“You Gotta Let It In” – 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,”

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.


You Gotta Let It In

“You gotta let it in. Medicine don’t do you no good if you don’t take it. Warmth don’t do you no good if you’re standin’ too far away from the fire. A coat don’t do you no good out in the freezin’ cold if you ain’t got it on! Love and praise and validation, whether from God Almighty, or just a friend, won’t do you no good at all, if you don’t let it in! You’ll never experience the joy and benefit of a gift, if you don’t first hold out your hands t’ receive it, and then open it, and then use it, and enjoy it, and most importantly believe that you’re worthy of that gift.” 

That morsel of wisdom is courtesy of my inner cowboy, who is always riding herd with me, and always eager to offer his simplistic observations and words of advice. (Whether I ask him to or not.) 

I am reflecting on last night. I performed for eight fellow veterans and one group leader, an audience of nine. I keep in mind that I was not the headliner of last night’s show. I  was not even the opening act. It wasn’t even really a show. I’ll explain. But obviously, it left me thinking about the topic of letting in that which is good for us. These veterans come here to Freedom Ranch for a feast! A feast of fly-fishing. A feast of enjoying nature. A feast of enjoying each other’s camaraderie and stories. A feast of fellowship. A feast of healing. 

I keep in mind that I am not even a side dish at this feast, perhaps a condiment.  Perhaps I add a little bit of sweetness, or a little bit of spice, perhaps a special flavor. But I am not even sure about that. I’m a guest. 

But regardless, I think each one of us brings something to this feast. Just being in this spectacularly beautiful setting out in nature is healing. Watching the silent Big Hole River flowing through the valley is healing. Whether standing in the river, or gliding silently down the river in a boat while fly-fishing, is healing. But I believe what is the most healing: souls touching souls. Human connections. Telling your story and being heard. 

But it is the main dish that each one of these veterans brings that makes this a feast. A main dish of service, unbelievable experiences, trauma, recovery, successes and  failures, and secrets to survival. Secrets to thriving and growth and healing. They bring these main dishes and willingly share them. And everyone benefits. Nature is a powerful healer by itself. Add a group of veterans to the mix and miracles happen! 

I do not belong to any local program of Project Healing Waters. I bring my main dish in a different type of container, wrapped in music, and story, and song. But other than that, there are no differences. We’re all veterans on the healing path. 

No one is more or less important at this feast. No one’s dish is more special. No one is  the opening act or the main act. None of us are acting. We’re all trying to be real. We’re  all trying to show our vulnerability. We all contribute. We all participate. We all benefit.  We all leave feeling full, satisfied. We all leave feeling better, feeling improved, feeling  more connected to each other and to our own soul.

After my offering of songs and stories, it was time for dessert. An older veteran, my age of 74 and also a Vietnam veteran, asked a couple of the younger veterans to tell a little  bit about their experience. Younger defined as early 50s. 

Because of my difficulty hearing, I missed a lot, but I got the gist of what was said. What I missed in words, I understood in voice tone, in the difficulty they had talking about certain things, and of course it is always easy to understand tears. 

One veteran, while stationed in Germany, was going through gas mask recertification.  Part of the training was taking off your mask, clearing it, and then putting it back on. I  remember this from basic training, it can be pretty scary. You’re actually doing this in a chamber where there is some real gas present. I am not clear on exactly what went  wrong, perhaps too much gas, or a faulty mask, but regardless of those details, this veteran passed out and fell on his face. 

There were years of neurological disorders. Shaking arms, and a shaking head. Later he had a stroke. Another layer of severe trauma. Years of unbelievable recovery. Years of  inconceivable choices every day: to give up or keep going. To stay depressed and in a dark hole, or to begin the hard work of climbing out. 10 years of fighting for his medical  disability. He still suffers from severe tremors in his arms. He finally had a brain stimulator implanted in his left hypothalamus of his brain to help with the tremors. Later he had a stroke. Later he got a divorce.

