More than Survivors

I wrote this article after staffing a veterans’ healing weekend called The Bamboo Bridge, just after the attacks of 9/11/2001, when we knew that the world would never be the same, but didn’t  yet know the depth of the change.

I’m posting it today as new evidence continues to emerge regarding the truth of what happened that day…to honor the sacrifice of those who shipped out to serve in the Middle East on the strength of the information our government presented.

While the Bridge weekend no longer exists in its original form, it has been reshaped and is now called Vets’ Journey Home (download their brochure here ).

To all who have served, whether as combatant or noncombatant in a combat zone, and who are still struggling to heal –


Veterans’ Weekend Offers Homecoming of Honor

The veterans were approaching.

This was not a Fourth of July or Memorial Day parade, though with the electricity in the air it might have been. We waved no flags, heard no drums. There were only 20 of us on the Bamboo Bridge staff to welcome these veterans home. They, in turn, were coming to tell their experiences and be heard and honored for their service, perhaps for the first time since their return to the U.S.

This was my first time staffing the Bamboo Bridge weekend: eleven days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, with the specter of war in the air, it was the most poignant timing possible.

The Bamboo Bridge is a homecoming and healing weekend for any veteran of any conflict, whether a combatant or not: it is enough simply that he or she served.

Among the graduates – some of them the staff members that stood waiting with me that day – were artillery soldiers and special operations officers; decorated veterans of many tours of duty and noncombatant medics; stateside supply officers and front-line triage nurses. Each of them had experienced the inability to describe their wartime experience in normal society, except in the most banal terms. Each had seen friends’ and family’s faces go blank with incomprehension if they attempted to share what they had seen and done.

Two men, four women and I were the civilians of the staff: some spouses of vets, some conscientious objectors, some war protestors. I was one of the latter: as a post-Boomer, I was a child during Vietnam; as a Quaker, I had protested Desert Storm. My two strongest memories of encounters with veterans dated from 20 years ago: one had been high on pot and whisky, having a post-traumatic stress flashback as he sat next to me on the bus. He’d been shaking, crying uncontrollably, babbling incoherently that he hadn’t wanted to machine-gun women and children. Other passengers on the bus had looked away, shielding themselves from his grief; I was paralyzed by his outpouring. For years I could not speak of it without tears of horror and empathy.

The other was a Green Beret who told of his bloodletting in Vietnam with vicious delight. I had never believed in monsters until I met him: though I purposefully wiped his stories from my mind, his glee was unforgettable. For years afterward, simply seeing a veteran in similar headgear triggered reflexive terror.

I’d known other veterans since then, kind, sane, moderate men, successful in their work and leaders in their communities. These memories, however – stereotypes, other vets complained – were the images that returned as I watched the four men approaching us. Was that why I was here – because my experiences tapped into a cultural stereotype that I felt compelled to overcome?

No. From those two encounters I’d learned rage against the inner devastation that war leaves in its veterans, and grief at the sacrifice of their hearts and souls in the combat. One thing I knew was certain: with the aftermath of the September 11 attack, there would soon be many more veterans, from rescue workers to combatants. To understand their experience and support their healing was essential.

The four veterans entered the sunny conference room, dressed casually, normally, no fatigues or camouflage or combat boots…or berets. Their wars…Korea, perhaps, or early Vietnam? Another, younger-looking…possibly the Gulf War? We introduced ourselves: I looked carefully into each man’s eyes as we met. A monster? Surely no addicts here. A phrase returned to my mind from one of the veterans on staff, describing himself before he experienced the Bridge weekend: “dead behind the eyes.” In each of these men’s eyes there was an…emptiness, a wariness.

Christan Kramer, founder of the Bamboo Bridge, had warned me: For many of the participants, the toughest moment is simply coming through the door to be welcomed by both veterans and civilians. Some respond with hostility: “What are these damned civilians doing here?” one once demanded of Christan, and spat on him. It was not the first time, nor the last, Christan said. Another vet was incredulous at the presence of civilians on the staff: “I can’t believe so many people care,” he exclaimed. This was the reaction I saw in the vets coming to this weekend: wonderment at the sheer number of staff supporters and civilians, particularly women.

