Review of Edward Tick’s Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War
By Dennis Patrick Slattery
(Originally published in Depth Insights Journal, Summer 2016)
“The well-being of warriors and their societies are inseparable” (2014, p. 237).
Every war creates its own narrative to justify itself. Each must find, create, fictionalize and mythologize its reason for both being and for the lives lost, maimed and often permanently afflicted. These lives include not just family members and friends, but the citizens and leaders who insist on the war’s purpose and efficacy. Too often, as Edward Tick reveals in this new expose following War and the Soul (2005), the reasons for war are less than honorable, and more in keeping with profiting from the service of others. The extremes of such greed and rapaciousness can rise to new levels of moral obscenity.
His work as well as his works find a home in a tradition of war-related texts. A few that I am familiar with include two by Jonathan Shay: Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America; Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives us Meaning; Pat O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and James Hillman’s A Terrible Love of War. While there is a growing library of studies that interrogate the underbelly of war, reading each of these books was by turns unnerving, revelatory and in some instances, terrible but necessary. One will not find their discoveries on either national or local news stories. Our earlier war texts, Tick points out, are Homer’s Iliad and the Bible.Since 2006, when Tick and his wife, Kate Dahlstedt founded Soldier’s Heart (www.soldiersheart.net), they have concentrated on studying the mythology of wounding on spiritual, physical and psychological levels and working directly with veterans from Vietnam, Afghanistan and other wars, using myth, ritual, story-telling and pilgrimages to war sites in order to retrieve and heal the soul of veterans, many of whom have been separated from the source of their lives for decades. As a therapist of over 40 years, Tick is well-versed in the deeper dimensions of the psyche that becomes infirm in war, often to the degree that suicide, unfortunately, becomes for greater number of vets, the solution to their soul sickness. Such a dramatic contrast and ending to former vice-president, Dick Cheney’s affirmation that “war creates good business opportunities.”
In addition, and one of many areas I found worthy of further meditation, is what role does the leadership of a country like ours play in sending its citizens to war and what responsibilities do they incur, often reluctantly or not at all, in the ravishing of war on the nation’s citizens? Finally, what of the citizens themselves who send their youth to war to protect them from real and imaginary monsters, some created by the very country shipping tens of thousands off to die or be maimed for life? What is their role beyond “Thank you for your service” addressed to a youth in fatigues waiting in line at airports around the globe? Many vets, as Tick relates, find it akin to an insult, even dismissive, for as he reveals, those who benefit from the protection of veterans are often the most skittish about asking them how they are and what they have suffered. Such questions bring the shadows of war too close to the security enjoyed by their citizens.
First of all, Warrior’s Return is a courageous book—courage on the part of its author, courage on the part of all those who have served to preserve ideals that, many learn, were not the true purpose of a war they gave themselves over to, and courage in those who speak their stories in its pages and whose deep desire to come home overrode their fears and afflictions that battle and bloodshed forced upon them. Tick’s study exposes what most citizens and leaders seeking ends other than what veterans were told was the purpose of war, do not wish to deal with. One witness of this denial shows itself in the treatment of a burgeoning number of vets who struggle for treatment from the Veterans Administration and other organizations whose purpose it is to ease their suffering and their reentry into civilian life. Many are consequently never able to cross over the threshold they once negotiated in their initial ritual training as a warrior. Rituals fail them on their return.
Structurally, Warrior’s Return is divided into two parts: “Part I: The War After War”; “Part II: Bringing Our Warrior’s Home.” Chapter titles are helpful because they offer a quick portrait of the book’s content. Of the fifteen chapters, here are a few titles: “War Wounds Us All”; “The Journey Through Hell”; “The Invisible Wound Today”; “The Transformational Journey”: “Religion and Spirituality for War Healing”; “Redemption of the Wounded Warrior.” The titles reveal something of the archetypal and mythological level that Tick’s study will negotiate. War, killing, wounding and being wounded, dismemberment, recovery and restoration of the soul are all archetypal actions, conditions and situations. They are, as he writes, universal patterns that are often ignored in more traditional, sociological or political or strategic studies of war. But for Tick, “it requires an archetypal approach because the individual’s story must be joined to the stories of the ages and to the universal and eternal patterns in these stories” as well as tapping into “the spiritual dimensions of warriorhood” (2014, p. 162). Only then will the imagination experience a full measure of war’s horrors, hindrances and possibilities for veterans’ restoration and renewal.
That war’s intensity and violence transforms the soul is a central thread that holds the entire work together as a piece. His fabric is myth itself as well as the spiritual journey the veteran undergoes, often from innocence to the experience of killing another human being. To assist warriors struggling to come fully home, many of whom relate to him and to their brother and sister warriors, their souls were left behind in the arenas of countries where they fought. To help them with this most difficult of journeys, Tick pulls from other, much older traditions to reveal the absolute necessity of rituals to assist the warrior’s return. No conventional “debriefing” is adequate enough for this act of soul retrieval, the success or failure of which means a life of affliction and violence or perhaps suicide, or it can include fully integrating back into the culture.
In chapter 11, “Lessons from Chiefs of Old,” Tick focuses on Sitting Bull’s treatment of warriors: “he considered the most important to be medicine chief of the Hunkpapa Warrior Society. As a medicine man, shaman, teacher, healer and leader he was responsible for the spiritual health, healing, and well-being of the tribe’s warriors” (p. 176). Sitting Bull and other tribal leaders like him understood the devastating trauma of war and its afflictions to the soul of the warrior. In reflecting on Sitting Bull’s wisdom in treating his warriors, Tick believes that “to the degree that war’s invisible wound is to the soul, we must practice soul medicine for warriors. Soul medicine teaches, strengthens, guides and heals” (p. 176).
