"..the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured." —Kurt Vonnegut
It's interesting what images come to mind when something major and moving happens. For me this week, the image has been of those massive, powerful horses called Clydesdales. Let me explain.
Tony Smith is an expert on how to make real change, and as I have worked for the past two years to help reduce the chasms between military veterans and nonveterans in this country, he has given me sage advice. Tony urged me to think of the aim of my Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project as already existing somewhere in the future and, sharing my view that many more people need to learn how harmful the chasms are and how healing it is to bridge of them, he described the Project as requiring us to drag people into that better future, a future, he says, that few even think of.
There are obstacles to making that happen, including the rarity of Americans who are willing even to think about veterans at all. When I wrote about this rarity in my 2011 book, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans, I fervently hoped to be proven wrong. But blogging for Psychology Today has only proven me right. With only one exception, every time I post an essay that has anything to do with veterans, it receives between 30% and only 3% (no, that is not a typo -- three percent!) the number of readers of any other subject I write about. Recently, when about to post yet another essay about veterans, I tried an experiment: I took care to keep the headline free of any mention of veterans. The result was that within a couple of days, as many people had clicked on that essay as click on any of my essays that are not about veterans.
Many people say they want to help veterans but do little or nothing, as though simply stating their wish to help is sufficient. And given the huge number of groups and organizations that either do help veterans or give the mistaken impression that they do -- and there are some of each kind -- it is easy for most nonveterans to assume that all is being looked after. But the rising rates of veterans' suicides, homelessness, substance abuse, and family breakdown make it clear that far more is needed. And although it is very important to provide veterans education, employment, and healthcare, if they are not genuinely and deeply embraced and integrated into their communities, their intense isolation and suffering continue.
Often, people talk about bringing together disparate groups and individuals to meet community members' needs, but few actually make it happen. The first two days of this week, I was immersed in a phenomenal community from in and around Mansfield, Ohio, where eight separate but intertwined events galvanized the Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project there. Funny how things happen, and you never know what will lead to what. Activist Pat Risser had introduced me at a conference last year to Steve Stone. Steve heads the area's Mental Health and Recovery Board of Ashland County, and when he heard about The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project, he said he wanted to bring it to his area and would be in touch. I said I would look forward to hearing from him. You know how, when someone says that, and you don't hear from them, you don't know if they were just being polite but really are not interested, and you don't know whether to pursue the matter or spend the time some other way? Many months went by, and I wrote to Pat that I guessed Steve was not after all interested in the WJJHP. He wrote back that I was wrong, and soon afterward, I heard from Steve directly.
During those months when I had been thinking that Steve had dropped the idea of working together, he had been busy. He is one of those rare people who combines a great heart with tireless energy and an astonishing capacity to think strategically, to seek out and make connections, to find ways to make common cause between and among people and groups that others might not have thought would come together. He had been laying extensive groundwork for the WJJHP in his area. In fact, he had been creating a model of community partnerships that I would have thought impossible but that he has achieved and that ought to be cloned far and wide. Furthermore, he had made the important choice not to base the work in his community mental health system but rather in his capacity as a Board member of North Central State College (NCSC) in Mansfield. Why did he do this? To make clear that (1) the WJJHP is based not on the mistaken and damaging assumption that being upset by war or sexual trauma or other troubling features of military life is a mental illness but instead is based on the assumption that most responses to these events are deeply human reactions; (2) that these events cause suffering; (3) that enduring that suffering in isolation is soul-destroying for veterans and their loved ones and ultimately therefore is damaging to the wider community; and (4) that the community needs to bear witness to that suffering and, by listening, help make healing possible.
I always say that all that's needed to do the WJJHP is for one nonveteran to connect with one veteran who would like to have the nonvet simply listen silently, with respect, without judgment, and in confidence to whatever the veteran wants to say. The beauty of this healing work is in its simplicity. Steve Stone agrees but wanted to implement this simple project widely. He teamed with Iraq War veteran Adam Boyce, who had attended NCSC and now is a Veterans' Service Officer at Richland County Veterans Service Commission, to involve a remarkable number of individuals and organizations. So I want to give you a feel for the terrific variety of people who came together on Monday and Tuesday of this week on the campus of NCSC and its neighbor, Ohio State University at Mansfield (OSU-M). They included NCSC President, Dr. Dorey Diab; OSU-M Dean and Director, Dr. Stephen Gavazzi; nearby Ashland University's Director of Adult Studies and Veterans' Services, Dr. John Sikula; Col. Gary McCue, Commander of the 179th Airlift Wing, Air National Guard, and NCSC Trustee; OSU-M Special Assistant to Vice President for Student Life, Dr. Louise Douce; NCSC media maven Kevin Stoner; Jason Dominguez, an Iraq War veteran who is now Deputy Director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services; Lisa Sheehan from Hospice (many veterans, tragically, do not speak to anyone about their experiences until they know they are dying); a host of representatives from the offices of local, state, and Congressional officials; at least 50 veterans from eras spanning the past 65 years; undergraduate students; faculty and administrators; and members of the wider community who were there just because they cared.
The working committee included Betty Preston, Chief Public Affairs Officer, NCSC and OSU-M; Dr. Donna Hight, Chief Student Life and Retention Office, OSU-M; retired therapist and school psychologist Mary Wedell; and Richland County Veterans Services Director Tony DeLong, who with his wife and a corps of volunteers provided a hearty luncheon feast.
The eight events included a major kick-off, where veterans Adam Boyce and Jason Dominguez told their stories publicly; an orientation session I conducted for the "coaches" who will orient new listeners; and an orientation session where to a group of 40 volunteer listeners, I described the need for the WJJHP, gave them the simple guidelines for serving as listeners, and told them about the wealth of research showing that listening has the power to heal, and explained why the fact that the listeners are not trained therapists but are members of the veterans' wider community is a significant plus. I also described the surprise of many WJJHP listeners, who volunteer for the Project as acts of charity, wanting to help veterans but who find that doing even one listening session transforms them in powerfully positive ways.
Another session included brainstorming with faculty about their possible roles, including but not limited to offering extra credit for any veteran or nonveteran student who does a listening session; working with students to do surveys of the needs of the student veterans on their campuses; and conducting studies of stereotypic beliefs that veterans and nonveterans may have about each other.
A wrap-up session was focused on how the two days of events had gone -- "inspirational," "energizing," and "welcoming" -- and brainstorming about a wonderful variety of ways to continue the work.
At one of the meetings, coming on board to join Steve Stone and Adam Boyce as the third ongoing coordinator for the WJJHP in the area was Julie White, a veteran who is currently NCSC Site Facilitator for Success Unlimited, a program offering specialized supports for students with disabilities or other challenges.
The collective energies, ideas, and commitment to making real change were so powerful that they brought the image of Clydesdale horses to mind. Thinking of Tony Smith's vision, these Clydesdales are pulling us forward into a better future. As Margaret Wheatley has said:
"Most cultural traditions have a story to explain...why there is so much suffering on earth. The story is always the same... we forgot that we were all connected.... These stories always teach that healing will only be found when we remember our initial unity and reconnect the fragments."
©Copyright 2013 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved