“Real Heroes” – Dispatches from Atz

Dispatches from Atz’ is an on-going series chronicling the writings of Atz Kilcher during his time at Freedom Ranch for Heroes with the veterans of Project Healing Waters.


“I might as well tell you a little bit about my experience with disabled veterans who are part of Project Healing Waters in Wise River. It is another testimony and powerful experience in music and storytelling, in daring to share your journey, and believing that as humans we can affect each other in a positive healing way,”

Atz Kilcher

Vietnam veteran Atz Kilcher is an accomplished singer, song-writer, musician, story-teller and proud father. He is most widely known as the patriarch of Discovery Channel’s Emmy-short-listed program Alaska: The Last Frontier. Atz joined the Project Healing Waters family in 2021 during a trip to Freedom Ranch for Heroes.


Real Heroes

Last day of fly-fishing. 

There will be a dinner and an awards ceremony tonight at the Wise River Club (a local restaurant). They asked me to sing at the restaurant, but there will be too much noise, it being in a public restaurant and not a private event, my ears will not be able to handle it. So I will just  sing the national anthem instead. A cappella. No guitar.

My ears are getting steadily worse. Last night I only sang one song, read a couple of pieces I had written about my experience here at Freedom Ranch, and did some  talking. I am definitely transitioning out of playing guitar. Just too hard to hear the guitar and my voice and stay on pitch.  

So, as my hearing worsens, as it surely will, I will either sing a cappella, or just tell stories and do poetry.

Like any loss in life, or any major transition, it’s never easy. Whether transitioning into old age, or transitioning from military into civilian life, or having to give up something we love to do, or giving up a major part of who we are, like expressing ourselves  through songwriting and music, it’s never easy. It’s something that every veteran here can relate to. Transitioning. Loss. Getting used to certain disabilities. Trying to focus on what you can still do as opposed to that which you are no longer able to do. 

Yep! I hear my wise old inner cowboy gently saying  to me,  

“well pardner, you couldn’t be in no better company  then these here veterans as you’re havin’ t’ face  losin’ your hearin’, doin’ things different. So don’t  even think about snivelin’, just dust yourself off and get back on that bronc! Just look around you, you won’t find any snivelin’ among this group of Vets!” 

Such wisdom for an uneducated old cowpoke! But all so true. There are three Vietnam veterans here, one just a little younger and two just a little older than I am. Our group leader is a really old guy, he’s 77. Looks like he’s in his 50s, I guess all of his years of fly fishing walking up and down the banks of  rivers and in water up to his waist has paid off! I am among fellow veterans. I am among other men who are aging, I am among men who are healing, accepting limitations and loss. I am among men who are supportive. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Next week there will be a new group of veterans here. Chances are really good that if I did no singing with my guitar, but only sang a cappella, if I only read poetry  

and told stories, that nobody would walk out. A good chance that nobody would look at me and say, “Kilcher you suck!“ Chances are good that no one would feel something was missing, that I had fallen way short of the mark, that I was no longer able to do my job! Self judgment is always the harshest! It is so important to also see ourselves  through others eyes, and of course through the eyes of our higher self. 

In my last dispatch (Gift Exchange), I compared this fly fishing retreat to a feast, where we all brought a dish to share with others. It’s not like I won’t be able to bring a dish to the feast in the future, I will just have to change what I cook, what I prepare, what I bring. Instead of my signature sizzling homegrown steak, I will just bring a stew. As my dad used to say, “A damn good stew!” 

After my mom and dad divorced, and my dad lived alone, he basically lived on soups and stews. Nothing wrong with that. When you came to visit him in our old family log cabin where he lived till he died, the first thing he would say was, “Are you hungry? I have some damn good stew!” That has become a family joke. Because some of his stews and soups were a little bit ripe. They had been added to, too many times. They had been sitting unrefrigerated for too many days! 

I was going to make a journal entry every day that I was down here. But I have failed miserably. I have never kept a journal. I don’t know how. It’s kind of like asking a marathon runner to run a hundred yard dash. It’s kind of like having to describe the most fantastic vacation of your life in the most exotic place, in only one paragraph. I just can’t do it. It’s just not who I am. So I will just write and not worry about whether it’s a journal entry, a short story, or a book. 

I like the metaphor of comparing this experience to a feast. An important part of any feast isn’t just eating and enjoying the many dishes, but the important digestive process after the feast. For me, writing about an experience IS the digesting part. It’s the reviewing part. It’s a chance for me to integrate and assimilate and really allow the experience to soak in. 

This experience here at Freedom Ranch with these fellow veterans, this “feast” as I referred to it in my last dispatch, it’s not about the accommodations or the food, or the fly fishing, or this beautiful remote natural setting. For me, the feast is about the healing going on. It is about emotions that are felt and shared. Where your vulnerability is accepted and validated and valued  by other men who know what you have been through. An incredible feast! Because keep in mind, the whole purpose of Freedom Ranch, the whole purpose of Project Healing Waters, is to help veterans heal. 

