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Lessons In Healing: Vietnam Vets Find Solace Through "Soldier's Heart"

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As most of you already know, baby boomers, by definition, were born between 1946 and 1964. Their presumed rosy childhoods in the 50s and early 60s, prickly coming of age in the 60s and 70s, and glorified success in the yuppie workforce in 80s -- along with their diverse musical inspirations and bipolar political activities -- have been documented ad infinitum by reporters, writers, filmmakers and social scientists.

The celebratory end of WWII had birthed these babies into new suburban homes across America, and the images of these communities came to define our landscape. The staggered start, entrenching middle and infamous end of the Vietnam War took the hopeful lives of many boomer young adults, the innocence of their surviving peers and the wind out of an American dream which had blossomed in the years following WWII. The ethos of post-Vietnam America has never been the same.

The Vietnam War, however, was not only a defining moment in baby boomers' coming of age. Forty years later, the war is still part of many boomers' psyches as they face older age. Those who fought and survived the war and those who have lived with a veteran for decades now find themselves revisiting the events that shaped not only the adults they would become but many of their subsequent relationships. With many Vietnam veterans now at retirement age, they are facing a developmental stage of later life when they question where they have been, what they have done, who they became and who they still want to be. In addition, retirement itself, with the cessation of stable, time-consuming work hours, opens up more days for personal exploration and travel.

A group of American veterans of the Vietnam War recently went back to Vietnam on a Healing Journey led by psychologists Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt through their organization Soldier's Heart. With goals of pursuing reconciliation and finding closure on a distant but powerful chapter of their lives, the aging veterans spent the better part of January traveling through Vietnam, revisiting hot spots in which they fought during the war, delivering goodwill gifts to local families and children and listening to Vietnamese veterans who fought for the Viet Cong, North Vietnam and South Vietnam. They met disabled victims of Agent Orange, widows whose husbands died fighting both against and with them and former enemies who hold no grudges.

Soldier's Heart stopped along the way to remember the Americans' comrades who lost their lives in sprawling rubber tree plantations, on picturesque mountainsides and above booby-trapped tunnels. They performed healing rituals at gravesides and at both famous and little-known battle sites. The participants found spiritual community amongst themselves and with the facilitation of Vietnamese Buddhist clergy.

After several years of Healing Journeys to Vietnam, a general conclusion of Soldier's Heart is that the Vietnamese don't have post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") like our veterans do. Personal reflections from this year's trip are poetically documented by John Becknell in his blog, "The Phaeacian Project." Although not a veteran himself, Becknell, a doctoral student at Pacifica Graduate Institute, studies the narratives of war. He accompanied the Soldier's Heart group and eloquently describes the Buddhist clergy's advice for finding healing as the veterans age. Detaching from the past, emphasizing the here and now and finding something to adopt as daily "practice" were suggested, as well as taking positive actions to relieve the suffering of others.

Like soldiers in most wars, Americans who fought in the Vietnam War faced their battles when, according to developmental psychology theory, they were supposed to be sorting out their personal identities and working toward finding intimacy in relationships. Now, as they move towards older age and maturity, aging Veterans of the Vietnam War are faced with finding closure and healing, accepting the past, making the most of their present relationships and working towards defining the next stages of their lives as healthy and meaningful ones. Log onto Becknell's blog for a vivid picture of the Healing Journey process and onto Soldier's Heart to learn more about their psychological model for addressing the wounds of veterans. We can all benefit from the wisdom of elders who experienced war.