Brattleboro therapy group helps veterans deal with PTSD

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BRATTLEBORO — When combat veterans, and veterans of sexual assault in the military, come home, they may carry wounds that are invisible because they are not physical. The goal of the Warrior Connection, a small nonprofit based in Dummerston, is to help them heal from that trauma, according to Anne Black, the founding director of the initiative.

"When they're in combat and they have horrific experiences, they don't have the luxury to process them," she said in a recent interview. "They're carrying all of this unprocessed material. When they come back, it comes out in flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts. The Veterans Administration will do some counseling, and give meds that numb the feelings, but it's still there."

The Warrior Connection brings together small groups — no more than eight — for six days of intense community, sleeping and eating at a lodge on Black's property. Teams of facilitators, usually a clinician and a veteran who has been through the program, lead the groups through the program, called the Creative Healing Process. Incorporating guided introspection, ceremony, expressive arts, and sharing, it is structured as a series of nine "stations" that trace a veteran's life; the first, "The Call," explores who the veterans were and why they joined the military.

"Why did they go into the military?" Black said. "Was it their family? Was it the GI Bill? Did they not know what they were going to do with their lives?"

Each station starts with "attunement."

"A lot of people don't know what they're feeling," Black explained. "You get in in touch with what you're feeling right now — what animal? What plant? What body of water? And then we do movement, just to get in the body. It could be yoga, it could be dance — and then we do a guided introspection.

"With that guided introspection, they allow memories to surface, and that gets put into a drawing," she continued. "And then it gets put into writing - if that art could speak, what would it say? What is its wisdom? And that gets written into their journal, and then they come back into the circle with their drawing, and if they feel ready to share, they talk about that period of their life — who they were and what was gong on. And there's some sort of grounding exercise, to bring them back to here and now, and then a closing attunement."

Art, including drawings on paper or in sand, plays an essential role in the healing process.

"We use the expressive arts because they bypass the mind and allow what's unfelt and unprocessed to come up for freedom," Black explained. "And that's where we encourage them to trust themselves to welcome and embrace what comes up, even if it doesn't make sense to their conscious mind."

After Station 2, Initiation, when participants recall going through basic training and taking on a military persona, Station 3 is divided into two parts. The first is the loss of innocence; participants go back in time to connect with who they were.

"Everybody wants to be connected with the truth of who we are, not the painful experiences that we might identify with," Black noted. "The second part is death-related losses. It could be a childhood loss, it could be something that happened in combat.

"Each step of the way we invite them to trust their own wisdom," she went on. "In the military they were told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it, and here they're encouraged to trust themselves — not their minds — but make a 17-inch drop into their hearts, the group, and the process.

Safety and trust are the two key ingredients; without them, no one will say what's true."

In later stations, the veterans reflect on the resources — letters from home, a talisman, buddies, their own skills — that helped them survive the trauma, and they look back on their return from combat before moving to forgiveness, learning to forgive themselves and others.

The final station is Reclamation, Black said, "reclaiming lost parts of themselves. Where are they headed, and what do they want to do with their lives? They do a collage. Now things are getting much more joyous, hopeful and positive. When they arrive on Thursday, they are so terrified, wondering, 'What's going to happen to me? I'm going into the unknown,' so we do everything we can to make them comfortable. They make a pouch, and as they go through this, there are things they put it."

While the six days are intense, there are breaks.

"By Saturday night, they've gone through a lot of intense stuff, but Saturday we have bodyworkers who come in, and a musician, and it's an evening to kick back, integrate, and to connect with each other," Black said. "By that time they need downtime."

The program culminates with participants sharing what they have learned with local guests.

"Ultimately, they're able to tell a new story," Black said. "After a closing ceremony, we invite people in from the community to be compassionate witnesses. [Participants] speak from their hearts and they say what's true. And ultimately they're asking that question, 'Who am I?'"

Black's professional background is in helping bereaved children, individually or in schools, including in Windham Count, in a program called HEALS (originally Hospice Expressive Arts Loss Support) that incorporated many of the elements in what became the Warrior Connection.

"We would respond to a school where there was a homicide, a suicide, or a sudden death in the school community that impacted the faculty, the children, the parents, or the community," she recalled.

After a stint in private practice, a doctorate in community psychology, and a study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, she was approached about taking the model into hospitals for the adult staff, and that work became the foundation for working with combat veterans and military sexual-trauma survivors.

She said that at first veterans were a "foreign population" for her, as she came from a family of pacifists associated with the Brethren in Christ and other religious sects that sought religious freedom in the U.S.

"No one in my family has been to war," she noted. "I was born in Carlyle, Pennsylvania, which is where the Army War College is, and I remember as a child driving by and seeing the sign and wondering, do people actually go to college to learn about war? That baffled me as a child.

"So when I launched my study into the PTSD, what I did learn is that often under the trauma is unresolved grief, which is my field," she continued, "so I thought, 'All right.' I couldn't imagine those big strong veterans doing expressive arts like I did with children, and I didn't know if it would work."

Black said that many participants have never even imagined that they could share things that have been under emotional and mental lock and key, sometimes for decades.

One participant, an officer in Vietnam who was able to confront guilt he had carried about the men in his unit, wrote about the Warrior Connection, "It is a safe place to share what you would never share with anyone that had not experienced actual combat ... An amazing experience that was sacred to each of us and as a group."

Black explained that the process works by helping veterans rediscover their true selves.

"I know there's a place in veterans — in all of us — that's untouched by loss, untouched by trauma, untouched by diagnosis, untouched by anything painful that's ever happened before, during, or after their deployment," she said. "There's a shiny diamond that's been covered with shit. There's a soul that's gone into hiding to stay safe, and it's that part that they're protecting, so there's armor that goes up, walls go up."

"So even before they come, when I do an interview with them, either in person or on the phone, I will ask them: if they're able to roll the camera of their life all the way back to their early, early childhood, if they're able to recall a time when they felt free, innocent, loved, lovable, and loving," she continued. "If they tell me yes, I'll ask them to describe it, and I know there's a good chance we'll be able to get them back to that place. If they say no, if they grew up in an alcoholic and/or abusive family, that's important information for us; I know it's going to be harder. If they have a strong desire to do their inner work, by all means we take them. And for those who find their way here, I think it's the answer to a deep prayer."

The program is funded by grants and small donations, including in-kind contributions. Local volunteers prepare and serve food provided by farms and restaurants; body workers and musicians also volunteer.

Currently, veterans find their way to the Dummerston retreat by word of mouth or Google searches. Black would like to expand the Warrior Connection.

"The military does a phenomenal job of taking a civilian and turning them into a soldier, a marine, a sailor, an airman, but the return process ... we've lost the ancient rituals and ways," she said. "I personally think this should be in place for everybody when they transition out of the military. The model is ready to go."

Maggie Cassidy, a frequent contributor to the Reformer, can be reached at mcassidy@sover.net.

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