In all of the United States’ wars, stretching from Afghanistan back to the Civil War, we find alarming statistics on suicide rates among Vietnam vets (100,000, fn.8, p. 275), as well as a current rate today of 23 suicides per day. This figure reveals an epidemic right in front of us but not accepted, much less acted upon with the angle of understanding Tick calls for. “Thank you for your service” glides safely past such a plague of despair and defeat as well as domestic violence, divorce, severed families and crippled relationships that swirl out to include millions more wounded souls.
Soul wounding runs deeper than physical loss of limbs, loss of memory, concentration and mental functionings as a result of concussions. Today, PTSD, a clinical term that avoids soul loss, is only the latest in a series of over 80 names and diagnostic terms given to this debilitating condition since antiquity (p. 53). PTSD masks war’s horrific effects; like the word “stress,” it trivializes and makes more palatable war’s true brutal reality (p. 53).
Tick goes on to reveal how the United States is committed to serving the war god, Ares, at all costs and continually. The author points out the astonishing statistic that in our country’s 200-year-old history, the United States has not been at war only 12 years. Clearly, not at war is akin to the length of time of a commercial break in a television show. Yet, with all this warring, our country has not yet learned the terms and conditions of the hidden wounds that must be acknowledged.
Vets continue to anguish over the at-times indifferent and/or hostile treatment that demoralizes so many of them on their return from combat (p. 125); they are forced to carry traumatizing consequences of being dishonored. The large question such treatment insists on is: how is restoration of the soul and transformation of identity after war possible? Honing in on this question is at the core of www.soldiersheart.net. an organization that is rare in facing the deeper debilitations of warriors. “War trauma is a soul wound. The acronym could be translated as Post Traumatic Soul Distress (p. 144) or even Post Traumatic Soul Disconnection. Eliminating such disconnection requires nothing less than fully developed and conscious rituals, wherein “dismemberment and death circle into rememberment and rebirth” (p. 144).
On pages 158-160 appears the heart of recovery. Tick lists dozens of actions that communities benefitting from the sacrifices of warriors could and must enact. Let me list only a few here:
- Offer immediate response to any soldier, vet or family member crying out in unbearable pain. Family members are often victims of a veteran’s anguish, affliction and rage.
- Invite vets into schools and community centers to educate our young about the realities of war and service.
- Evaluate vets in the criminal justice system for the impact of military service upon criminal activities.
- Pair elder vets with new returnees, much as Twelve Step program do, so that the latter never have to be alone with their nightmares and despair.
Tick states forcefully and clearly what consequences follow from our failure as citizens who refuse or deny their part in the return of warriors: “When we do not tend our warrior’s wounds, or when we treat them as pathologies, we and they have no clear path for a successful return journey” (p. 206). He goes on to suggest the right attitude towards returning warriors, which should not include the idea that we “are rehabilitating broken people” or helping them cope. Rather, and his language is crucial here, for what he calls for has not been done adequately to date: “On the warrior’s return journey we co-create and co-participate in educational, moral, and spiritual practices in the context of a caring community” (p. 206). Required, then, is a shift in attitude from one that feels almost indifferent to returning vets’ conditions to one that actively participates in their successful reentry. Memorial Day once a year is a pale substitute for such an embracing alternative.
Healing rituals occur largely through remembrances. But one must feel that s/he is in a safe place where their remembrances will be held as valuable elements in healing. Rituals used by Tick and his organization include many that assist vets retrieve what of value had been lost in their deployments. Kate Dahlstedt, for instance, runs women veterans’ retreats in which she “uses a statue of Athena or her mother’s World War II nurse cadet medallion to help conjure the feminine Warrior archetype” (p. 220) which will become increasingly important as woman are now permitted into combat in unprecedented levels of intensity. In addition, rituals also include self-forgiving, re-humanizing, giving full expression to emotions as well as events, pilgrimaging to the country or city where one fought, killed, was wounded, lost comrades, or some combination of these, as well as reciting a “Veteran’s Prayer” written by Hugh Scanlen that begins:
O God, as I begin my walk out of the darkness
and turmoil of conflict,
give me the strength to find a lasting and gentle existence.
Give me the desire to treat all living creatures with respect. (p. 235)
Healing the spirit dismantled in war requires a spiritual approach and an attitude of serenity and prayer.
In the book’s closing pages, Tick laments, as so many do today, the absence of mature elders whose wisdom could be a balm for those who fought and those who welcome them home: “Instead we have too many immature, unworthy people grabbing and manipulating power in abusive and greedy ways. Theirs is the behavior of the uninitiated” (p. 259). Often these are the same body of powerful people who bungle us into wars without understanding either the mythology or the cultural ground rules of the adversary. Poor in leadership, depleted in their humanity, they take the youth of our country into abysmal and protracted battles; veterans return to a public often in denial by deflecting what they have suffered. Their wounds deepen as a consequence.
Edward Tick is one of our mature elders who sees a problem that most of us are blind to; he has made significant progress in restoring our veterans back into their cultural home through story, ritual and respect for what they have suffered. Would that every soldier before being deployed could read this wisdom book for themselves.
# # #
Dennis Patrick Slattery, PhD. is Core Faculty, Mythological Studies Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. He is the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of twenty-four volumes, including six volumes of poetry, as well as over two hundred articles. His latest book is Our Daily Breach: Exploring Your Personal Myth Through Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (Fisher King Press, 2015). He offers Writing Myth retreats in the United States, Canada, Europe and Ireland using the works of Joseph Campbell and others.