WARRIOR RETREATS ARE CHANGING LIVES
what retreat grads want you to know
Mitch Kotula, US Army "A Peak Inside a TWC Retreat"
For quite some time I felt that my family, my wife, in particular, was picking on me. I did not like it and would frequently let them know. At one point I told my wife, “If you don’t stop picking on me and continually finding fault with me, I am going to leave you.” We had been married for over 40 years and this included my 20 years in the Army Infantry.
In December 2011 we were visiting our younger son and his family and, much to my delight (heavy sarcasm), my wife, son, and daughter-in-law confronted me. My son leads “Dad, with all your emotional outbursts we are seriously considering keeping our children away from you.”
That got my attention and after being defensive and accusatory it finally sunk in that they had been reacting to me over time. They were not picking on me but were reacting to my emotional defensiveness and anger. What really hurt was when I realized that I was the problem, not them.
After many more discussions, I agreed to get help.
Throughout my life, whenever I had "needed something important", that something would come my way. I am very spiritual and have faith that if I open myself for guidance or help that it will come. And so it was that prior to that December confrontation, friends had been in touch recommending that I look into being involved with a veteran support organization: The Warrior Connection (TWC).
These friends had been helping TWC’s development and with my military and organizational consulting background, they thought I could provide value to them. I re-contacted both of my friends as soon as I returned home to learn more about TWC. TWC’s focus is on treating Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD) being experienced by combat veterans.
One of these two friends is a clinical psychologist with whom I have worked for over 30 years. We know each other very well... so well that our knowledge of each other has an intimacy, a personal connection only found in long-time friendships or marriages. When I shared my December family confrontation, he suggested that I take more than an antiseptic investigation of TWC.
I contacted Dr. Anne Black (Founder of TWC). She invited me to attend one of their one-week retreats. I agreed to do it and to go through their intake process to see if what they were doing was something helpful to veterans, and perhaps helpful to me.
I submitted my DD 214 and completed intake interview that was extremely detailed and comprehensive, getting into many aspects of my life, which opened up my personal issues. I was very much impressed with how professional and detailed the vetting process was.
Another friend lived near TWC headquarters and had gone through a TWC retreat and served as a combat veteran mentor - and was becoming a retreat facilitator! He and his wife invited me to visit and I did, meeting with Anne and her clinical psychologist husband Ram. The hospitality I enjoyed from these families was wonderful. I also spent a couple of hours with Ram, which helped me meld my review of TWC with what was going on in my personal life.
For a week we lived and worked together from dusk to dawn. We ate breakfast at Anne’s, packed our lunches for the retreat and dinner was at Anne’s house also, prepared by volunteers from the local area.
One word: Amazing!
Sleeping, eating and working together was exactly how it was with my artillery forward observer and radio operators when I commanded an infantry rifle company in Vietnam.
The TWC retreat was an amazing week in so many ways.
Activities were non-confrontational: making a collage, building a shield, making a sand table display or painting a mask. Pretty sneaky as these innocuous activities got the retreat participants into experiences and feelings that were shared, at their option, with the other participants.
And the sharing was truly voluntary. We had two people who did the activities and said nothing for two days before they began to share. The group became an intimate tribe, or team, or unit, like we became in combat, trusting and respecting each other. An amazing experience that was sacred to each of us and as a group.
I think of the more typical group work done in organizations and in therapy, where a facilitator asks each of the groups to share, mostly among strangers. In TWC everyone is vetted as being a combat veteran and the retreat process is absolutely non-confrontational and comfortable.
It is a safe place to share what you would never share with anyone that had not experienced actual combat. Amazing!
Our retreat group of eight consisted of two Vietnam, one Bosnia, two from Afghanistan and three Iraq combat tours. One was a Marine, the rest Army.
One commissioned officer, two non-commissioned officers, and the rest were lower enlisted to make the mix varied in age, geographic conflict and branch of service. And though we were from different eras and services, the combat experience and the effect on we veterans was amazingly similar.
Combat IS the great equalizer.
In my case, I did not realize how deeply I felt guilt over my men who were evacuated injured or killed. As a combat commander I always took seriously the leader’s axiom of “mission and men” and though I led aggressively, I did not lead dumb, putting my men’s lives needlessly in peril. In my left brain I understand and know that there was no real way that I could have prevented their deaths or injuries, but my right brain screams that maybe I could have done something differently.
I call it “leader guilt” whether it is a squad leader assigning the point man who then loses his foot or the life of a company commander directing which platoon leads or which unit takes on an ambush or raid assignment. I always felt that I bore responsibly.
And that guilt kept a low kindle to an anger I felt about it. It haunts me that I could have done more or something different.
Like a burden being lifted, I finally got it. I realized that this generalized, simmering guilt was igniting my outbursts. I was attacking me, not others. I now have control of that little devil of anger and have kept it in check since that realization from my TWC retreat.
I was not alone in coming to grips with behavior that was getting in my way and in the way of my family relationships. Each of us did, whether it was anger, excessive drinking, maintaining marriages, drug abuse and those myriad dysfunctions brought on by experiencing the traumatic experiences of combat.
I have always believed that anyone who experiences actual combat has some degree of PTSD.
It is when that post-traumatic stress interferes with one’s life, work and relationships that we must take responsibility to treat it to regain our normality.
I think that TWC has an excellent program for male and female combat veterans, their family members and children. It works and is certainly, in my experience, worth one’s investment to re-establish "who they were when".