Before there were the concepts of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Moral Injury to describe veterans’ suffering that persisted long after battle, there was the concept of “soldier’s heart,” which dates back to the American Civil War. The place of veterans’ suffering was sought in the heart.

The heart is the place of courage (the Latin root cor which gives us words like “coronary”), but it is also a place of vulnerability to the invisible wounds of war. A bridge between military and civilian worlds for returning veterans is courage. In the military, courage is necessary to protect and defend our country. Military courage and civilian courage both come from the heart, but they look different in action. In the military, courage comes in the form of extending one’s self beyond emotions of fear and self-preservation for the good of the unit and the success of the mission. In the civilian world, courage takes the form of opening our hearts to others.

Parker Palmer has written about the courage that we need in our dealings with ourselves and with others, that we need “the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able” (The Courage to Teach, p. 12). War is one of those times when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able. When I read Parker Palmer’s description of the two ways the heart can break in Healing the Heart of Democracy, I instantly thought about the experience of veterans.

[The heart] can break “apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement…This kind of broken heart is an unresolved wound that keeps wounding us and others. When the heart is brittle and shatters, it can scatter seeds of violence and multiply our suffering among others.” (Palmer, p. 18-22)

I work with veterans every day and the pain that they carry in their hearts sometimes leads not only to their suffering, but extends outward to everyone around them in an emotional blast radius. This is the sad truth of the contagious aspect of violence. Carl Jung’s concept of “mental contagion,” Robert Jay Lifton’s concept of the “death taint,” and Sigmund Freud’s concept, of “thanatos” or the “death instinct” all recognized how violence can spread once it is unleashed. When the heart breaks apart and shatters, it causes emotional and spiritual shrapnel injuries to self and others.

Many veterans have a difficult time with the cultural shift from military culture to civilian culture. People who study culture call this “reverse culture shock” where what used to be familiar now seems foreign. Many veterans return home to find that they feel an “us and them” mentality as they cannot relate to civilians and the civilian world. Many veterans went off to war to fight to bring peace and security to the world, but upon their return home they cannot find peace in their hearts, minds, or lives. The struggle to live with a shattered heart is a lonely and isolated place to be.

Parker Palmer tells us that there is another way that the heart can break: it can break open. This is a form of suffering or sacrifice where pain opens the heart to greater compassion.

When the heart is supple, it can be ‘broken open’ into a greater capacity to hold our own suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion, heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening our empathy for others who suffer and extending our ability to reach out to them. (Palmer, p. 22)

Palmer tells us that democracy depends on the heart being able to break open and this is exactly the struggle that veterans face as they return from war and do the work of acculturation to feel part of society again. How can we increase the chances that trauma, suffering and heartbreak will increase an individual’s capacity for compassion, rather than lead to a perpetuation of violence and trauma?

This is the question that Joseph Rael and I have sought to address in our book Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD. We can look at suffering in two ways. The first is that it is meaningless and needs to be medicated, repressed, or moved away from. The second way is that it is necessary part of a process of initiation. I think this is what Parker Palmer is speaking of when he describes the different ways the heart can break, when it breaks open the pain can be used as an initiation process into greater compassion for self and others. Joseph Rael, whose Tiwa name is Beautiful Painted Arrow, teaches that there is intentional suffering and unintentional suffering. When suffering is embraced, intentionally, its energy can be used for transformation. When suffering is not accepted, it becomes unintentional suffering and we feel victimized by it. Joseph’s visionary work taught him that everyone has a “held-back place of goodness” within their hearts, no matter what they go through in life. Veterans’ challenge, and our challenge as the society responsible for sending them to war, is to create supportive spaces where we can all sift through the pieces of our broken hearts so that we can find the held-back place of goodness that allows us to give birth to compassion out of trauma. This is necessary not just for veterans, but for all of us to heal the separation and divisiveness in ourselves, our country and the world.

This blog features an adapted and edited excerpt from Walking the Medicine Wheel: Healing Trauma & PTSD by David R. Kopacz and Joseph Rael (pages 156-159).

David R. Kopacz works as a psychiatrist in Primary Care Mental Health Integration at the Seattle Division of Puget Sound VA and is an Acting Assistant Professor at University of Washington. His experience ranges from running a holistic private psychiatry practice in Champaign, Illinois, to working as Clinical Director of a psychiatric rehabilitation center in Auckland, New Zealand. His blog beingfullyhuman.com focuses on living an integrated life and his website davidkopacz.com displays his poetry, photography, painting and writing as well as information on his books.

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