He used his words to paint an unbelievable picture, and to share it with us. Actually more like watching a movie of his life. A full length movie of how his life started pretty  much like everybody else’s, then what happened to him along the way, and then the  road to recovery, to where he ended up. Right there in a chair beside me, telling us his story. Unbelievable! It truly left you speechless. Grasping to even begin to understand what he went through, and the courage it must’ve taken to keep fighting, to keep showing up every day. 

An older veteran I would guess in his late 60s, commented on what the younger guy said.  Validated his story. With great emotion and sincerity he said, “you are a hero.“ The  younger veteran adamantly shook his head in the negative. His face almost had a grimace of pain. His eyes were shut tight as he was shaking his head, as though it was painful to hear the compliment. 

I am sure that each of us put our own twist on what he was thinking and feeling and saying without words. 

“ No way! Not me! I am far from being a hero, I don’t even come close to fitting that  definition.“  

In short, he strongly rejected the notion that he was a hero. 

He was given a gift and could not accept it. He could not let it in. He couldn’t unwrap it and benefit from what was inside. He couldn’t swallow it. Someone offered him a coat out in the cold and he couldn’t put it on. Somebody offered him a place by the warm fire, and he stood back shivering. 

But of course it’s not as simple as that. It’s hard! It’s a tough issue! I was not inside his skin. Even though he was shaking his head, I could only assume and hope that the  complement had some effect on him. 

We’ve all been in those situations, on both sides of the fence. We have all felt perhaps  hurt at times, when our efforts were not recognized, when our compliments or gifts were not accepted. We have all experienced doing something nice for somebody and then having them say, “you didn’t need to do that.” Or paid someone a compliment only to have them not be able to accept it, or to act uncomfortable, or outright tell you that  you are mistaken in what you see in them… And we have all had the shoe on the other foot. We’ve all been made to feel uncomfortable by someone else’s praise or flattery, or compliments. We have all felt at times that we didn’t measure up to how somebody else saw us. 

It is one of those paradoxes of life where both things are true. How someone views us is real and valid and true for that person. How unworthy we feel, how strongly we disagree with someone else’s perception, is also very real.

The veteran who said “you are a hero” was speaking his truth. To that older veteran, the younger veteran was a hero. (I happened to be feeling the very same exact thing). The younger veteran did not feel like a hero. That was real and true for him.  

How does one accept a gift graciously? How does one accept a compliment or  someone else’s perception without seeming vain or proud or arrogant? How does one let it in, feel the healing power of how someone else perceives us, even though we may not agree? 

I believe by letting it in, we more and more become that beautiful self that other people see in us. By letting it in we grow into it. We don’t grow into what other people think of  us, we actually grow into our true potential! Other people are not making up something that is not there, they are merely reminding us of something that already exists.

Like anything else, it is a skill we can learn. We can say, “thank you, that means a lot to me. I don’t see myself that way but I am touched that you do.” Or something to that  effect. Then we can allow ourselves to begin to entertain the notion that perhaps others also see us as heroes, that perhaps there is a part of us who has done, or is doing, heroic things. Then, like a small seed, that hero grows and expands, and touches more lives. 

Yes, we do not want to be constantly affected or base our self image on other people’s feedback, negative or positive. But we can benefit by listening, by pondering, and entertaining the notion that there may be some truth to what is being said, and then learning from it. If there is some truth to someone’s negative opinion of us we can use it in a positive way to grow. If there is some truth to someone’s compliments or positive perception of us, we also can use that to grow. We can learn the skill of sincerely – saying thank you to both. Even if there is no truth to what someone else is saying, what someone else sees in us, we can still ponder why it is that they had that opinion or perception.  

So tonight I think I will talk a little bit about this. I have the perfect song. And then I will invite this young veteran to let in the possibility that not only might others perceive him  as a hero, but that there just might actually be a hero within him, if only in its infant  stages. 

Well, I read what I wrote. Watching that young veteran the whole time to see how he was doing with my recounting of last nights gathering. I think we were all watching him.  I had asked his permission ahead of time so I knew it was OK with him. Still I had great respect for his courage to somewhat be in the hot seat. In a lot of ways being asked to  relive his traumatic experience.

