Healing the Wounded Soldier’s Heart

By Marchel Alverson
Soul wounds, PTSD, Ed Tick, Soldier's Heart, healing, PTSA

His mission was simple—stay in the jungles, search out the enemy, and destroy. In 1969, Vela Giri was drafted into the United States Army and sent to Vietnam. Trained as an infantry rifleman, he fought in the jungles during the war surrounded by constant attacks, death, and sheer “craziness.”

David Pierce joined the United States Navy in 1985. Two years later, he was deployed off the coast of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. A gunner’s mate who specialized in weapons, his orders were to handle the ammunition and kill anyone who boarded the ship. For three months Pierce stared out into the waves worried that an enemy gunboat would attack.

Two different men, separate wars, yet their stories are strikingly similar. Neither man realized he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, until they met Edward “Ed” Tick, Ph.D., and his wife, Kate Dahlstedt, the founders of Soldier’s Heart.

Then, everything changed.

Tending the Shadows

To help veterans with PTSD, Soldier’s Heart draws extensively from sacred warrior ceremonies and traditions that mend the “invisible” or “soul wounds” of war and military service. The name of the organization dates back to the Civil War when soldiers returning from the battlefield were said to have “Soldier’s Heart,” the modern-day PTSD.

Tick is a renowned leader in the field and works extensively with the United States Department of Defense training mental health experts and chaplains in PTSD. He has led 15 healing and reconciliation tours back to Vietnam, and hosted 41 retreats, including Soldier’s Heart Retreat: The Path of the Warrior With PTSD in March, which was hosted by Awaken Whole Life Center at Unity Village.

Edward Tick, Ph.D. and Kate DahlstedtEdward “Ed” Tick, Ph.D., and his wife, Kate Dahlstedt

“We have worked with thousands of active-duty troops and veterans. Early on, I discovered that PTSD was a far more comprehensive wound. It was spiritual. It wounds the soul,” said Tick. “These dimensions of PTSD are those most ignored by our culture, and warriors need soul talk. They need the rituals that pull from all world spiritual traditions.”

Pierce and Giri were among the 30 veterans and civilians at the March retreat. Giri’s daughter, Ashley Brooks-Paulson, also took part. Both men are now mentors who speak for those who can’t find their voice—those still in the midst of PTSD.

The number of veterans diagnosed with PTSD has dramatically increased since the Vietnam War. Many believe this shift is a result of veterans who feel betrayed by the very country that sent them to war.

Giri’s best friend, Jacob George, was one such veteran. After serving in Afghanistan, George was diagnosed with PTSD. Three years ago he took his own life. Giri feels his friend might be alive today had he sought help from Soldier’s Heart. Although his friend’s death severely traumatized Giri, he channels his pain into positive energy to help other veterans. 

Vela GiriVela Giri

“There is a tremendous amount of need in the veteran community for help. I’ve gone through most of the hurdles and I’m at a place where I can be a helper, but it took me several years to get to this point,” said Giri. “After the war, I felt I was quite functional. I went to college. I had my own business. I was a leader in my profession as an arborist. I didn’t believe I had PTSD. I had returned to Vietnam several times on my own after the war and never had a strong reaction. I grew to love the Vietnamese people. They were no longer my enemies.”

But it was Giri’s last trip to Vietnam with Soldier’s Heart that led to a startling revelation. While there, a fellow veteran convinced Giri to go through the process of receiving government benefits for PTSD. Therapy unleashed his wounded soul.

“PTSD took hold of my life and I had no idea how deeply it was affecting me,” Giri said. “For 40 years there was this shadow over me. The war really radicalized me. If I ever had an illusion of what America was about or believed in the American dream, or in the things we ascribe to like freedom, the war changed that. It didn’t serve those purposes at all.”

Pierce’s shadow was less looming, buried beneath the surface. A psychology major and counselor himself, Pierce began interning for Soldier’s Heart and working at the retreats.  

“At a retreat one day in upstate New York, Dr. Tick put on a play about Vietnam,” Pierce said. “A guy in the play pointed a fake gun, cocked it, and waved it around screaming. Instantly, my heart rate went up and I was ready to go pass out the guns on the ship. It wasn’t until that moment 30 years later that I knew I had PTSD.”

