Truman VA offers new group therapy to help warriors heal
COLUMBIA - A new program, Healing Circle, is available at Harry S. Truman Memorial Veteran's Hospital to allow veterans to share their stories with each other and civilians in a powerful and sacred space.
It is based on Native American, Lakota, Celtic, African and Quaker spirituality. It is a ritual of welcoming warriors home from war and allowing them to share their stories in a nonjudgmental and safe atmosphere.
"The first step in healing when you have PTSD or moral injury is just being able to get ride of whatever it is you're carrying, which is very difficult to communicate to people who haven't experienced it," said David Hammer, Program Committee Chair for Warriors Journey Home.
Warriors Journey Home is a non-profit that focuses on the "unseen wounds of war."
Hammer knows first hand what these wounds feel like. He arrived in Vietnam in 1972 to fly an A-4 Skyhawk attack plane.
Hammer had delayed-onset post traumatic stress disorder at the age of 62.
"I buried it, like a lot of people do, just put it in the back of my mind and decided not to think about it and then it all came boiling out. Bam, just like a piano falling on my head," he said.
Hammer said it was a blessing the PTSD hit late in his life.
"I knew who I was, I had a good life, a good career and so I decided I was going to fight this," he said.
Part of Hammer's fight included attending a healing circle and finally sharing his story with someone else.
"So you tell your story, you leave your backpack in the circle. It's out, I don't have to hide it anymore," he said.
Just like that, Hammer was hooked and became a trained facilitator.
"Partly it was to heal myself and partly was to just decide, you know, at this stage in my life this is the best thing I can do to help other people so that they don't carry their burdens for 50 years and have it spring out like a jack in the box," he said.
The conversation of partnership with Truman VA started in October 2016.
Dr. Randall Rogers, local recovery coordinator at Truman VA, had never heard of healing circles before.
"It immediately sounded intriguing to me. I really appreciated the focus on just listening. Listening, respecting and appreciating," he said.
Hammer then began educating the mental health staff about moral injury - what he described as a sense of not fitting in or not knowing how to behave - and PTSD and did two practice circles at Truman with the staff.
It takes Hammer about 30 minutes to prep the room. He uses different cleansing herbs, prayers, an alter, a candle and a talking stick.
Each ritual element has symbolism and is meant to create an atmosphere of community, sacredness, trust and respect.
According to Hammer, the hardest part for veterans is coming home and trying to fade back into reality, adding suicide by veterans is a "national health crisis."
Hammer said the best way to bring a veteran home is to do it with other soldiers and civilians and it is why the healing circle is powerful.
"You can't conquer this on your own. You need community," he said.
The goals of healing circle are to educate the general public on how to welcome veterans back home and start a discussion on what moral injury means.
Non-military participants that attend the circle are called "people of strong heart."
"It's really important to have the civilians in the circle. The veterans went because they wanted to defend the country, defend civilians and so to have civilians present to hear this and take part in it is part of the healing process," Hammer said.
Rogers said it is important for the veterans to know that people in the community support them.
"We are expected to answer, we are expected to have some kind of solution but this focus on just listening and being there and being supported. That environment can be healing in and of itself," he said.
Rogers said he sees the partnership with Warriors Journey Home lasting long.
"Helping veterans ultimately is a community effort," he said.
He hopes Healing Circle continues to grow at Truman VA and gives veterans another option for behavioral health treatment to feel comfortable stepping into the VA.
"The more people that understand, the less they will fear," Hammer said.
Healing Circle takes place the third Thursday of every month at 2:00 p.m. at Truman VA.