Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thoughts on Ritual and Homecoming

On July 18th the local CR schmooze held a ritual. The focus of this rite was a vigil of return for a warrior who has returned from duty. As most of you probably know, I was enlisted in the US Navy from 1979-1982. I was 17 when I enlisted. After leaving the service, I tried to pick up the pieces of my shattered life. It was hard and while I've been dealing with things as best I can, I'm living on a veteran's disability pension due to what happened to me during my service and afterwards. That pension is how I can write books and articles and still keep a roof over my head.

Because I was thrown out of the Navy (I tried for almost three years before they actually did it, so that was my intention), I'm not the kind of vet the military likes to talk about. Not only am I queer, I was a "disciplinary problem" and stood for captain's mast (non-judicial punishment) three times in my enlistment, as well as once being court maritaled. Needless to say, there was no recognition of my service and no one to welcome me home despite the fact that I'd given a goodly chunk of what passed for my sanity to the service of my country.

Over the last year our local group has been working with one of our members who is an active duty military man, currently serving in Iraq. We sent him off with a ritual last August and will welcome him home this August when he arrives. We've talked with the larger Pagan community at PantheaCon about the sending out ritual. This, the companion ritual, is a vigil for the warrior's return. For me, the ritual was a profound experience of welcome into a community that I have never had before. For Arlen, we hope to give him a welcome to the same community he left and hope that he won't have the same kinds of problems reintegrating with the civilian community that I've had over the years.

Our experiences of the military are very different. Arlen intends to re-enlist for another five-year hitch with an eye toward becoming a warrant officer. I hated my time in service and tried desperately to get out. Yet both of us have served, both of us have done what had to be done under the circumstances -- me during the nuclear terror of the Cold War, him under fire in battle.

This is my account of the vigil.

Dusk came slowly that day, as it does so often at this time of year. I'd set up my tent in tall grass beyond the back gate. Last time I'd done a vigil there, I'd been eaten by mosquitos -- over 20 bites all over my body, even through thick jeans and a sweater.
The tent was a blessing because there would be no fire.

After I was sent out to take my place beyond the hedge, the night was filled with loud, thumping, percussive music, punctuated by occasional cheering. Somewhere nearby, there was a concert. It continued until late into the night, but was distant enough to be little more than background to my thoughts. I'd have preferred silence but, when one does vigil ritual in the burbs, even the heavily-wooded burbs of semi-rural Redmond, one has neighbors to consider.

The questions came at small intervals, presented by people who were attempting to affect floating, disembodied heads. Dark clothing, lit features. Between the focus of my headspace in ritual and their sometimes awkward attempts, it was effective enough. At one point
Phil looked like his eyes were glowing. I'm told that at several points I didn't look much of anything like myself, either; a strange silhouette armed with spear and sword, leaning forward, overshadowed by something Other.

I felt that overshadowing. Each time I rose to exit the tent, alert and armed, it covered me. There was a hyperawareness, a sense of stretching beyond the boundaries of my body to encompass the area surrounding me, knowing where everything was despite the darkness. I was on guard, taking care of the community I'd sworn so many years ago to protect.

Thirty years ago, I took an oath. I swore to protect and defend the people and constitution of the United States of America. Twenty six years ago, I "came home." Since that time I have lived on the edges of my ability, broken by my experiences in the military. I had been thrown out, by my own design. There were no ceremonies, no welcomes, barely a word beyond "thank God that's over." I don't remember the exit interview, just that I know I had to sign my DD-214, which read that I was discharged under "General, Other Than Honorable" conditions. I walked away, too numb to try to make sense of it all.

I'm not the sort of veteran the services are proud of. I fought the whole time I was in. I hated it desperately and passionately. Nobody wants to hear about the broken ones, especially the ones who were broken between shooting wars, the ones that could never fit in to begin with. The ones who weren't properly military enough. I was good at what I did -- good enough that they didn't want to get rid of me until I'd made myself such a nuisance that they had no other choice. The few times I was working in conditions I found tolerable, with people who would give me a chance, I was moved to new conditions within weeks. My reputation for trouble preceded me.

During the vigil I sat with questions that brought me face to face with who and what I am, what I did, and what it all meant. There are not adequate words for most of it. I wrote a couple of notebook pages for most of the questions. One particularly stuck with me, because it had a two-sentence answer:

What will you do if you don't get what you want?

Keep trying, just like I always have. The alternative is death.

In so many ways, this sums up my relationship to the military and to the Veterans Administration.
Keep trying, or die. When they beat you down, stand back up. When they refuse you, return with a new set of forms. When they ignore you, shout down the walls. When they break you, pick up the pieces. To do otherwise is to suffer annihilation.

In my life, I have rarely gotten what I want. Often I've had to be content with other things but, in most contexts, that's okay. When it has come to the military, even the idea of compromise has been deadly to my soul. There are some things that cannot be accepted. They must be struggled for, even if that becomes the defining theme of a life.

One of the things I've struggled for all these years has been community and acceptance. I've tried to understand my place in the context of others as groups and individuals. I've stood outside so much of my life, even before I formally signed my enlistment contract. It's part of that kshatriya thing I was talking about last week -- the military displaces families. We don't belong anywhere because we don't stay long enough and when we do try to stay, we have tall barriers to surmount; being the new kid (eternally), being an unknown factor (because no one bothers to get to know you), being different (by background and by temperament).

In a small group of people last week, I found community. I am no longer outside the fence. I may walk the edge and be able to traverse it and live in the wild but I also, for once, belong inside. Welcomed in and given a place of honor, my history and my differences were accepted for what they are rather than rejected as a mark of unacceptable severance.

Good ritual changes something inside you. Those changes may not be obvious for a long time afterwards. I can feel them moving, though. This acceptance was very different than the superficial "thank you for your service" that I sometimes get these days when I note that I'm a veteran. I've never really known how to cope with that phrase. It brings too much back, and in a bad way. To be brought inside the gate, to be cooled and tempered in the waters and purified in the smoke of holy herbs, and to be placed at the head of the table for the feast in a place of honor is a distinctly different thing.

Sleep-deprived after a long night of intense focus and meditation, I was in a very different space than I usually am. Doing a vigil ritual brings it home much more deeply than a ritual that might take an hour or so, even if the content is essentially identical. The time and the effort involved intensify the effect. They separate us from the mundane much more fully. They emphasize the importance of what is happening.

Do I still identify with the geilt? Oh, yes. Yet I know I'm welcome inside the gates. My skills and talents are valued and I am valued, despite the problems I still -- and may always -- have.

Am I "cured" of my PTSD, my nightmares, my triggers? Not by a long shot. But I know how far I've come along that road and I know that I can go further. I have friends and a community who have demonstrated with their efforts and their bodies that what has happened may have marked me, but I am capable of change.

Twenty six years after the fact, I've come home.