Guest Writer: Christopher Brown is a U.S. Marine combat veteran of Iraq & Afghanistan and Purple Heart recipient. He is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Social Work through a part time program at the University of Washington. He is also the director of the local non-profit group, Growing Veterans.
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I am a military combat veteran who has been exposed to multiple traumas in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am planning a career counseling other combat veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) and am focusing my research on comparing the approaches of Western medicine with traditional indigenous cultural practices. As a social worker, I see value in understanding how other cultures help their warriors reintegrate into society. Understanding these practices will allow me to offer veterans a variety of options, enhancing their recovery and allowing them to feel like they have fully returned home.
Already familiar with Western medicine approaches to the causes and treatment of PTS among combat veterans, I sought to identify cultural/indigenous approaches. It was notable that western research tools failed to identify any credible sources regarding indigenous practices for treatment of PTS or the warrior’s return to society. Knowing two veterans who participated in a Rites of Passage Vision Quest in California, I contacted that group and was provided links to educational and government articles highlighting traditional indigenous practices for returning war veterans. Further searching uncovered an article about Samurai warriors participation in society following war and information on the lifestyle and practices of Assiniboine Native Americans, who were part of the Iron Confederacy in the 1800’s that fought the North-West Rebellion in the region of Hudson Bay, Canada. I was unable to identify indigenous practices for every continent, but did get a sampling of Native American tribal practices and a historical perspective from East Asia.
Western medicine is very much rooted in science; it our way of understanding PTS, and the way we justify PTS treatment. While neuroscience has come far in recent years, there is still some way to go. Science has helped us understand how trauma affects the brain and has identified areas of the brain most impacted by trauma: the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Science has also attempted to explain how trauma elicits the symptoms of PTS. “Symptoms of PTS are hypothesized to represent the behavioral manifestation of stress-induced changes in brain structure and function. Stress results in acute and chronic changes in neurochemical systems and specific brain regions, which result in long-term changes in brain ‘circuits,’ involved in the stress response.” (Bremner, 2006)
Our methods for treating PTS are based in the scientific Western perspective of traumatic brain impacts. Acknowledging the hypothesis that trauma changes chemicals in the brain, some practitioners focus PTS treatment on medication in an attempt to re-balance the brain’s chemical systems. Unfortunately, reports from colleagues and scores of veteran clients indicate this approach alone is not effective at creating long-term stability. The other primary Western medical approach focuses on talking through trauma so as to process it and repair disrupted neural pathways. Various methodologies have comparable outcomes, including: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Prolonged Exposure, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR in particular adheres to Adaptive Information Processing theory, which holds that trauma creates blockages in the neural pathways making it difficult to integrate new or more accurate information. The goal for EMDR is to open those pathways, allowing the brain to heal itself.
Traditional Indigenous Practice
Evaluating the Samurai and many East Asian warriors’ transition back into society revealed two advantages built into their culture. First, Samurai were esteemed members of society, making up only 10% of the population. Coming home from war as a superior class could be enough to ease the transition from combat to civilian life. They were expected to be leaders, as proficient with the spoken word and the brush as they were with the sword and the horse. The second advantage was religion. Zen Buddhism was, and continues to be, the primary practice in much of East Asia. With a religious philosophy of acceptance, mindfulness, and being present in the here and now, East Asian warriors were equipped with practical and spiritual tools to help overcome the effects of war. Indeed, mindfulness practice is used now in American culture to ease anxiety and the effects of trauma.
Looking to this continent, indigenous people have had thousands of years to devise interesting strategies for welcoming warriors home after battle. The Navajo treat warriors who experience PTS with a ceremony called Enemy Way. The ceremony is publicized for several weeks and family and friends are invited. It involves prayer, song, dance, and lasts about a week. “These ceremonies help the Navajo war veterans return to a state of balance, or beauty, within the universe. This state of balance is called ‘Hozho’ in the Navajo language.” (Native Words, Native Warriors, n.d.). A focused ceremony, lasting for such a long time and recognized by the entire community likely creates a safe, healing space for traumatized veterans. Even practitioners from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs have acknowledged the Enemy Way ceremony and others like it for improving the health and wellbeing of Native Americans who have returned from war. This welcome seems to provide a Rite of Passage for warriors returning to the community.