It was a powerful experience for me and this young veteran and for all the others to have been written into a story and then to sit and hear that story. Kind of like seeing yourself in the whole movie, or watching yourself on TV. It can be very validating and healing. 

I wanted to sing a song about the topic of letting it in. The occasion I wrote this song about proved to be a major healing milestone in my life. 

I was doing a house concert at the home of my literary agent. She had invited several  people who work for the company that was publishing my memoir. She also invited several friends and relatives. It was a potluck. There were maybe thirty people there. 

My eyes were drawn to a tall man in the middle of the room. I would describe him as a big broad shouldered burly man. He had a long ponytail with four rubber bands in it.  He had a long Gray beard with three rubber bands in it. He stood out. I was trying to figure out whether he was a biker or a hippie or a cowboy, or just some guy that  walked in off the street.

I had once done an art opening in Anchorage. I played a few  songs and there was wine and food. A homeless guy actually walked in off the street had a little wine and some food and then left. I thought maybe this was a repeat. Being there because of my new memoir coming out, I thought about books, and their covers.  So instead of judging this man by the cover of his book, his ponytail and beard, I  thought I’d get to know him.

You could tell by looking at him that he had an interesting story and I wanted to hear it. I asked him how long he had been growing his beard and he answered, “a while.” He had a soft deep voice with just a bit of a southern twang. We were interrupted at that point and didn’t get any further.

During my concert I looked at everybody in the audience as I usually do, but my eyes kept drifting back to the old gray beard. I found myself thinking about him and wondering about him as I was singing. I had this random thought about that parable in the Bible, where Christ dressed up like a beggar by the side of the road just to see how people would treat him. So being a songwriter with an imagination, I imagined that he was Christ in disguise just there to check me out, to see how judgmental I was, how I would treat a guy who looked to be in his 70s, with a long white ponytail and a long white pony beard.

Whatever was going on, his face kept drawing me in. Something inside of me told me I had something to learn. In his eyes I saw such kindness and gentleness and love and acceptance. He said, “you’re a genuine.” He said it as a statement of fact. He was obviously not trying to impress me or please me. No one had ever said that to me. I sincerely cannot think of the right word to describe how I felt right then. I knew it was an important moment for me. It had a certain, almost sacred, or spiritual feeling about it, like I was being blessed.

At the same time I felt extremely awkward and uncomfortable. In a millisecond, a hundred thoughts whirled through my head. A voice inside my head, which at least I managed to keep quiet, said to him. “Oh you don’t know me, I am far from genuine. If you knew some of the things I’ve done in my life you would not be saying that. I am a phony. I don’t really have a real self. All my life I’ve tried to be like other people I admire. All my life I’ve tried to please my father and have never succeeded. I am a copycat. I am a chameleon. I am whatever and whoever it takes to keep people laughing and happy and to stay out of conflict. Thankfully, another voice spoke up and said to him, “well, I think when you go through life trying to be whatever other people want you to be you get to a point or you quit caring and you’re just more comfortable being yourself“. He was still holding my hand, and while still looking deep into my eyes and soul he said, “got that right!”

So far he’d said seven words to me. “A while.” “You’re genuine.” “Got that right.” And yet right then I felt I knew him better than lots of people I have known for years.  We may have chatted just a little more, but I can’t recall. 

I also don’t recall the rest of the evening. If I interacted with anyone it was only with  part of my brain and part of my heart. I was way too busy thinking and pondering and  growing and healing. I was way too busy having a conversation within myself. A  conversation between the higher and the lower. My self doubting self, that harsh self  judging self, and the nobler more evolved self.

What if there is somebody genuine  within me? What if for the 45 minutes I was up there singing I was truly a wonderful genuine enlightened sincere human being? And if I was that for 45 minutes, perhaps I could be there for an hour or two? Perhaps I can only be genuine while I am singing. But maybe I can learn to be genuine when I am not singing, when I don’t have a song to guide me. On and on went this inner conversation. A conversation I had never had.  Important inner qualities I had never even considered. A small seed was planted and I  did my best to nurture it and let it grow.

