Coming Home After War- Ed Tick

 

Armed conflicts end, and history records them as over. But in the minds, hearts, souls, and wounded bodies of the people who survived, wars go on and on. The land that suffered war bears scars for decades or longer. The generations that follow them bear their impact and show ongoing wounds and scars. We seek to end wars but do not know how to stop its personal and transgenerational damage. 

I began working with Viet Nam War veterans in the 1970s, before the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder was established in 1980. After decades of therapeutic work and research with veterans, I became convinced that our office-bound conventional means and medication-dominated treatments for war trauma do not bring abiding inner peace and healing. Thus, beginning in 2000 and for the past twenty years I have led annual reconciliation journeys to Viet Nam. Meeting the former foe, immersing in their culture and spirituality, transforming the “other” into friend and family, sharing stories, grief, and honor together, atoning and rebuilding through philanthropy and service, frees the heart and soul from their devastating entrapment in the experience of war. This achievement of oneness with the former foe becomes even more important today in the painful aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that will be with us for decades.

My first visit to Viet Nam more than twenty years after I began working with traumatized warriors demonstrated that this hope for radical healing could prove true. Our veterans arrive in Viet Nam often expecting blame and hostility if not punishment. They receive only respect, honor, love, forgiveness. They are told that they did no wrong; they acted as warriors must in their nation’s service. Not them but only those who sent them bear responsibility for the wrongdoings.

Beyond this discovery, an unexpected world opened. It was as if the Vietnamese have been waiting for our return. Today, especially in the major cities of Sai Gon and Ha Noi, the Vietnamese devour the businesses and corporations, investments and consumer goods that come with globalization and have become a new form of Western invasion. But in the countryside and poor sections of the cities, among traditional or needy people less touched by the modern world, the Vietnamese have been waiting to meet, share stories and grieve together. As one Viet Cong veteran said to our group, “I have to know if we ever met before under different circumstances.” And as Northern country people have said to us, “Until your visit the only Americans we ever met were your bombs. We want to know you.” Every year, every visit, we are deeply, gratefully, joyously welcomed. Vietnamese tell our veterans, “We know of your pain and suffering in the U.S. We are sorry you could not heal and come home in America. Please come home here.”

Coming Home In Viet Nam is my collection composed from the stories I have heard, witnessed, and facilitated over my twenty years of journeys throughout that country. I tell the people’s stories, often in first person, in the voices of the Vietnamese and the returning veterans who experienced them. They reveal much about the spirituality, culture and history of the Viet and indigenous people and of their experiences during what they call the American War and since. Many of these are stories of women, children, and non-combatants. We think of wars as the stories of men in combat and utmost distress. We do not know the toil, sacrifice, suffering, contributions and healing of the women and the innocents. We do not know what a society forcibly engaged in a “people’s war” in their own homeland experiences. We do not know how the women of that society responded to their country’s threat and need. We do not know how to touch and penetrate our wounded warriors’ hearts and souls so that they can indeed “come home.” We learn all this and more with and from the Vietnamese people and the American veterans who had the courage, open hearts, and minds to return to that “land of nightmares” and discover it to be a land full of compassion, respect, and the sister- and brotherhood of those who have survived the same hell and gather to heal each other and teach the world the same story.

Following are three poems from this collection sharing American, Vietnamese, and shared aftermath stories of healing and building new, enduring and loving relations.

AN AMERICAN NURSE BUILDS A WINDY TOMB

Our group stopped at Chu Li, site of the first major battle between American and Viet Cong forces, to pray at a Windy Tomb that an earlier travel group had built for an American from that battle, Missing in Action. A Windy Tomb is one built for the soul of a lost deceased loved one so that the soul may have a home in which to rest. We believe this tomb at Cu Chi is the only one for an American MIA in all of Viet Nam.  We will add to them.

Two of our group honored MIAs from families at home, and we prayed for all souls. Then, after dreaming of her lost one and the burden it has been to her, a woman who was a nurse here during the war asked to build a second Windy Tomb close to the first.

