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Andersen: Warriors to the wilderness

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Gen. Stanley McChrystal described the horrific Battle of the Wilderness to a rapt Aspen audience last week. He evoked the courage of union troops during the Civil War to spur advocates for the newly formed Franklin Project, whose mission is national public service.

As the general spoke, a cohort of eight wounded combat veterans was making final preparations to visit our valley for a very different kind of wilderness experience.

These vets, many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and one amputee, were on their way to spend three days at a 10th Mountain hut near Aspen through the Huts for Vets program. There is poetic justice that Margy’s Hut, where veterans will come to heal invisible wounds, was built by Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War.

The mission of Huts for Vets is to help veterans get a handhold on life through camaraderie and the tranquility of wilderness. The idea originated from the “Nature and Society” seminar I ran for the Aspen Institute for five years, where I witnessed the calming and restorative effects of nature.

The focus now is on PTSD, an epidemic that is sweeping the ranks of veterans and active-duty military members who are suffering 22 suicides per day as they wrestle with the psychological fallout of war and the challenges of social reintegration.

PTSD represents a soul wound for those who did or saw things that violated their deepest moral precepts, an experience forcefully portrayed in “An Iliad,” a theater production last week in Aspen depicting the Battle of Troy. In Homer’s sequel “The Odyssey,” the warrior Odysseus fights his demons while struggling to return home. “The Odyssey” is perhaps the first historical depiction of PTSD in Western literature.

American history has been wrought by PTSD. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, veterans found release on the American frontier and reinvented themselves on the edge of wilderness. This was a particularly violent episode of American history, when Reconstruction vanquished the Old South, when Native Americans were eradicated, when the vast Western wilderness was broken.

World Wars I and II produced generations of damaged soldiers who dissipated their PTSD on the frontiers of economic, industrial and technological development. Many suffering “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” found new lives in America’s post-war expansion.

Vietnam veterans had it far worse. They were dumped back into a hostile society shattered by a cultural revolution. The fact that three times the number of Vietnam vets have committed suicide than died in the war speaks to the lack of a frontier suitable for regeneration of self.

Today’s Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have little or no frontier other than the virtual world of video games and social media. In lieu of proper ceremonial cleansing or psychological retraining to erase boot-camp programming, many of today’s vets fail to reintegrate into society and, like Odysseus, battle demons for years as they struggle homeward.

Without frontier opportunities, many languish without work and meaning in a netherworld of disillusionment and dissociation. This is where the Franklin Project could step in with a new sense of national purpose. How fitting that McChrystal, the alpha general, is the front man for a project that could help struggling veterans who already have given everything for military service.

Huts for Vets offers these warriors an actual frontier experience through a serene connection to nature, a historical perspective on wilderness and a safe haven at huts built by veterans of World War II. Coincidentally, it dovetails with the goals of the Franklin Project as a service component for those in greatest need.

At a veterans’ initiative launched last week at the institute, a psychologist offered solutions for psychologically challenged veterans in which “prevention” figured prominently. How obvious, I thought: The best prevention for PTSD is peace.

Perhaps the ultimate frontier for today’s veterans is a reinvigorated peace movement built upon the positive social capital of service. Veterans can reinvent themselves as peace makers, not only in America but around the world. Idealistically, wherever men and women have suffered the soul wounds of war, the light of peace could burn brightly as a universal flame of hope and opportunity.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached at andersen@rof.net.


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