In the wake of the current scandal involving the waste and misappropriation of funds in the Wounded Warrior program, it’s fortunate that we have an alternative model for helping to heal the psychic wounds of war. That alternative is called the Coming Home Project and it’s founder, psychologist and Zen teacher, Joseph Bobrow, Ph.D. has just come out with a book that details how this extraordinary project works in practice. The book is called Waking up from War: A Better Way for Veterans and Nations, and it offers a deep analysis of the vicissitudes of PTSD and a path toward healing it. The fact that the successes of this path have been studied and validated empirically makes Bobrow’s work especially valuable today.
Bobrow and the philosophy behind the Coming Home Project emphasize the pathogenic effects of isolation and dissociation and, consequently, of the healing power of community, safety, and unconditional acceptance. Returning vets suffer from both isolation and dissociation—and so do their families, caregivers, service providers, and veteran service organizations. Bobrow and his team bring different combinations of these people together, especially veterans and their families, to tell their stories and provide communal support. The disconnectedness so rampant in contemporary culture is especially poisonous for veterans who come home wounded, struggling to control frightening feelings and memories, and filled with shame and guilt. Anyone who has been in a 12-step group understands the power of a non-judgmental community. Recovery groups say, “The power of one addict helping another is without parallel.” In the Coming Home Project retreats, attendees can tell their stories, create rituals that foster mourning, learn techniques to regulate frightening feelings, and, in general, find and create a safe space in which they and their families can begin to heal. Johann Hari, in his critique of the so-called “war on drugs” in his book, Chasing the Scream offers this plea for the addict which I think also applies to the suffering vet as well: “For a century, Hari argues, we’ve been singing war songs about addicts; we should have been singing love songs to them all along.”
The opposite of addiction, Hari says, isn’t abstinence, it’s connection. Our society’s addiction to violence is no different and Bobrow offers us dozens of ways to make this truth about connection into a healing reality on the ground.
Medicine and psychiatry have made important contributions to understanding PTSD and its treatment, but Bobrow makes a powerful case that our society, itself, has a type of collective amnesia and numbing when it comes to taking real responsibility for the emotional and spiritual havoc caused by putting young men and women in conditions of chronic traumatic violence and danger. The VA scandals of recent years, with their corrupt and fraudulent wait times, become all the more traumatic when visited on people who are trying to contain unbearable pain without protection or support.
Bobrow argues that the goal of treatment—at least of the treatment program he has developed and which has been empirically validated as successful—is to turn ghosts into ancestors. The quote that begins the chapter with that name goes, “What’s the matter? The war’s over,” someone said to a veteran. “Yeah, she replied, “over and over and over.” The bullets and IED’s keep haunting the veteran. Bobrow tells us that “ghosts have no roots, and their restless wandering does not cease to disturb the living,” leading survivors to feel possessed. The goal of the Coming Home Project is to provide a special type of community that holds the vet together, that provides the “connective tissue” within which the vet can grieve the pain of multiple losses and begin to metabolize, among other things, the “moral injuries” sustained during their wartime experiences. These latter injuries involve the guilt and shameful remorse so often reported by veterans as they are assaulted with images of those they’ve killed, or others they left behind or were not able to save. Such moral injuries are borne by the soldiers when they really belong in the leaders that sent them to war to begin with.
Bobrow ends his book with particular eloquence:
The world is burning. How we respond to our returning warriors and the traumas of war makes all the difference. Let us together transform the fragmentation and dissociation war creates and truly welcome home our service members, veterans, and families. Let’s invest in the resources that make healing possible.