq. He speaks with gravity and conviction, conveying a deep sense of betrayal that, after all he’s endured, offered, and sacrificed, he’s had to do it all himself, become his own advocate, find the services and the help he needs. A covenant has been broken. He asks if I will request that folks say their names before they speak. I invite him to make the request himself. He speaks simply and with dignity. After that, when people begin to speak they stop, remember his request, and say, “Sergeant Major, this is Jim,” addressing Jessie by his title.

We usually leave rank and degrees at the door, but this is different: it is an expression of deep respect. When people forget to identify themselves, Jessie gently reminds them, and later on, when Jessie begins sharing, someone says, “You forgot to say your name.” Jessie laughs and everyone cracks up, the role reversal incongruous, funny and poignant all at once.

There are times during the day when we laugh until we cry, and laugh and cry both, sometimes not knowing which is which.
There are times during the day when we laugh until we cry, and laugh and cry both, sometimes not knowing which is which. Our laughter helps us bear the pain and is good for the soul. Everyone knows that by asking people to say their names, Jessie wants to communicate and feel part of the group, wants to hear and recognize everyone, and in turn be recognized by all of us. Though he feels invisible to the institutions entrusted with his care, here among friends his desire for mutual recognition comes across loud and clear. And he is seen.

Paul comes in toward the end; he’s been resting. Given their brain injuries, some tend to get tired and nap in the afternoon. Paul had been feeling things out around the edges, beginning with the roundtable on Friday. He became upset with the figures Rory quoted during the roundtable, thought they were inaccurate, misrepresentative and needlessly polarizing. He struggled to stay open, thought about leaving, but finally decided to stay. When Paul and I first met, it was difficult to follow what he was saying since the injuries he sustained affected not just his appearance but also his speech. But by now, after two days, I and others can hone in and understand most of his words as well as his feelings. In the small group, he pours out feelings about how he was treated upon his return, and his struggles with physical, emotional and relationship challenges. We hear him.
The Children
In the small teen group, Mark, a Marine helicopter pilot during the first Gulf War, now Buddhist priest and facilitator, began begins with a moment of silence and then asks, “How are you doing?” Tasha is quick to respond, “You really want to know?” and immediately starts to cry. Her sister Alishya, strong like their mom, warns Tashsa not to open things up, but when they share their drawings in the closing circle, they also share how isolated they feel and how hard it is to speak their thoughts and feelings to their parents. With some difficulty, their parents, Tonia and Ken, listen and take in what they hear.

When the workshop ends, Tonia and Ken renew their wedding vows. Her eyes reach out for Ken’s, while Ken strains to respond and to make eye contact with Tonia, in spite of being unable to see much. It is heart-wrenching and heart-warming. After the ceremony, outside the room in the hallway, Tasha begins to cry. As Mary Ellen, a family friend and service provider, holds her, Tasha sobs and cries it all out. What is striking is that no one interrupts the pair; everyone recognizes the outpouring of feeling and lets it be.

Jesse’s daughter, Brittney, is feeling isolated, has no one to talk to, and doesn’t want to burden her suffering parents with her own feelings.
Brittney mentions that her father can’t see her face and therefore doesn’t know if she is sad or happy.
Brittney mentions that her father can’t see her face and therefore doesn’t know if she is sad or happy. His blindness allows her to hide her feelings, but she feels guilty about doing so. She is afraid that expressing her true feelings will be too upsetting for her father.

At dinner on Saturday, Ben, now four, looks my way; he’s restless. I suggest we trace one another’s hands with crayon. He quiets for a while. I give him my drawing of his hand and he gives me his drawing of mine. We take them with us as we part. Claudia’s 18-month-old girl is dancing with exuberance. Paul’s son, Sebastian, three, calls my name several times. Each time I respond. He wants the give and take. I enjoy the call and response. Two days earlier I was an as-yet-unknown quantity, not safe.

As the retreat comes to a close, everyone is so thankful for the opportunity to meet one another in safety, trust and acceptance. I think about the flexibility of roles: now sharing one’s anguish and small triumphs; now helping another with his. And the humor—it rises up in a flash and fades again, sustaining us as we delve more deeply. Laughing and weeping at the same time. These qualities—flexibility, range of emotion, and sense of safety and trust—reflect the health and healing nature of the community. Such a community brings out the best in us, helping us grow emotionally, interpersonally and spiritually, as it offers a collective space to transform trauma.

We Become That Village

Claudia’s little girl, without her father; Ben without his; Sebastian without his mother. And the teenagers, Brittney, Tasha and Alishya, with loving parents both present, yet struggling with the dramatic and rippling impacts of their fathers’ injuries. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers; we all step in to fill the gaps. If it takes a village, we become that village.

What drives this remarkable opening to connection? It is the power of compassion that creates a field of unconditional acceptance and love—each of us supporting and being supported. That field becomes the vehicle, the “bigger container” that holds the grief, the loss, the anger, the powerlessness, the damage. And the precious shards of hope. Everyone can feel its power: the trust, the safety, the deep care. This collective field of compassion grows capacities for withstanding, regulating, expressing, and representing inner anguish.
The dynamic beloved community helps transform trauma, turning inner demons, ghosts that haunt the present and foreclose the future, into ancestors.
The dynamic beloved community helps transform trauma, turning inner demons, ghosts that haunt the present and foreclose the future, into ancestors. Real people and real inner capacities we can access when we need them. We take in and make our own the comrades, the camaraderie, and their beneficial qualities. We enjoy being and learning together. New possibilities for being alive open up. All this is the activity of healing.

