New Battlefield: Vets Tackle Transition Home

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Participants leave a healing ceremony offered by the veterans' group Warrior's Journey Home in Ohio. i i

Participants leave a healing ceremony offered by the veterans' group Warrior's Journey Home near Akron, Ohio. During the ceremony, veterans sit on the inner circle of chairs, the civilians on the outer circle facing them. The bowl (lower left) holds water for the ritual washing of hands. Jeff St. Clair for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff St. Clair for NPR
Participants leave a healing ceremony offered by the veterans' group Warrior's Journey Home in Ohio.

Participants leave a healing ceremony offered by the veterans' group Warrior's Journey Home near Akron, Ohio. During the ceremony, veterans sit on the inner circle of chairs, the civilians on the outer circle facing them. The bowl (lower left) holds water for the ritual washing of hands.

Jeff St. Clair for NPR

In the military, 12 weeks of basic training can make someone a soldier. But it may take years, even decades, for many veterans to readjust to home life.

While much of the responsibility for guiding the transition falls to the Department of Veterans Affairs, community-based groups are playing a key role in helping veterans transition to civilian life. One such group, based in Ohio, is being held up as a national model.

A Warrior's Journey Home

Dustin Szarell was one of those veterans who needed help after coming home from Iraq. He tells of seeing comrades killed, and of killing in blind rage. He suffered a traumatic brain injury in an explosion, relearned how to walk and talk, and was returned to duty. When he came home to Ohio, Szarell faced a different set of challenges.

"I had such a frustrating time. You know, I finished my time in the military — six years ... and I was like, 'What am I going to do?' " he says.

Szarell married and soon divorced. He drank and struggled to find work.

Eventually the VA found him a room in a homeless veterans' shelter, where Szarell's transition began in earnest.

"The chemical dependency counselor, who is a Vietnam veteran in the Marine Corps, he told me about a group that was happening that Sunday. It was called Warrior's Journey Home," Szarell says.

The group was founded by the Rev. John Schluep, a Vietnam-era veteran.

"The veteran has a tremendous amount of wisdom and insight, and we have to take that insight and wisdom and help them find their voice so they can teach the community that they served," Schluep says.

Nurturing 'The Transformed Identity'

The nonsectarian ministry meets twice a month in Schluep's church near Akron, Ohio. Soldiers from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War sit in a circle alongside younger veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Schluep developed Warrior's Journey Home with guidance from psychotherapist Ed Tick, author of War and the Soul. Tick says those who have been in battle can't be expected to easily return to who they once were.

"We don't nurture the transformed identity," he says. "We say, 'Become a soldier, sailor, Marine, and then do your duty and go home.' That's impossible. The progression we have is civilian, GI, veteran, civilian. [That] doesn't work."

Purdue University's Military Family Research Institute says with more than 1 million soldiers having served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more community-based programs are needed to augment an overtaxed VA.

The institute lists Ohio's Warrior's Journey Home as a model for enlisting the community to help veterans make the often arduous transition from soldier to civilian.

The Community's Role

Tick says an important part of the healing process only occurs when the community welcomes a veteran home.

"Traditional cultures practice inclusion of the veterans: purification practices, storytelling rituals, rituals that reintegrate the veteran with the community and transfer the responsibility for the war deeds from the individual veteran to the community, and the community carries that responsibility," he says.

Szarell says sharing his story with other veterans has helped him. He continues to meet with the Warrior's Journey Home group in his new role.

"The battle is not there anymore. My battle is life now — life on life's terms. I'm able to see where I need to be," Szarell says. "And if I can reach out to a fellow veteran through any type of recovery — any type of physical, mental, emotional, spiritual support — I'm there."

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