Jesse has been blinded by shrapnel. Paul cannot swallow properly or digest his food. Claudia doesn’t remember giving birth to her daughter. Although they’re no longer in Iraq, the war is still with them.

It’s a Friday night in Berkeley, California, and about a hundred of us are gathered at the First Congregational Church for a community meeting called “Impacts of War—Paths to Healing.” The meeting is sponsored by the Coming Home Project, a non-profit organization that tends to the psychological and spiritual wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families, by providing free stress-management workshops, retreats, and building community support.

Jesse Acosta (left), blinded by shrapnel in Iraq, shakes hands with fellow Iraq veteran Jeremy Williams at the Coming Home Project retreat in Berkeley.
Jesse Acosta (left), blinded by shrapnel in Iraq, shakes hands with fellow Iraq veteran Jeremy Williams at the Coming Home Project retreat in Berkeley.

We’re a mixed bunch: residents of Berkeley, interfaith leaders, veterans and their families, military personnel, trauma therapists, and some, like me, from the media. We’re listening to Cynthia Lafever describe what it was like to see her son Rory for the first time after he was injured in Iraq:

“I began to inspect every inch of my six-foot-three, 220-pound son,” she says, her voice trembling as she speaks into the microphone. “I remembered the feel and smell of his baby-soft skin as an infant. I wanted to hold him in my arms, but I was too afraid to touch him anywhere but his hand—there were wires and tubes and hoses everywhere. I noticed he still had dirt and blood under his nails. I wanted to speak words of love to my son, but I knew that if I even tried to whisper his name, I would splinter into a million pieces.”

When Cynthia finishes speaking, Rory comes up to hug her. Three years after his injury, he’s tall and handsome and wears a patch over his missing eye. From a distance it’s hard to tell that his face has been rebuilt. Although he’s healing faster than any doctor predicted, he’s still in physical pain and struggles with overwhelming surges of rage and feelings of betrayal. Rory lost his best friend in the same blast that blew out his eye, on his twenty-second birthday.

When soldier-poet Brian Turner reads from his book, Here Bullet, I notice a middle-aged man with roses tattooed down the inside of his arm wiping his eyes. During the break I learn that he served in Vietnam. “It was hell there,” he tells me, “but at least we had a jungle to hide in. Out there in the desert these guys have nowhere to hide.” Then he adds, “But at least they’re not getting spat on when they come home.” He gestures around the hall. “If I’d had this kind of support, things might have gone different than they did.”

The seeds for the Coming Home Project were planted at Plum Village, in southern France in the early 1980s, according to Joseph Bobrow, a Zen teacher, psychologist, and founder of the Coming Home Project. For two summers Bobrow lived and studied with Thich Nhat Hahn amid Vietnamese refugees, most of whom had been severely traumatized. Bobrow observed and experienced how Nhat Hanh used the power of community to heal the trauma of war.

“It is possible to reknit broken bones, but how do we try to reweave the heart, mind and spirit? Community is the missing link in healing PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder],” says Bobrow. PTSD and other effects of war are not just stress and anxiety disorders, he explains. “They impact us spiritually at the level of identity, character, meaning, purpose, and worldview. Our very being, our life and death, how we experience our relation to ourselves, our loved ones, the community, the country—often it is all shattered.”

In early 2006 Bobrow and meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg began to explore how they could help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families start piecing together their lives. Bobrow reached out to leaders in military, interfaith and therapeutic settings and together they began “building a community of mutual support, healing and education for the long haul.”

“The important thing about this project is that it’s not about the politics of war—it’s about being able to get out our feelings and come together despite our different views, politics and religions,” Bobrow says.

Tonight’s meeting is just the first part of a weekend retreat where the veterans and their families will share their stories, draw, write, practice yoga, and meditate together.

“What do I say to someone who has returned from combat in Iraq?” someone asks.

Jeremy Williams, a veteran of multiple deployments in Iraq, stands up and answers without missing a beat. “Don’t ask me if I’ve ever killed anyone,” he says. “Thank me for my service. Ask me how I’m doing today, how my family is doing. And then listen.” He tries to go on but the tears come. His wife, Christina, who is sitting beside him, touches his arm. Jeremy has been medically retired from the marines for severe PTSD, and now the young couple and their two little boys find themselves in their own private war zone. So many things catapult him into a state of terror: seeing someone in a military uniform, watching the news on TV, a balloon popping at a child’s birthday party.

When the community meeting ends, the vets and their families go back to their hotel on the bay. Fundraising efforts have made it possible for the Coming Home Project to pay for the families’ accommodations and transportation, and for most this is the first semblance of a vacation they’ve had for years. Many feel reduced to labels and sets of initials—TBI (traumatic brain injury), PTSD, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, memory loss—and it is only when they come together, as they have this weekend in an atmosphere of safety and acceptance, that they begin to feel whole again. As Stephanie, whose husband committed suicide shortly after his last deployment, says, “When I’m here I feel like I’m home.”

A couple of months later, I check in with some of the people I met in Berkeley—some of them over the phone and others in person. Most are struggling. They don’t know how much longer they can fight the system to get the benefits they are entitled to. There are bills to be paid and no money to pay them. Spouses and parents are experiencing caregiver burnout. And yet, when we talk about the Coming Home Project and about an upcoming retreat over Veteran’s Day weekend in November, it is as if someone has lit a candle in a dark room.

Rory’s mother says they wouldn’t miss it for the world. “Rory has never been able to have individual therapy,” she says. “The only time he feels safe enough to really open up is when he is with this group. It’s the unconditional acceptance, the ability to be who he needs to be, that is helping him get better.”

“I fought like hell not to go in the beginning,” Jeremy tells me. “I didn’t even want to get on the plane. It reminded me too much of getting on the plane three times to go to Iraq. Do I want to go back in November? I’m there.” He uses the word “comforting” when he talks about Bobrow and some of the older veterans he met.

“November is too far away,” Kenny says. Kenny has TBI and PTSD and normally hates going anywhere—it makes him anxious to leave his house, to be around too many people. The thought of getting on a plane fills him with dread. And yet he’s counting the days until the Veteran’s Day retreat.

Nancy, whose reservist husband, Rick, is at a VA hospital, says she almost didn’t go to the retreat in Berkeley. “I was thinking of ways to get out of going. I thought, why do I need to go? I was so mad at the military . . . ” She pauses for a second. “But I felt so good being at the retreat, being with other military members and their families, listening to what has happened to them and sharing stories. You can express your feelings, and no one is there to judge you. You become like one close family, and that feels good.”

For more on the Coming Home Project, visit cominghomeproject.net.

© Christopher O’Dea, Courtesy of the Coming Home Project

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