How many times have we seen a man start to cry in public, hear his voice break, only to have them quickly wipe away the tears and wait for  composure, and then apologize. Not here! Voices quaver. Lips tremble. Tears flow. And these men keep right on talking. No one feels uncomfortable. That’s part of the magic.

As I said in my last dispatch, we all bring a dish to this feast. Whether I sing a song or read something which I wrote, whether another veteran shares what he has been through, his lowest point of putting the barrel of a pistol in his mouth, or shares a secret he has discovered to help himself get out of the dark deep hole he still finds himself in at times, it all contributes to this feast. It doesn’t matter if one of the veterans says nothing, shares nothing in these group settings. His presence, his tears, his spirit is the dish he brings and shares with us.

Case in point. There’s a guy here four months older than I am. Also a Vietnam veteran. I have shared some amazing private time with him, hearing his stories, what he has been through, the challenges he still faces bravely. Yesterday before our evening get  together, he told me how someone once asked him why he didn’t talk in groups, and he told them that he just didn’t feel he had anything to say and would rather just listen. He did go on to say however, that when he does share in smaller settings, he always  feels deeply heard and understood and listened to and validated, not by professionals, not by trained therapists, not by the VA, but by his fellow veterans. I hear this all the time. 

So last night as I was singing and reading, and doing my schtick, I was watching this guy. His eyes were teary most of the time. I heard him. He didn’t need to say a word.  

He was contributing to the feast. 

Last night, the young veteran who had trouble  seeing himself as a hero, came to my room after our evening get together. He wanted to talk. He had more to say. 

To call it talking is really not accurate. We shared. We emoted. We listened, we heard, we felt, we grew, we healed. We took another tiny step, in a long long line of tiny steps, towards climbing that mountain which we once thought was far beyond  our reach.

In another life, I used to be a clinical social worker. I worked with troubled youth and their families. I worked with corrections and social services. I worked with countless probation officers and social  workers and foster homes and institutions and judges and courts. Basically I was in the people business. Trying to make a positive difference in  people’s lives. To help them get to a better place. I spent a lot of years getting my degree. I spent a lot  of my years trying to help people. I spent a lot of years trying to figure out which therapies, which modalities, which approaches were the most effective towards affecting change. I spent a lot of years thinking about what motivated a person to change or heal. I spent many years in therapy myself. I’ve been in therapy by myself, with wives, with my children, and with my father once. So I have been on both sides of the fence. Both sides of the couch. I spent a lot of years grappling with that term,  “healing.”

Here is my latest definition. It’s like being in the garden and watching flowers unfold and open, pedal by pedal, in all their glorious colors and shapes and sizes, right before your eyes. It’s a miracle. And healing isn’t just about watching your  own flower open and unfold, it isn’t just about  watching others, it’s about experiencing it and witnessing it again and again. Each time new. Each  time different. Until over time, your garden has more  and more beautiful flowers, fully blooming, and fewer and fewer thorns and thistles and bare spots. 

It takes many ingredients to make a delicious dish.  It is difficult to see one as more important than the other. It’s the same with the healing that takes place  on these fly fishing retreats. It’s a combination of a lot of things. But certainly one of the main  ingredients is the baring and sharing of human souls in that most perfect environment, in that most fertile soil where seeds can germinate and grow and blossom.

As the beautiful and bright flower of my hearing, of my singing with my guitar, fades and slowly dies, as all flowers do, I have the opportunity to focus on, and be grateful for those many flowers still in full bloom. I have the opportunity to be grateful for other flowers not yet blossomed. Flowers of singing  a cappella. Flowers of poetry. And most importantly, beautiful flowers of faith and belief, that even if I go totally deaf, I am still a beautiful flower. Check back in with me in a few months and see how I am doing with that one! 

Well I think that about does it for my dispatch for the day. Feasts and beautiful flower gardens.  That’s where I want to hang out. With other men and women on the same journey, on the same trail, learning from each other. Humans not afraid to show their weak underbelly, not afraid to shed a tear or talk about scary stuff. Strong men. Strong  women. Real heroes.

I think that will be the vision I take with me into the  future. Me sitting at a banquet, a feast, in a beautiful flower garden. With real men and women. With real heroes.


Atz Kilcher was raised on a homestead in Homer, Alaska after his father and mother, Yule and Ruth, emigrated from Switzerland in the late 1930’s. The many skills learned and required on a homestead, as well as living a self-sufficient lifestyle, helped shape Atz’s character. As an adult, Atz worked as a rancher, horse trainer and carpenter. He received his Bachelor degree in psychology and his Masters in Social Work, which he used working with troubled teens and marriage and family therapy. He served in the army in the late 60’s and spent a year in Vietnam. Dealing with his own PTSD from a dysfunctional family and the trauma experienced in Vietnam, Atz developed great empathy for all veterans and anyone dealing with any type of trauma. Although he has been a therapist and been to many therapists over the years, talking with other veterans and sharing successes and failures as well as ups and downs has been the most helpful in his healing journey. Atz is an accomplished singer, song-writer, musician, story-teller and proud father. He is most widely known as the patriarch of Discovery Channel’s Emmy-short-listed program Alaska: The Last Frontier.

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