It was the third evening of the four-day meditation retreat for helping professionals led by Thay last September in upstate New York. The title of the evening program was "The Transformation of Suffering," and the speakers were part of the group of 30 Vietnam War veterans who had been participating in their own retreat-within-a-retreat with author Maxine Hong Kingston to write out their stories.
The veterans had been 18,19, and 20 years old when they served. One by one, each man took the microphone and told a piece of his story. Descriptions of war atrocities and the impact the war continues to have on them were carefully and honestly shared. The many personal losses these men faced and the smell, touch, sound, and sight of death everywhere were unimaginable to me, until now.
With sadness and sometimes rage, the veterans described their post-war lives. Some talked of returning home at the age of 20 to be met by citizens venting their anger about the war on them. They described their experiences with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, including night terrors, depression, flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, and difficulties with intimacy.
The men were very loving to each other, holding, hugging, and comforting each speaker after he returned to his seat. The openness and solidity of the group were strong enough to allow several women to share how they were also survivors of trauma. Their enemies had different faces—relatives, neighbors, spouses— but the effects were similar. After each woman spoke, the veterans invited her to join them. "You belong over here too," they said after each speaker. Women who were trauma survivors and men who were Vietnam War veterans were joining hands in awareness and understanding.
I had strong reservations about attending this presentation, knowing what the recounting of horrible experiences can do to me. But I had joined this session with the experience of three days of a loving mindfulness retreat and another day yet to come. Sitting beside a trusted acquaintance, I was okay that night. After the presentation, I walked back to my cabin alone in the fresh night air. The powerful love and healing focus shared among the veterans had been so moving to me, I let it be a salve to my/their/our wounds. These men brought the word "transformation" home for me again. Since I work with trauma survivors in my counseling practice, I especially thanked the veterans for their support to me in my work.
Gail Charpentier is a mental health counselor and massage therapist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.