And that, Christan told me, is part of the idea. “When a veteran says to another veteran, ‘Welcome home,’ there is a multitude of things going on,” he said, speaking from experience. “I’m aware that it’s valid, as one vet to another. I’d also expect that of course he’d say it, he’s a vet. When a civilian says it, though, there’s skepticism, cynicism, because of that first homecoming. There’s a wry smile — oh yeah, well, screw you! If you as a civilian say, ‘No, I mean it seriously,’ and let the vet see that you mean it — if the vet is willing to take it in as genuine, let down the barriers and admit the welcoming — your welcome as a civilian carries more impact than that of a veteran. It speaks for the 235 million civilians who didn’t say it.”

This effect is compounded when a woman welcomes a veteran home, he added. “When you add the nurturing aspect of women’s energy, when a woman says ‘Welcome home,’ even to a cynical, skeptical vet, that veteran has a greater likelihood of hearing it,” he said. “There’s a mixed response still — often the first person to scoff at a returning veteran was a woman. At the same time, women as nurses had a tremendous impact in the war zone. When a nurse says she was in Vietnam, I’ve seen vets choke up. That nursing energy is part of the package.”

Out of that nursing energy, the Bridge was born. In 1984, Patricia Clason was the owner and director of the Center for Creative Learning in Milwaukee, presenting a weekend of personal growth and healing called Taking It Lightly. The daughter of a high-ranking non-commissioned Army officer, she had seen her boyfriend go to Vietnam and return profoundly changed; another friend had committed suicide during his service in Vietnam. “These men (Vietnam veterans) were showing up in my course room, ” she said. “It was hard to present the viewpoint of hating what they’d done and loving who they were. They had been children in an insane situation, doing what they had to do to stay alive.”

The veterans’ weight of guilt from those actions, along with their inability to communicate them, was compounded by civilians’ inability to understand. “The pain of war is the most horrific any human can experience,” said Patricia. “The only thing close to it is emergency room or paramilitary work; no one else understands it. The combat zone veteran is doubly isolated by the experience and the inability to communicate it.” As a facilitator, she struggled with these issues each time they arose.

In the fall of 1987, her perceptions crystallized when Christan participated in Taking It Lightly. The program directly touched his issues from the war, and he left with a mission: to help other veterans as he had been helped, by developing a workshop geared directly to their needs. When he shared this with Patricia after the weekend, their mutual concerns forged the foundation of The Bamboo Bridge.

To create a safe space for veterans to voice their experience, be heard nonjudgmentally, and receive the homecoming that had been lost the first time around: this was the vision. A safe space that no veteran should pay money to enter: they had already paid the price.

Step by step, Christan built this vision, presenting the first Bamboo Bridge weekend in Milwaukee in 1993. As the program grew, it was funded by the nonprofit Bridge Foundation, and the donations of grateful veterans and their families and friends.

Al Fletcher, now National Coordinator of the Bamboo Bridge, was one of the first to go through the training. As a company commander in Vietnam, he had been severely wounded and still dealt with disabilities stemming from his service. Emotional healing, also, had been long and difficult. When he heard of the new Bridge weekend shortly after participating in the New Warrior Training Adventure (a men’s initiatory training), he contacted Christan.

When they met in 1993 at a New Warrior conference in Chicago, Christan approached Al with his hands over his heart. Looking deep into Al’s eyes, he said, “I want to apologize to you, on behalf of myself and every other soldier who was a young punk kid angry at his father.” He spoke briefly and with grief about the guilt that he’d carried from being a “little bastard” to his commanding officer in Vietnam. Tears rose to Al’s eyes.

