Last month I traveled with a group of Vietnam veterans, families of vets, and those devoted to the healing work of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The two-week journey brought us to areas where these men served; where they fought and lived in the hell of war. Standing on the same ground 42 years later, one man said: “This is where I lost my young soul.”
My brother died in Vietnam in 1967, and now I was traveling to help dedicate a clinic built in his name. This clinic will serve the orphans of the Da Nang Street Children’s Village. The ceremony followed Buddhist practices, so incense, prayers and offerings were made by everyone in our group. Many tears were shed as we remembered all the lives lost and the violence and destruction that war brought to this beautiful country.
As we traveled and visited these sites I began to understand the heavy burden these men were carrying. They had witnessed horrors beyond our imagination, they did things they were not proud of, they witnessed things that gave them nightmares, they had things done to them that are unspeakable – and that is the word I wish to emphasize: unspeakable. What I witnessed were good men, doing what their country asked them to do, and never being able to speak about how it affected them on a soul level. When they arrived back home they were ignored at best, and literally spit upon and abused at worst. No one wanted to listen to their stories. They were reluctant to share the realities of war because they felt it would create more pain and would burden those they loved. Substance abuse, domestic violence, criminal activity and suicide were the results of keeping these secrets.
I had the honour to be a witness for the stories. We held sacred circle ceremonies at many, many locations – in the middle of rice paddies, on hillsides, on beaches, on the side of the road. Each person had all the time they needed to speak the ‘unspeakable’; to share the burden of their hearts with those they trusted; and in a very small way, to begin to lighten the weight they had been carrying for so many years. I could see the change in them right before my eyes. Their posture shifted and their eyes had more life. The next day they looked more rested and relaxed than I had ever seen them. I even heard the sweet sound of their long-lost laughter.
There are many stories to be told, that need to be told. When people ask if I had a ‘nice’ holiday in Vietnam, I tell them what we were doing. Of course, keeping the trust of the sacred circle, but letting people know that we cannot afford to push away what is uncomfortable or distressing. What is needed now is our eyes and ears to be open to each other and to ourselves. Many ancient societies incorporated story-telling and sharing the burden into their community rituals and ceremonies as methods of healing and reconciliation. If we are willing, we too can bring back this wisdom.
Vicki Vanderhorst is Spiritual Mentor at North Island Unity and an active supporter of the work of “Soldier’s Heart”.