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Addressing injury to the soul helps vets heal

John Hancock

John Hancock helps coordinate Warrior Songs Spokane.

During a time of consulting  work with nonprofits that work with homeless people, John Hancock also learned more about his friend, Larry, a Vietnam vet friend who had experienced a debilitating post traumatic stress episode last year and experienced a turn around during a four-day Warrior Songs healing retreat.

“The change was possible because, for the first time, he felt embraced by people who heard his story and understood,” said John, who also coordinates Friends of Compassion.  “I’m an activist, exploring morality and the philosophy of compassion in different faiths.” 

John was disheartened to learn there are 22 suicides a day among vets, 70 percent of whom are Vietnam vets.

“Something is wrong with the system on which they depend.  It’s easy to think of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, but we need to get a grip to understand those who returned,” he said. 

Iraq veteran and folk/rock musician Jason Moon is alive because he found a way to tell his story.  He could sing about what he could not talk about.  So he started Warrior Songs to offer retreats to help veterans heal through creative arts.

Larry said identifying with others drew him out of loneliness.  He wanted to bring Warrior Songs to Spokane and asked John to help.

They began plans to bring the national leaders and use the film, “Welcome Home,” which Bill McMillan made in 2008 during a healing retreat and welcome-home, when vets connect with people willing to listen and learn.

“A retreat doesn’t just help the 15 vets who come.  It also helps a few hundred people who hear the stories,” John said.  “The vets cannot do the healing alone.  The sympathetic base of people hearing their stories is key.”

He is recruiting people to be listeners for a November retreat, hearing and learning from songs, stories, poetry and paintings veterans create.  “The Welcome” will be at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 9, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4340 W. Ft. Wright Dr.

He is not a vet, but understands vets’ experience is universal, called by different names for hundreds of years:  “battle fatigue,” “combat stress,” “war weariness,” “shell shock,” “soldiers’ heart” or the “1,000-yard stare.”

“We still have the issues because science has not discovered what is wrong, so medical treatment is not effective.  Many are misdiagnosed,” he said, proposing that the issue may be “injury to the soul,” or, instead of Post Traumatic Stress, Military Sexual Trauma or Traumatic Brain Injury, vets may be experiencing “Traumatic Soul Injury.”

“Horrible things that happen in war do not go away,” John said. “My compassion for the sufferers links me to them.”

He believes each person knows a vet among friends, family and associates whose suffering may be expressed in domestic violence, sexual abuse, unemployment, mental illness or school dropouts.

“For some vets with troubles they can’t solve, suicide seems to be a way out,” John said.

At the House of Charities, which he has helped with fund raising, veterans fill one-fourth of the 40,000 bed nights a year.  About 10 percent of Spokane’s population are veterans.

“Veterans are more than twice as likely to be on the street,” he said.  “It seems wrong.”

The Volunteers of America also has a building offering apartments to vets and services to help them gain self-sufficiency.

Few services, however, address the soul or moral injury, John said.

“Some part of a person’s body, brain, heart or existence is damaged by what vets saw or did in war,” he explained.  “Something is injured about a person’s beliefs, self image, and understanding of right and wrong.  Some feel guilt because buddies died and they didn’t.  The answer may be in the world of belief. 

“That’s the link to religious people,” he said.  “It’s beyond our ability to answer why bad things happen to good people.  Discussion of moral issues helps. Warriors cry out:  Is there a God?  If there is, why did God let it happen?  Am I being punished for what I did?”

John cited a Nez Perce elder who, in describing being a warrior in 1878, described PTSD.  He said he knew a warrior’s “spirit would be wounded, cut off from beauty and pain, searching but unable to find connection to creation, in need of cleansing and healing.”

“How have warriors in other civilizations been cared for?” asked John, who believes the American Legion and Memorial Day help vets and the public recognize the sacrifice paid.

“There’s more work because vets who suffer may not go for help,” he said, citing a report from Dawn Gray, head of counseling at the VA Hospital, which helped 1,200 vets last year.  She has no estimate of how many vets with PTSD are untreated.

Warrior Songs has discovered that high functioning individuals who have dealt well enough—have families and jobs—may also experience moral injury that needs healing.  The condition is a larger part of society than those with obvious troubles, John said.

The program helps veterans reveal their personal stories and what it means to them. 

“It’s not a prescription or one-size-fits-all solution.  It’s an invitation to explore,” he said. 

“I hope the 10 local veterans at the retreat will stay in touch and those who welcome them will continue to reach out to them.  We hope this will be a permanent project in Spokane,” he said.

Warrior Songs retreats in the past have been attended by people all over the U.S. who go back home without a community organization forming around them. 

Having a locally sponsored event is possible in Spokane because of the large number of vets, the VA Medical Center and “a spiritually charged community,” John said.

So vets can attend free, Warrior Songs Spokane seeks to raise $15,000 for 15 vets to cover retreat costs.  Warrior Songs Spokane currently has 40 donors and 25 volunteers.   

For information, call 244-8559, email or visit

Copyright © November 2013 - The Fig Tree