Walton’s Warriors

MemorialAs we move into the Memorial Day weekend, I am aware that I don’t personally know anyone who died in military service. Nobody.

I certainly know women and men who have served, even though less than one percent of our population has done so. I know people who have been injured both physically and emotionally through the experience of combat, but I haven’t known anyone who has died in military service.

Last week I was in Grand Lake, Colorado for my second year of working with Walton’s Warriors, a small cohort within Project Sanctuary that trains peer mentors to help prevent suicides among veterans.

It’s a connection that unfolded the way many do for A Peace of My Mind.

I was introduced to Phillip Schladweiler and interviewed him for my American Stories book. Phil served two tours in Iraq and was wounded in an IED attack. He lost the vision in his right eye and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Phil talked about a woman named Heather Ehle who runs a program called Project Sanctuary, dedicated to reintegrating veterans into family life after deployments. Phil attended one of their retreats with his family and was impressed with their efforts.

So, I interviewed Heather for the book as well, and like many of the folks I have met, we kept in touch. One day I asked, “Is there any way this project could support the work you’re doing?” and Heather told me about Walton’s Warriors.

One of the soldiers who went through a retreat with his family had lost his battle with PTSD and Brian Walton took his own life. More than 20 veterans a day do the same. Brian’s wife, Bonnie reached out to Project Sanctuary and asked if there was something they could do and together they started Walton’s Warriors to train peer mentors to offer support and try to get vets the help they need if they are in crisis.

You might think it’s an odd place for a peace guy to be, but it seems to me the perfect place to be. If I’m honest, it can be intimidating as a civilian to walk into an intense weekend retreat with two dozen vets. They have seen things I haven’t. They have had experiences I can’t imagine. The middle schooler in me rears his ugly head and I always wonder how I will be perceived.

There is a military – civilian divide in our country, for sure, but historically there has also been a military – peace activist divide that is even bigger. I tie it back to the poor way activists treated Vietnam vets when they returned, and even though society has learned from that experience, deep wounds still exist.

It is possible to oppose policy that sends people to war and still support those who are doing their jobs and serving those orders.

In the abstract, it’s easy to get lost in ideology, but up close and personal, all I can see is humanity. Through these studios, I have two goals.

The first is simply to listen…to acknowledge someone else’s experience, pain, joy or struggle…and to say, “I hear you…I see you…and you have worth.”

I constantly wade into places I don’t belong…places where I have little experience and maybe less understanding. I don’t badger people to educate me, but I offer an ear, and if people want to share, I welcome it.

In the end, together we create a body of work that shines a light on the issues of the day. It speaks to the mission, vision, and values of the community and can give others a glimpse inside.

So, the second goal, is to share these stories. To use them to build awareness outside of the community. To bridge the divides that exist, and bring us all a little closer to seeing the humanity that is all around us.

At the Walton’s Warriors retreat, we talked a lot about resiliency. And we asked each person, “What keeps you moving forward in the face of adversity?”

As always, I’m grateful to everyone who responded. These stories help me understand this Memorial Day weekend in a new way, and I hope it does the same for others.

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