How do you repurpose a life? The Rev. Col. Eric Olsen (retired), director of Homeward Bound Adirondacks, set out to do just that through inviting 15 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to attend a three-day retreat at Paul Smith's College last week.
The veterans are all living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, have experienced substance abuse as an outcome of their service, and are part of Samaritan Village, a residential drug-free program treatment center based in New York City.
In many respects, those joining the military follow the main elements of the Hero's Journey, the monomyth described by the American scholar Joseph Campbell, a pattern found in many myths and story narratives from around the world and across time. This journey describes the call to action, the hero who is in some way uncomfortable with the ordinary, meaning his world or environment, and takes a new path, one that requires a departure from the ordinary, which usually happens in a brutal way, boot camp being an example.
Veterans enjoy swimming in Lower St. Regis Lake.
(Photo — Naj Wikoff)
The next step is the initiation, or the ordeal, wherein the old self is left behind and where the hero confronts a major fear that often includes confronting death. During the initiation, the man or woman is radically changed by the experience. They may have to go against the norms of society to achieve some end, such as taking the life of another, an experience that others on the journey understand, but those left behind, the civilians, can never truly appreciate.
The final and most difficult part is the return, as the hero has been radically changed by the journey while the society they left behind has not. The return can test the hero, his family and community, like no other. What the hero needs is the ability to be heard, his or her life repurposed, and a means of going forward in a manner that finds peace within the new complexities that are a part of his or her life. For a person who has experienced combat, that can include physical, mental, spiritual and emotion wounds of an extraordinary measure.
For many, some form of pain is a constant in their life, and some have found temporary relief from that pain through drugs, alcohol and violence, which only compound the pain and damage caused. Samaritan Village was established to help people confront those challenges, and Homeward Bound to assist veterans and the communities ease the transition home.
Olsen invited Dan Sullivan, a trained massage therapist and expert in zero balancing, along with myself, using the arts, to provide a series of workshops and experiences that would give the participants tools they could use to ground themselves, reduce their experience of pain, strengthen their bonds as a group, safely express their emotions, hopes, fears, and desires, and create a new vision home. In addition, they participated in morning Qi Gong sessions, hiked up St. Regis Mountain, swam in the Lower St. Regis Lake, enjoyed evening bonfires, and took advantage of Paul Smith's gymnasium.
"The biggest challenge for people coming back home, and I experienced it myself, is when a veteran gets out of the military, they don't have that camaraderie anymore," Olsen said. "They don't have a sense of purpose. They were part of a big machine that was doing amazing things on the world stage, and now they are not. They had people leading them that they could believe in and trust, and they don't have that anymore. They had a battle buddy in the sense of who they were in that environment. When you remove them from that environment, they have to renegotiate all that, and it is very difficult to do in a culture that doesn't understand where you have been or what you might need."
"The goal for this retreat was to take veterans out of their normal environment and give them fresh perspectives, new opportunities to learn, and creative ways of seeing themselves," continued Olsen. "I feel the retreat went very well on three points: we were able to prove them a fresh environment, the Adirondacks, which is beautiful; we challenged them physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally; and we gave them time to reflect on what occurred."
"This was a very good experience," said Byron, a veteran participant. "It taught me not to be afraid to confront my fears. It challenged me physically in a way that I have not been in quite some time. I really got a lot out of it."
"When I arrived, I was feeling conflicted," said Robert. "Up here in the mountains, I felt I was being heard and that the beast inside me was getting calmed. I got out of this a sense of peace, which I always try to carry around, but when you live in the city, it's torn away from you. I got it back here."
"I've gotten maturity, gratitude and received the will to go on and to keep going," said Hassan. "I was always going, but I don't always know how to get there and how to stay consistent on a path. Even going up on the trail, there were times when I wanted to stop, but the consistency I learned kept me going. When I got to the top, it was a joy, but the real work was in between. It was all about the journey."
"I got a little peace, a little break from the grind of life," said Joe. "The retreat gave me a lot of time to reflect on both ends, on the recreational and on the more clinical. It was a good balance. The hike was awesome. We were together sometimes, and sometimes we were separated. It gave us, gave me, time to think about things. It was very quiet and peaceful up there. The peace and quiet was long missed, being in the city is a night-and-day difference. It was awesome. The staff was great. The food was excellent. It was a good trip. We got to talk more intimately with each other. The whole thing was needed. It was a good group experience."
"I got a purpose for living," said Enrique.
"I hoped to share resources and tools that I have used in my journey of life that others might be interested in," said Dan Sullivan. "I feel very satisfied. I feel that the mission was accomplished. I feel we connected with each person on one level or another."
Coming up, Homeward Bound has three retreats in the works: a retreat for women at Camp Dudley, a second retreat for men at the Adirondack League Club near Old Forge, and they are assisting Snowslip Farm in Lake Placid with a retreat this September for first responders. For more information, visit online at homewardboundadirondacks.org.