The warriors are supposed to get home. They’re not supposed to remain in the war—not left over there, and not left out here. That’s the tradition of all cultures, the honoring of the warriors, the welcoming back and the return of them back into culture as meaningful, valuable citizens who know something about life and know something about death and therefore they have wisdom.
In 2010, filmmaker Kim Shelton and her psychotherapist husband, Bill McMillan, wanted to do something to help returning war veterans. Together with cultural anthropologist and ritual-maker Michael Meade, they hosted a retreat for a small, multigenerational group of veterans—most of whom suffered from the fear and isolation of PTSD following tours of duty in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. The retreat was designed to offer a way for the veterans to begin to find “home” again.
The group’s process of storytelling, writing, laughing and crying together culminated in a heartbreakingly honest poetry reading before a sold-out house at the Ashland Community Center on Memorial Day 2010. Their entire healing journey was captured on film in the brutally descriptive yet ultimately hopeful documentary The Welcome.
The camera’s lens never shies away from intense emotions. Some veterans rage about inequality in the ranks; others vent frustration and disappointment at the racism and sexism that persist in the military and at home. Early on, Debra Guerrero and Eli Painted Crow question retreat-leader Meade’s “borrowing” of Native traditions. Another veteran responds, “I did not come here for a lesson in racism or anybody else’s political agenda but to get myself back in some way, shape or form to who I was before I left.” Former drill-sergeant Painted Crow persists, wiping away tears: “People may not think it’s important, but when . . . they call enemy territory Indian country, and you’re in that goddamned uniform standing there listening to that bullshit—telling me I’m still the enemy? Racism matters!” Later, asked what it would take for her to feel accepted, Painted Crow says, “Just listen. Don’t question why I am the way I am . . . Listen with your heart. . . . If you don’t hear me with your heart then I can’t heal.”
The film’s fiercely intimate view of life after war dramatizes conflict, but also offers tender moments, embraces of reconciliation, where the power of witness transcends the horrors of war, offering hope and resilience. It reminds me of Ajahn Sumedho’s teachings, which come down to three words: “It’s like this.” The Welcome is willing to look at the dark—at the way war is. Without deeply reaching to know what “it” is, we cannot offer true compassion. This difficult, beautiful film allows us to witness and to learn. Even if we cannot fully understand what war is like, we can begin to understand the pain, loss and fear that come with it. We can listen with our hearts, and we can welcome our veterans home.
Bonnie O’Brien Jonsson teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at University of California, San Francisco, and meditation to women in prison. She works privately with people related to her many years leading “A Year to Live” groups and is a Buddhist ritual minister through Spirit Rock Meditation Center.
From the Spring 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 30, No. 2)
© 2014 Bonnie O’Brien Jonsson