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.

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