The Spiritual Dimensions of Warfare

Tick and Dahlstedt believe such soul wounds are sacred and lead to knowledge and transformation.

“I think most people get confused on why we focus on the spiritual wounds. But, if you think about it, the battlefield is the most spiritual place there is. You’re dealing with good and evil at its most profound. Life and death is in the hands of our soldiers and that makes it a profoundly spiritual experience,” said Dahlstedt.

Soldier’s Heart retreats aim to make the veterans feel like warriors.

“The archetypal warrior is not necessarily a fighter but someone who stands for truth and integrity, and protects and defends the people,” Tick said. “This is what many of our soldiers want to exemplify when they go into the military, regardless of why they choose to serve. The military code of conduct is one of great honor in doing the right thing. The problem is that when they are actually in certain circumstances, they’re faced with moral dilemmas that make it impossible to live up to that moral code.”

For the warrior, these negative or morally questionable dimensions of military service can become opportunities for growth and restoration. Each step of the retreat is designed to make scared veterans and their families feel safe.

Activities include a “homecoming” ceremony to welcome the soldier back into the society and the restitution ceremony where participants surround the veterans in a protective circle. This reverses the traditional warrior model where soldiers protect the people.

During the ritual, the civilians say, “You are my warriors. I sent you to war. You served in my name, whether or not I agreed with the war. Your core purpose was to protect me, and I express my love, my gratitude, and my honor to you. And I willingly take responsibility for any action you had to do in the war zone because I sent you. I paid for the bullets. I left you there and you were serving in my name.”

“This is restitution where the entire community carries the burden with the warrior rather than leaving it all on that individual to collapse in pain and dysfunction from trying to carry it alone,” Tick said. “It’s extraordinary how much lightness, hope, and connection the exercise brings to everyone. The warriors stand up proud and their eyes get bright.”

Everyone has an inner warrior, including active soldiers, veterans, and those who have never served in the military. What the Soldier’s Heart retreat does is bring that inner warrior to the surface.

The Turning Point

Soldier’s Heart retreats are a place of storytelling, homecoming, active listening, compassion, and spiritual restoration. Here, warriors find their resilience.

David PierceDavid Pierce

“I’ve seen people’s lives transformed at Dr. Tick’s retreats. People who just weren’t okay with themselves suddenly feel alive, like they can finally breathe. As a soldier, you’re trained to not show weakness,” Pierce said. “If you cry, it would be the most shameful thing. But that’s the most essential thing to healing—being able to acknowledge that there’s strength in weakness.

“Part of why I’m here is because it moves me and it heals me,” he continued. “I know it’s hard for them to come here. They don’t want to talk about it because it’s too painful. There is also a stigma attached with PTSD. You are damaged goods. I’m glad that I can come to a place and let it go. We all collect bad stuff inside and when you let some out a whole bunch of good stuff can come in—more joy, happiness, peace, and serenity.”

Giri also feels fulfilled by being at the retreat. He considers every veteran he comes into contact with a brother, a sister, a comrade. Giving his support assures him that no one will be left behind.

“Being here is one of the most important places where I can be in my life. I know there are veterans who are scared. They’re going to show their emotional self, which leaves them vulnerable. But I would tell any serviceman or woman that if there’s something wrong, this process can be very beneficial and they’re going to come out of it a much more functional person. The demons may not be put to rest, but they will be able to be put in a place where they can be dealt with,” Giri said.

“There’s solid evidence that veterans who work through PTSD get to a place that’s called post-traumatic growth. Jacob and I weren’t comfortable with the last letter in PTSD because the ‘d’ means disorder. We thought it should be ‘PTSA’ for post-traumatic stress advantage or awareness,” added Giri. “We’re blessed. People who have PTSD have two possibilities, basically to regain their composure and come back to the way they were. This is resilience. But post-traumatic growth goes beyond resilience. You don’t come back to where you were, you come back better.”

This profoundly transformational process is what the founders of Soldier’s Heart want for everyone who takes part in the retreat. Healing has a rippling effect.

The veterans who were helped at the Unity Village retreat are just the tip of the iceberg. For every veteran who’s helped and healed, a spouse is transformed, parents, children, and siblings change. Every person they say hello to in the community is touched.  

One change can impact an entire community.

To learn more about Soldier’s Heart and ways to assist veterans, visit soldiersheart.net