At the dusty truck stop in Ellensburg I picked up the Essential Johnny Cash 3 disk set, which I reckoned would be the perfect soundtrack for the rolling hills and windmills in my rearview as my beaten Ford struggled mightily to reach the Serving Those Who Served Conference in Richland, WA a couple of more hours down the pavement. And the American prophet sang:
“Don’t take your guns to town, son, leave you guns at home, Bill.”
The heat in the back of my head started pushing tears down my cheeks, and a flash of Lee M. Jonas, a Former Army Staff Sergeant and Drill Instructor who had a bus ticket from Jersey last year to come and get his soul right at our Rite of Return ceremony in Eastern Washington, but didn’t make it on the bus. I don’t know what Lee’s gun was, be it a pistol, a pill, or a bottle, but I did know Lee was the thirteenth brother in arms that Mark Oravsky, creator and co-conspirator of VeteranRites, had served with to later become a casualty of war on American Soil.
I remembered the tears in Mark’s eyes, and him saying, “If he only got on that bus.” It’s tough to see your brother break down, especially if he’s a warrior’s warrior like Mark, but I was grateful to hold that space so he didn’t bear it alone.
Then a vision of the Vietnam Memorial, but three times as long wrapping around the white house, but now including the sacred names of warriors that met the same fate, and their families who carried the weight of that darkness for the rest of their days. Then that wall bursting from the soil and growing twice as high, with the faces of the 6,000 veterans and service members every year that were not able to put their guns down, and again, their kin and unborn who would never sit with them again at the dinner table or be together in pictures. As the track ended as if it was a movie, Johnny spoke to me.
“The scars from service are half the story, son, how we come home writes the rest.”
I heard that voice again as I watched the pride, precision, and spirit of the warriors of Yakama Nation open the conference in ceremony the next morning. A Nation, in spirit with other Native American, ancient and indigenous cultures, who show us what the standard operating procedure should be to take care of their warriors and people. Be it the Maasai of East Africa, the Isrealite Warriors of the Pentateuch, the Christian Crusaders, and countless others, to return from life as a warrior mandates sacred rites of cleansing that purify the soul. In solidarity with fellow warriors and deep solitude, you transform what you will most certainly transmit down the road to your loved ones. With humility and a heart of sadness, I bowed to those Yakama warriors, wondering if my ancestors had been able to humble themselves as students of their ways, that Lee M. Jonas would have got on that bus, hundreds of thousands would have put their metaphorical and very real guns down, and the whole course of this nation would be different.
But as my grandfather once said, “The stupid get punished.” No truer words spoken, and here we are today, willing to accept that the small number of patriots that go through three to thirty years of indoctrination, blood, sweat, and tears that swallow and spit up our souls, generally get two weeks of resume preparation and two seconds to walk out of the gates of their military installation, without any room to breathe and soak in the enormity of experience, and jump head first to life’s hamster wheel.
Until our government reaches in to those deep pockets to grab the common cents to put some money where it needs to be, in to the hearts of men, women, and warriors of all identities and dispositions before or shortly thereafter they put they put down the uniform, we in the grassroots veterans world will continue to hold the line as the rugged but scrappy suicide prevention force with an impossible mission, because that is simply how we operate and don’t know no better.
Like Augustine Perez of the Columbia Basin Veteran Center, one of the kindest and most powerful warriors I had the honor of getting to know at our conference, just recently having pulled himself out of uncertainty, is full of vision and practical action for his fellow veterans in Eastern Washington.
He, along with those like Betsy Metcalf at the Blue Mountain Action Council, Jon “Doc” Ferguson of Worksource in Clallam County, Matt Rupp at Joint Services Support in Pasco, Rosa J. Liu at UW Bothell, Lourence Dormaier of Next Mission Farms, Jaime Yslas of Veterans Yoga Project, in step with the service angels at local nonprofits, the VA, and your Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, ignite this veterans fire that there are better days ahead, starting now. So let’s get to it…
We claim today that every service member, survivor, and veteran has the RIGHT to a homecoming that is worthy of our sacrifice. A Rite of Return that allows us to lay our guns down so we can become who we are truly called to be without the uniform.
A rite that honors the souls of who we truly are, what we’ve been through and our place in community upon our return. Where we can “dig a hole and scream into it,” like Mark Oravsky, or lay down the armor in mind so it can be soaked up in the earth, because she can take it, and already gives us everything. Where we learn to take a walk in the forest with the objective of simply enjoying it. In this rite of passage, we give ourselves the time, setting, people, and process required to heal. Barefoot on the earth, wild, confident, and free to become as we are called to be. In our rucks will be a new intention and self-generated ritual relevant to our own spiritual practices, or lack thereof, always within reach so we can stand firm in faith of who we are when the defecation hits the rotary oscillator, because we know it keeps flying.
Those tools have been what has kept me above ground since I was truly welcomed home in 2017 at my Rite of Return, along with a picture that reminds me that I was never broken, and don’t need fixing (but I do need to always own my $^%).
We are also drawing a line in the sand that the time is now to move beyond suicide intervention towards a plan of all days where we are in authentic relationship with ourselves and each other.
This isn’t some hippie woo woo stuff. It’s the way we were when we held each other’s pain and joy on the battlefield. To move from human doings to human beings. To lay our guns down and join in circle, in solidarity with one another, to get to the heart of the matter whenever we can. This means that we will continue to enjoy the small talk at the service project, karaoke bar, adventure program, and service post, but we will also practice the art of veterans council, speaking one at a time, and holding space for what is really going down for us. Because we know, in our community, the next conversation we have may be our last.