I have been a slow learner. Any gains I have made in my life have been a little at a time.  I have had no miraculous life-changing experiences. But I have to say that Del telling  me I was genuine started a lot of things into motion. A lot of, “what ifs.” I can honestly  say that I walked away from that evening having no doubt in my mind that there was a  part of me, his self within me, who at certain times indeed was genuine.

I also spent a lot of time thinking about how hard it was for me to accept and absorb and believe what Del told me. I realized for the first time that if you did not truly accept and embrace a gift you would not benefit from it. The seed would never grow. I later found out that he had been a big animal vet. He was a horse man. He used to run strings of pack mules and packhorses up into the mountains for the forest service. When his son’s high school girlfriend became pregnant, and he chose not to be involved as the father, old gray beard stepped in and played an active role as a grandfather. I met this grandson. He is now a nurse in his 30s. I also met his mom, she  was also there the night of the house concert. 

So, I wrote a song about that experience. First I called it ‘Gray Beard.’ Later, when I learned his name, I changed the title of the song to ‘Del.’ 

The first time I performed this song was about a year later in Portland at a venue that held about 300 people. Del was in attendance, he had heard I had written a song about  him. His grandson was there. His grandson’s mother was there. And yes, even Del‘s  son surprised everyone by showing up. My literary agent, who had found me the book  deal, who had arranged that first house concert, had also arranged this larger concert,  and helped pull these people together. She had no idea of the ripple effect she was creating. Of a part of my soul she would help heal. 

DEL 

1

He had long gray hair and a long gray beard tied up with wide old-fashioned rubber  bands 

He had four in his ponytail, and three in his pony beard he was a big broad shouldered  burly man 

2.

Could’ve been a cowboy biker hippie or just some man off of the street came in for  some free food and to hear my songs 

Didn’t want to judge the cover of his book, so I took a closer look, I didn’t want to read  old gray beard wrong  

3. 

I gazed out into the sea of faces the way I always do, but I kept drifting into the harbor  of gray beards eyes 

I was singing but my mind was drifting I was thinking about the Bible and the man from  Galilee, Dressed up like a begger by the road wearing a disguise  

Chorus: 

So when darkness and doubt descend upon me and I’m ashamed to show the world  just who I am 

I will bare my soul and lose my armor 

In the naked light of a song I know I can 

In the naked light  

4. 

When my last song died old gray beard walked up to my side, his voice so soft that I  barely heard, 

He said, “you’re genuine“, and his eyes locked on mine, and my soul soaked up those  two words. 

Bridge: 

There’s no way that we can always be everything that everybody sees We go through life trying hard to please, and be a superstar 

So we’re living under a pseudonym 

Looking for the savior but we’re running away from him 

Wearing out our welcome everywhere we’ve been, 

Because we don’t know who we are. 

Chorus: 

So when darkness and doubt descend upon me and I’m ashamed to show the world  just who I am 

I will bare my soul and lose my armor 

In the naked light of a song I know I can 

In the naked light of a song I know I can 

And when I find myself unworthy to accept the simple gifts of my fellow man I will open my heart with gladness 

In the naked light of a song I know I can 

And the naked light of a song I know I can 

Tag 

He had long gray hair and long gray beard  

tied up with those wide old-fashioned rubber bands

He had four………fade out  

The stage was set for me to try to give the same gift to this young veteran that old Del  had given me. 

I said to the group, “out of curiosity, how many of you saw this guy as a hero last night when he was talking?”

All hands went up. 

Before I could do anything about it my old inner cowboy took over my body. He stood  up looking down at that young veteran. In a stern but loving voice, which sounded a lot like Del’s, he said: “ Listen here son. Medicine ain’t gonna do you no good if you don’t take it when it’s  offered to ya. A seed ain’t got a chance of growing unless you let it take a hold and water it. That baby hero ain’t gonna grow up into no full grown hero ‘less you notice ‘him , an’ nurture  him , an’ feed him , an’ believe in him. If you don’t, sure as hell ain’t no one else gonna”

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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