Nam-Grief by Peter Winnen
In June 1967 I arrived in-country for my walk-on part in the American war in Vietnam. The military-industrial Apparatus, dedicated to attrition as strategy, was counting bodies. The Apparatus calculated that if WE killed more than THEY could resupply, it would end. Most startling, was the heightened awareness that I was expendable; there to be used up as needed, like one of the thousands of rounds of munitions and materiel in our supply pipeline. Under fire, in fear, trapped in this deadly tragedy, I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of self-preservation, hitting back, and blowing it up. My beast, jump- started by “The Spirit of the Bayonet” during Basic Training, fully emerged. In free-fire zones, where anything that moved was assumed to be enemy, I directed artillery onto North Vietnamese regulars, grey shadows in the tree-line. And onto fishermen and sampans and farmers and water buffalo in the open. Berserk as a wounded bear, I saw only gook-foe, not peasants trying to keep the rice cycle going. I resented their pastoral overlay of fishing and harvesting on the battle-ground as incoming rounds regularly rose up from those fields and paddies on the banks of the Ben Hai river. A Vietnamese “Guernica” erupted as men and animals fled, stumbled, fell, huts disintegrated and small stucco buildings disappeared into red-yellow dust. I radioed target damage for the Apparatus scorecard: Two farmers, two fishermen, one sampan, four water buffalo. These all to be tallied in the daily battle report, monthly total, cosmic ledger.
As berserker adrenaline abated, I experienced a physical-psychic surge from the crown of my head through my solar plexus. A curtain dropped through me separating me- before, from me-after. I knew I had crossed over. Who I thought I was, I was no longer. For who remained I felt both awe, and dread. I was stunned with disbelief: How could this be happening to me? WAS this really happening to me? I shouldn’t be here. But it was me here. It was both dream-like, and terribly real.
For decades I grieved my trauma in strict, guarded silence. It was my “Vietnam thing”, my impediment with no language to describe. I feared that trying to speak of it would set off an unstoppable chain reaction of emotion, unravel me completely, leave me at the point of no return like those zombies in the day-room of “Cuckoo’s Nest”. Mine was a singular fall from grace that SHOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED TO ME. I was permanently separated from others by berserker knowledge. I became envious of men who had not experienced combat, seemed able to live and mature gracefully unimpeded.
Three years ago, my wife introduced me to “War and the Soul” by Ed Tick, of Soldier’s Heart and as I read, the need to speak my truth trumped my silence. We attended a Soldier’s Heart retreat together where I began to find my voice. Soon we discovered John Schluep and Warrior’s Journey Home where “Listen. Speak. Heal.” is practiced in community with men and women of strong heart. I embraced Native American healing traditions with Shianne Eagleheart, at her Red Bird Center in Cambridge, Ohio where intuitive healing is available through ritual and ceremony. With these groups of men and woman and fellow veterans I’ve been serving an apprenticeship in the thicket of soul- work, trusting that grief will not kill me.
My apprenticeship ramped-up a level at the Minnesota Men’s’ Conference 2013. I was attracted by the website’s suggestion of a celebratory griefapalooza guided by teachings, poetry, and storytelling. I felt ready for this five day immersion, decided to take the risk and dive in. I was bringing a burgeoning kernel of insight to work on: What if my impediment to healing has been, not the trauma itself, but the “ego” of MY soul- wound. MY special wound, in a cunning way, had developed its own “ego”: Its trauma surpassed all others in intensity, was outside the “normal range” and would not heal, guaranteeing its own survival.
This kernel blossomed over five days of grieving bliss as I fell-in with a whole freaking community of men who’ve been meeting to grieve and celebrate for almost thirty years. I absorbed teachings, listened to mythical stories like a child, and drifted on dreams of poetry read aloud by men testifying to the triumph of the heart. I knew I belonged among them and my wound blended into community. It is my wound’s ego, not the wound itself, that has kept me apart. My swelled wound is not special. We are all wounded and grieving. None of us escapes.
Cascades of confirmation washed me: I need you, you band of stained brothers, to draw me back into a state of grace; here’s my wound to share with yours; let’s have a grief-fest and celebrate that I am not special anymore; speak to me from your open heart, I will listen with an open heart; we’re not separated from each-other by our individual traumas, we’re joined by them; our wounds are our songs; and, cloaking my wound all these years, encapsulated the energy to be drawn from it.
I know in a deep intuitive place the truth Francis Weller laid out when he said that our grief must be,
… shifted out of an interior private construction project and be performed in community, for I am, because we are. I cannot really become myself without you.
It doesn’t matter that it took me so long to feel this truth in my bones. To be sure, I would have benefitted from walking among the men of the MMC sooner in life. Never the less, I’m excited by the newness of being a novitiate in soul-work. I’m grateful to no longer be special and separate with a unique soul wound. The curtain that separated my soul many years ago is lifting. I’ve begun to rejoin the larger community waiting for me. Is it ever too late to recover one’s soul?
Author: Peter Winnen
Edward Tick, Ph.D. – War And The Soul
John M. Schluep, D.Min. and Shianne Eagleheart
Francis Weller – The Five Gates Of Grief
Pablo Picasso – Guernica