 

My back is bowed from decades

of carrying the soul of the legless girl

who began as my patient but became my niece

as we flew colored kites in the wind off my ship.

 

In dreams my eyes are pink and swollen

with the ocean of tears both shed and withheld

since the angry wounded called her VC child

and desperate arms snatched her back to the jungle.

 

Today I carry one stone at a time.

With each dripping tear I recite her name.

Gently I let her down off my back

and give my lost niece this tomb for a home.

 

Eight children tumble round my fractured legs

to help me lay the last stones on her cairn.

A single red dragonfly hovers in our wafting incense

and a sweet breeze kisses my cheek with her name.

 

LANGUAGE LESSONS

Nguyen Thi Ngoc from the northern village of Hung Yen is my adopted goddaughter. We have spent countless hours learning each other’s language, culture. Ngoc has accompanied many of our journeys, saying “Please keep bringing your veterans here so I can heal them with my love. We become one family. Here is a story of our reading Ho Chi Minh’s prison poetry together.

 

The broad sky and wide river

fade into a single blanket of darkness.

The steaming air cools.

Outside our window the neon lights and blaring music

of a reborn Hue awaken.

We pull the blanket over our toes

and snuggle into the deepening dark.

 

We open our volume of prison poetry

written by Bac Ho while encased in hunger and gloom.

We read of labor and no water, lost teeth and friends

but laugh as she cannot pronounce “z”

and I choke on “ng.”

 

Together in the small quiet room our prison bars 

are thrown open. A dawn bursts.

We share a family blanket that is all we need

to chase the shadows of history from our hearts.

 

POINT OF VIEW

During one journey, deep in the Mekong Delta, a weary Marine asked O Tam Ho, a veteran of 25 years of war against three invading nations, why he did not suffer survivor’s guilt or PTSD as do American vets.  The elder veteran explained, “I am sad but not guilty. Perhaps the bullet is the messenger of karma. Try to see our lives from the point of view of the bullet.”

 

From the point of view of the bullet

One will live, one will die.

 

From the point of view of a man 

My life is his death.

 

From the point of view of the bullet

You took the right step, he the wrong.

 

From the point of view of a man

His death should have been mine.

 

From the point of view of the bullet

Fate is a swift straight shot

 

From the point of view of a man

Fate is a fickle whore

 

From the point of view of the bullet

I am a servant of destiny

 

From the point of view of a man

Destiny is a greedy whore

 

From the point of view of the bullet

His destiny was complete

 

From the point of view of a man

He left me to live for two

 

From the point of view of the bullet

You survived to finish your mission

 

From the point of view of a man

I wish I had died instead

 

From the point of view of the bullet

Your service was not your mission

 

From the point of view of a man

My time in hell was enough

 

From the point of view of the bullet

Life wants more from you

 

From the point of view of a man

Tell me what I must do

 

From the point of view of the bullet

Live for all who died

 

From the point of view of a man

Too many lamenting ghosts

 

From the point of view of the bullet

Those voices are now your voice

 

From the point of view of a man

Those voices are now my voice.

 

Excerpted from Ed’s forthcoming book, Coming Home In Viet Nam, to be published by Tia Chucha Press,  Nov 11, 2021. For advance orders.

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ED TICK

ED TICK

Ed is an internationally recognized educator, author and expert on the military, veterans, PTSD, Vietnam, and the psychology, spirituality and history of global trauma, warrior traditions, and military-related issues. For four decades he has conducted trainings, retreats and workshops across the country and overseas at major Department of Defense and Veteran Administration facilities and at colleges, universities, hospitals, health care and community centers across the country, and overseas. Ed co-founded the nonprofit Soldier's Heart, Inc. with his partner Kate Dahlstedt and for 13 years served as its director. He now consults internationally on these issues.
In addition to War and the Soul, Ed is the author of the books Sacred Mountain, The Practice of Dream Healing, Wild Beasts and Wandering Souls, and Warrior's Return, as well as the poetry collections The Bull Awakening and The Golden Tortoise.

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