I’m sitting in a circle of men. One by one they introduce themselves, and then the group goes into a five-minute meditation. How had I gotten here? My resume says I’m a killer – fifteen years spent in the military, mostly serving on a team with Army Special Forces, on the front lines of America’s Forever War.
A meditation group is the last place someone whose only experience of war was watching Lone Survivor would expect to find a Special Forces operator. But one quality I revere from my career as a Green Beret is the ability to keep an open mind. My time in the teams hadn’t just taught me tactics and operations; it had taught me fragility, and vulnerability.
I hadn’t expected to be here. When I left the Army, I didn’t expect to have issues finding comradery, brotherhood or a group of guys to bond within my community. It’s something that’s always come naturally. Fitting in never crossed my mind prior to my transition into the civilian world. But six months after getting out, I found myself isolated, alone.
My wife and I were struggling. I was running myself into the ground, trying to start my own business. I wasn’t taking care of my body, mind or my spirit, the way I had while I was in, and none of my old teammates were here to call me out. I was used to having a mission – a purpose.
What was my mission now? I had always had this vision of the Hero’s Journey in my head – a map for how I thought my life would go. I’d bring home the skills I had developed as a soldier and continue to serve in other ways. But I was off the path. I didn’t know where I was, and we were pregnant with our first child. I needed to figure my shit out – fast.
I made a few detailed plans for a one way walk into the backcountry. I’d get out there, find a quiet spot and bust at the seams. I didn’t want anyone to know how bad it had got for me. I’d think about my unborn son, and then I’d pick myself up and start all over. I was desperate for healing and direction. I had no idea where to begin. That’s how I found myself. I was sitting in an acupuncture studio in Bozeman, Montana, 1500 miles away from Ohio, where I grew up, and getting ready to mediate.
I had been driving to my favorite hunting spot when I heard Dan Doty on a podcast discussing his men’s group in Bozeman, Montana. I had no idea what it was, but something inspired me to reach out to him. I was surprised when he answered my email immediately, and we met for coffee. He invited me to attend his group for a trial night the following Thursday.
Meditating in a group of men was terrifying. It wasn’t what I was used to from my times in the teams. The vulnerability was physical; it was intense. What surprised me was how quickly the fear and anxiety gave way to connection, and connection to something, to others, to a purpose, to my Hero’s Journey, was exactly what I had been searching for.
After the meditation, the men began to check in verbally. The check in was based on body sensations and general emotions. I was surprised to hear some of the men had to say. Men were checking in with fear and anger. I immediately felt safe to express my current state. I felt fear and anger. I felt isolated and confused. I felt my heart rate increasing as I shared this with seven strangers. It felt strange to be heard, but this wasn’t a knitting circle where emotion simply poured out in a cry fest. In this group, it was ok to be aggressive, to challenge each other, to call another out for his bullshit, or to be called out for yours.
I shared my own story, my own journey, and the disconnect and loss and frustration and fear and anger I felt. Some of the men shook their heads as if they were really compassionate to my pain. I remember the feedback during my share being supportive. As I looked into the eyes of these men, I felt connected. I felt emotional receiving the support. I resisted the urge to cry. One man encouraged me to sit with it. Another agreed. The rest shared, and it was my turn to sit and listen.
Some of the men were celebrating milestones in their lives that were also supported by the group – this wasn’t just a place to get help, or to complain. It was a real community where, yes, we shared each other’s pain, but we also shared in each other’s victories. This was a place to truly be the best version of yourself.
At the end of the night, a man reminded us that what was said here was meant to stay here. He told us to imagine that words said here were on a large canvas, which, when the night was over, would be ripped up into a million tiny little pieces and thrown into a blazing bonfire. This metaphor was to “seal the container” for safety and non-disclosure. I felt lucky to be awarded the opportunity to return the following week. I felt empowered, seen, heard and cared for. I left that night feeling refreshed and hopeful. I couldn’t wait for the next group meeting.
I don’t think my experience is unique. I see not just my generation of veterans, but my generation of men struggling, as I struggled, to find their place on the hero’s path. I feel like too many men are lost along the wayside, huddled in the woods, seeking to connect.
At first, I was hesitant to share with my brothers who I served with my experience to reconnect. I was still afraid of being judged, of what they would think of me, that they would think I’d gotten weak. But when I was able to overcome that fear, and did bring other veterans to the group, I was overwhelmed by their response. They had been in the same place I had been, and the power of community, and sharing was universal. Moreover, by bringing them in, I was taking a risk, and having to overcome another vulnerability and fear I held. Bringing them to the group helped them, and it helped me.
I feel the community and connection I’ve found can help many veterans who felt the same way I did. I want to make communities like the one I’ve joined available, but it isn’t easy. Some veterans push back against the idea. That’s where I see my next challenge, and I think I have a unique ability to provide permission for them to participate, because of who I am, because of that resume that says I’m a killer. Special Operations soldiers occupy a high rung on the hierarchy in the military. In being a Special Operations soldier risking emotional vulnerability, it shows others they can do the same.
A year ago, I was meeting with a mental health counselor at the local V.A. office. It was helpful, but didn’t address the root of my isolation, frustration, and depression. I still felt disconnected. One of the most powerful aspects of the community I joined was that veterans and civilians met on equal footing. It’s an easy trap for a service member who just separated to only associate with other veterans. All too often, I see vets falling into this sinkhole of isolation. Their community, and their experience are limited to others like them, and they miss out on the opportunity to truly rejoin the community they left, and connect with and contribute to the society they defended while in the service. Bridging that gap is the next step in my Hero’s Journey.
Check out this Fatherly post for more about Aaron and his experience with men’s groups.