As children we are taught to be aware of the consequences of our actions. Actions have impacts that ripple out in many dimensions and last a long time. These effects manifest in ways we did not anticipate. Being aware of and anticipating the consequences of our actions is a developmental achievement. Being responsible for the web of impacts that has ensued from our actions, intended or not, is, likewise, an ongoing achievement.

As a society, we don’t take very good care of one another. Our children, our elders, our natural resources are often ignored, overlooked, forgotten or mistreated. Ours is a disposable culture. But what we do not include, recognize and care for does not go away. The impacts last for ages, and they affect everyone. The web of life is our connective tissue: human, animal, mineral and vegetable. What we discard or fail to adequately care for, we do so at our own peril. Our veterans and their families unfortunately have too often fallen into this category. Their suffering, their humanity, their dignity and their sacrifice often go unrecognized.

Since we are interconnected at the core, what happens here impacts what happens there; even if there is no visible or logical link. Almost three million service members have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Factor in the children, parents, partners, grandparents, brothers, sisters and so on, and that’s a lot of people who have been directly impacted by these wars. As we learned from Vietnam, unattended to, the wounds of war fester and deepen, wreaking havoc on individuals, families, and communities.

"When the Hair Grows Over"

The impacts of war are legend. Some are visible but many are not. There are injuries we can see and injuries that are invisible to the eye but nonetheless radiate deep and wide into a person’s life, health and web of relationships. TBI patients and their families have a saying: “When the hair grows over.” When the visible injuries heal, the unseen wounds to mind, heart, soul and spirit often go ignored. I am not only referring to post-traumatic stress. There are many veterans whose problems do not meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD, but who nonetheless experience profound disturbances in functioning and well-being, as do their families. The ever-present traumatic past crowds out the open present, collapsing hope and possibility. I don’t believe that post-traumatic stress should be classified as a “disorder,” although our inner experience does become disordered, and we ourselves can be temporarily disabled. But I see the loose constellation of clustered symptoms organized by psychiatry manual-makers as the psyche’s means of trying to recover from the shock and chronic helplessness of unimaginably overwhelming circumstances.

Post-traumatic stress and war’s other wounds are not just stress and anxiety problems; they impact our identity, our self-regard, sense of purpose, and our entire worldview. Sometimes war shatters it all.
Rebuilding damaged connectivity among body and mind, heart and soul, among thoughts, feelings, actions, beliefs, and relationships is critical.
Rebuilding damaged connectivity among body and mind, heart and soul, among thoughts, feelings, actions, beliefs, and relationships is critical. There is also a cultural dimension to healing the unseen wounds of war. Although it is important to learn skills to reduce stress and anxiety and rebuild the brain’s capacities to modulate and manage strong emotions—to rebuild internal connections—it is equally important to rebuild connectivity among family members and within communities.

What we cannot hold, we cannot process. What we cannot process, we cannot transform. What we cannot transform haunts us. It takes another mind to help us heal ours. It takes other minds and hearts to help us grow and regrow the capacities we need to transform suffering. This is done in concert, reweaving the web of connective emotional, relational and spiritual tissue that cumulative trauma tears asunder. With another mind and heart, and an informed, compassionate culture, it is possible, to transform ghosts into ancestors.

Concealed within damage often lies great strength. Resilience runs deep but its resources need to be nurtured. It is like a seed that has been buried in a disaster; it needs tending, attending. When the great redwoods are damaged in a fire, their seedpods are not destroyed—there is devastation, but often the forest can return to health, with protection, care and skill. If we cultivate the intention to be of help, if we take the time and energy, if we realize that the responsibility for healing the impacts of war is collective, the seeds of renewal and transformation await us just beneath the charred wounds of war. It takes a village and it begins with each of us.
What we cannot hold, we cannot process. What we cannot process, we cannot transform. What we cannot transform haunts us. It takes another mind to help us heal ours.

Irrespective of political or religious beliefs, each veteran, each partner, child, sibling, parent and grandparent, deserves our loving, skillful, attentive care for the visible and invisible injuries from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They don’t only need a new set of techniques or new understandings. They need us to harness our own humanity—head, heart, body and spirit—our native connectivity and capacity to respond, in order to make a difference. They need us to participate in creating a culture in which the wounds of war are lovingly and skillfully enveloped as part of a welcoming community, where they can heal and be transformed. Fundamental interconnectivity takes the form of a responsive community that holds the vets and their families in its attentive, loving embrace.

Copyright © 2013 All rights reserved.
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Joseph Bobrow Joseph Bobrow is the founder and president of the Coming Home Project, a community service of Deep Streams Institute. Since 2007 Coming Home has helped 3,000 post 9/11 veterans, families, and caregivers from 48 states alleviate the emotional, relational and spiritual injuries of war with a pioneering, evidence-based reintegration approach.

A psychologist-psychoanalyst and a Zen master, Joseph writes on the interplay of community-based, psychologically and spiritually informed approaches to transforming trauma—individually, relationally and culturally. He blogs on Huffington Post and Psychology Today and teaches throughout the United States and abroad. 

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Define the core elements of Bobrow' Coming Home Project
  • Discuss the importance of community support for healing war trauma
  • List the differences between the DSM-IV-TR's and Bobrow's definition of PTSD

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here