Now, Al brought that intensity to this Bridge. Meeting him for the first time in camouflage, with a beret cocked over one eye, I suppressed a reflexive shudder…until he emotionally thanked me for stepping up in service to the veterans. His sincerity rang in every word, his voice shook with conviction; I found my own eyes misting in response.

The student-vets were in the conference room now, with Al welcoming them. We staffers filed up to introduce ourselves. And the weekend began.

I worried: what if I couldn’t give the support they needed? Suppose I told my story and it sounded petty? How could my secondhand grief and horror mean anything to these men who’d been through hell? What right did I have to be there, anyway, a war protestor who knew nothing of the front lines? A veteran acquaintance had told me that I should stay in the background, that my issues would make me, at best, ineffectual, at worst, a hazard. I shared these worries with Pat Fletcher, Co-National Coordinator, who mentored women staffers through the weekend: she shook her head, no.

“With your issues, honey, you need to be right up in front,” she said. “You know everything you need to know. You will find that on this weekend your issues and your feelings will be your greatest strength: you can show these vets how to open their hearts. And you’ll be surprised at their response.”

So here I was, one of a closely choreographed team, each of us responsible for empathetic support to the student-vets and other staff members.

We sat in a circle on Saturday morning, and the stories began. First the staff told their experiences: tales of stateside service and survivor guilt; anti-war marches; singlehandedly maintaining a home and welcoming a returning spouse who was no longer the same person who’d left. Tales of lost connection, lost years, divorce. And war stories: inflicting death; holding dying friends; going AWOL; returning to an uncomprehending family and unrecognizable homeland. Our instructions had been to let the feelings flow, not provide pat answers, let the questions stand. Tears flowed; Kleenex boxes were passed from hand to hand.

Suddenly it was my turn, and I started: the memories were as fresh as the day they’d been imprinted, and the feelings equally strong. As I spoke of the grief, fear, and outrage this time, though, there came a fierce protective anger for these men. No one should have to live the way I’d seen those two vets living. There had to be a better way.

And then the student-veterans’ stories began: ambushes, hand-to-hand killings, terrorist bombings, uncountable triage deaths. It was painful to witness them as they worked through their old traumas: grief, guilt and shame over losing men in impossible situations. Shame at throwing up over the stench of an enemy’s innards. Shame at wanting to die when surrounded by horrors.

So much shame at the natural responses of their own hearts.

As I listened and supported the veterans in voicing their traumatic memories, I realized the truth of Pat’s words: by opening my heart to stand with these men in their healing, I was making use of my own feelings, allowing my wounds to become my strength. And I saw the same thing happening in them: by hearing one another’s pain, opening our hearts to support one another, we could connect in empathy, shared humanity, acceptance and caring.

How strange, I thought as the weekend went on: here I was, a war protestor, getting misty-eyed as the flag was unfurled and then folded again to the sound of Taps. Feeling heartache again as I played taped songs of veterans’ experiences and remembered the vet on the bus. “There’s not a veteran here,” Tom Porpiglia, one of the facilitators, told me during a break, “who isn’t against war. They know it’s hell.” And here they were, struggling to reclaim their pride in their sacrifices for their country.

Just before the graduation ceremony, as families and friends milled about, I was standing outside, watching the sunset. One of the student-vets approached me…one who had struggled hardest with his feelings of shame as he told his story. A military plane flew overhead, audible but barely visible, reminding us of the war clouds darkening in the world outside. He identified it for me without a second thought: he’d flown in one, seen what it could do.

He rambled on for a few minutes, then turned to me. “Do you still fear veterans?” he asked. I was startled: I had not said this, somehow he’d picked it up. I looked in his eyes: still wary, but they looked frankly into mine, questioning. Waiting for judgment. I felt a pang. “No,” I said gently. “I don’t think I was ever afraid of veterans, really. I was afraid of their wounds.”

He looked at me: that had touched him. Sadness in his eyes now. “Yeah, well,” he said after a moment, shrugging, “we’re afraid of our wounds, too.”

We hugged.


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