VeteranRites has commenced Circles of Return in community where we create the space to get real for a time without the need for counseling and fixing. And you can and should do the same, in your living rooms, congregation, at the bunker, or at the job site. Wherever it is, it is a sacred and confidential space, taking the symbolic talking stick one at a time to speak without fear and to bear witness without judgement.
Speak from the Heart
Listen from the Heart
Always get to the Heart of the Matter (get to the point)
More presence and less thinking about what you’re going to say
There we go, we have an acronym, SLAM. And like anything decent in life, it is simple and effective like cowgirl wisdom. “Hey bros, let’s rally up for a unit SLAM” or “Hey sister, we guys would like to hold a SLAM to hear about what it’s really like to be a woman veteran,” or “Get to the campfire for family SLAM!” Like any real slam to the ground, it may shake us up a bit, but remember, we have our people to hold it with.
The more we put our guns down and get to the heart of the matter as common practice, in circle and in ceremony, the more chance veterans like Lee M. Jonas won’t need to get on the bus. That is our mission.
After a few years of strapping water coolers, gear, and provisions to the back of our trucks to hold ceremonies we have been blessed with a generous heap of startup funding by our civilian angel, John Crary, to truly get this VeteranRites ball rolling, with deep guidance and mentorship from Mark Oravsky and “Grandpa” Larry Hobbs. Enough to ramp up the Rite of Return and Circle of Return veteran slams in a neighborhood near you. Within the next year we will be holding two ceremonies for veterans to become who they are called to be, and the interest list is open. Over the next few years, we plan to scale up our ceremonies gradually, with a foothold in Washington and additional ceremonies where we can honor our service members in all seasons. To do this, we need additional blessings, guidance, and support from investors, sponsors, champions, guides, and donors of land, gear, food, talent, and transportation. We are in this together.
We know we stand on the shoulders of countless organizations and individuals across the country that have and continue to do the work of the veteran soul. We humbly enter this space as force multipliers for your individual missions in solidarity as referral partners, allies, advocates, and conveners of veteran rites. We are not the way, but a way, although we like the smell of what we’re cooking, and have the stories, the spirit, and science that puts proof in the pudding. If you can’t make it to us, head to Healing Warrior’s Hearts, Save A Warrior, Project Sanctuary, Camp Chaparral, and Growing Veterans, to name a few.
To Vietnam Veterans, with reverence and humility we would be honored to provide the ceremony of return you never had. You are our keepers of wisdom and the foundation for today’s modern veteran service system that we all too often take for granted.
To our Initiates, Investors, Assistants, and Guides for of our historical Rite of Return (formerly Veterans Vision Fast), your courage to bring your whole selves to that unknown and “out there” wildnerness program is the only reason why there is a VeteranRites. Your soul is baked into our DNA, and we will move forward in peer solidarity to walk our true paths together.
To our two-spirited, womxn, lgbtq warriors, this ceremony is affirming of who you truly are and is your rite as protector of this nation.
To the Captain America’s who have landed firmly on their true path after service, consider the Rite of Return as the authentic warrior’s welcome home you never got. It is your proper return from the hero and heroine’s journey akin to the practices of the great warfighting cultures since time immemorial.
To those in our military family who feel they can’t put the gun down, pick up the phone and dial the veterans crisis line, get to a local peer support group or vet center, and reach out to us. NOW!
We will be damned if we don’t create the proper space for our generations of veterans to reclaim ownership for their healing and be honored appropriately for all of who they are. We will be damned if in 2043 an OIF or OEF veteran opens up for the first time, having held on valiantly to all of that medicine for forty years or more alone, like most of us have witnessed with our lineage holders of Vietnam. Not on our watch.
So… the beaten Ford made it back to Seattle, after a stop again in Ellensburg to have some chow with my Seabee veteran brother who drove three hours to the conference just to make it to my very present-traumatic stress induced presentation. We had some memorable irreverent times in Iraq and on post in Gulfport, MS, but post service relocation, isolation, and his gun, the bottle, had been leading him on the highway to hell. He claimed his sobriety at his Rite of Return, is two years sober, glowing like a lit Marlboro on night watch, and is walking his true path towards his ultimate calling.
We counted our blessings to have a state veterans agency that walks the talk along with our civilian service providers, who are our corpsman on the battlefield at home.
Now I am saddling up for the month of August for intensive training in the wildnerness with the School of Lost Borders, our mentors in this bare-bones pancultural ceremony that VeteranRites is evolving for our nation’s warriors. It moves us through the underworld journey required to rebirth us in to life after service, or for any important life transition. It is the spiritual gumbo that breaks open the three classic ruptures of trauma; loss of identity, time (past as present), and belonging. It does so with nature and self-determination as your greatest teachers…and a little something that can’t be explained. There may not be a metric for mystery, and that’s fine by us.
The voices that constantly claim their space in my head without paying rent are trying to find the excuses not to go. The same voices that will try to creep up when you decide to claim your 12-day rite of return ceremony. 12 days!..but what about...I don’t know…I’m needed here to…I can’t…and on, and on..
Then I remember that sensation of stepping across the line to claim who I was truly called to be on top of that mountain, a feeling my brother said was the best day of his life next to being married and watching his daughter being born. Crossing that threshold allowed me to stand tall, chin parallel to the marching surface, fully alive and at peace for the first time from the wars inside my head. Now it may not always be the right time, but there is no excuse to deny ourselves that rite, for ourselves, our families, for Lee M. Jonas, and all our people in the beyond and those yet born. Let’s get to it.
As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark a false trail, the way you didn't go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.
- Wendell Berry