The Comanche also have ceremonies for veterans who have endured trauma. Many Comanche today belong to the Native American Church, which combines Christianity with traditional Indian ceremonies. For some, this includes ceremonies involving the consumption of peyote that has been blessed. The experience seems to help traumatized veterans make sense of their new place in the world.
The Assiniboine Indians held a ceremony immediately upon the return of a war party. Once in sight of their home camp, the war party signaled the loss of members by throwing a robe, rolled into a ball, high in the air. The number of dead was indicated by the number of times the robe was thrown. A delegation went to meet the party and obtain the names of the dead. The warriors were escorted back to camp and word was taken to the relatives of those slain. Later, they gathered around a ceremonial pipe and talked about their war experience. This ceremonial debriefing seemed to help process traumatic memories and normalize the experience for the warriors.
In all the Native American examples, as with the Samurai, the communities hold their warriors in high esteem. Indigenous people often ask veterans for advice because of their strong mental ability, a result of overcoming their difficult experiences. Depending on the community, veterans are given special prominence at tribal events. At powwows veterans lead the grand entry of dancers, and are recognized and honored on special occasions with ceremonies and dances that relate their sacrifices to the community.
Even to this day, an accepted Native understanding is that PTS is a “poisoning of the spirit.” The ceremonies and practices are an attempt to cleanse the spirit and help the warrior regain balance. In Washington state, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs American Lake Hospital offers a Veteran Sweat Lodge, led by an Elder Council of Native Americans to veterans seeking peace and healing.
A Matter of Perspective
While researching this topic, the concept of individualist vs. collectivist cultures emerged. American culture is individualistic; it is common for people to withhold personal stories and experiences from others. In collectivist cultures, individuals share stories with the entire community as a way to help them achieve wellness after trauma. This phenomenon is also common among Israeli soldiers whose cultural roots are steeped in collectivism and are very much part of a community that shares experiences.
“Talk therapy” is the common approach in both cultures. In Western medical practice, addressing one’s trauma is typically done in an isolated office, alone, with a “professional.” Collectivist cultures approach talk therapy in a community or ceremonial way, and this highlights the difference between the two philosophies. Our individualistic approach is incongruent with what we have learned from thousands of years of human history about enduring trauma. It is likely we are focusing on a misguided method. This possibility has profound implications for trauma intervention, warrior reintegration, and social work/clinical practice as a whole.
If the returning warrior is not appreciated for the insight into humanity gained from their combat experience or for imparting that newfound wisdom to the community as a whole, the society’s method of honoring troops is not sincere. While many groups in America claim to honor their troops, that honor is typically done with a bumper sticker, flag, t-shirt, or a “thank you for fighting for my freedom,” rather than a sincere ceremonial, community practice and an attempt to truly understand the traumatic experience of the warrior. The individualistic culture seems to prevent the broader community from reaching out, asking warriors to share their stories. Rather than leaving space open for warriors to share, or even providing space in the first place, the individualistic community tends to have established specific phrases and objects that allow them to reflect the perceived honor, without actually doing much that requires energy or personal connection with others.
Furthermore, communities that do not adhere to a “communal warrior integration practice” may be doomed to repeat past mistakes. Society assumes the warrior was fighting for the community’s freedom, regardless of the actual threat. Without providing space for the warrior to share their story, this assumption will never be verified, nor will the community ever learn whether the warrior’s experience was justified.
After doing this research, it is clear there are profound reasons that traditional, indigenous and cultural practices must have a place in our current society to help trauma survivors seek wellness, particularly among warriors. A communal warrior integration practice, combined with Western treatment methods, would make the most impact on a veteran’s wellbeing, acknowledging that both approaches have their strengths and serve a purpose. I have observed combat veterans who are working with us at Growing Veterans (in many ways a communal warrior integration practice), who have also done individual clinical work to process their trauma. They seem to have the highest sense of well-being compared to others I have come across who have not engaged in either approach, much less both. The two approaches complement each other well. That said, the community could become much more involved in order to amplify this effect.
The challenge is to convince a society founded on individualistic perspectives that communal integration is essential to healing trauma and avoiding its repetition. Western medical professionals must be encouraged to take a closer look at these communal processes - and our community must be provided an example and an opportunity for how they can participate, rather than wave flags on the side line. Fortunately, those opportunities exist with Growing Veterans.