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.
We live in an age of instant everything. Instant soup. Instant coffee. Fast foods. High speed Internet. We want everything instantly. I fear we are becoming an impatient culture. We are forgetting those days when it took a long time to get to California by horse and wagon. It took a long time to cut down the trees to build your Log house. It took a long time to plant a garden and wait for the harvest. It took a long time for a letter to reach a loved one, and for you to get an answer. We live in an age where we want to just push a button, and get what we want, see who we want, talk to whom we want, or make another instant friend on Facebook.
We carry a campfire with us in a backpack, disguised as a tiny camping stove with an attachable bottle of fuel. We heat water and add it to a pouch of dried food and have an instant meal! All we have to do is add water! We’ve come a long way, or have we?
I left Homer Alaska, and traveled here to Freedom Ranch close to Wise River, Montana. It took me almost 24 hours. Three flights. Two long layovers. And then a 2 Hour drive. It was a brutal redeye flight. I had jet lag and my neck hurt from the three hours of sleep I got between Anchorage and Denver. Pure torture! Brutal!
So to make myself feel better I did what I always do. I thought about my father’s journey from Switzerland to Homer, Alaska. First by steamship, then hitchhiking across the United States to Seattle. Then another steamship to Seward, Alaska. And then walking a couple of hundred miles to Homer, crossing wilderness, swamps, mountains, and glaciers. I felt instantly better as I always do.
I came down here to this beautiful serene natural setting beside the gently flowing Big Hole River to sing and tell stories to some fellow veterans. These veterans were brought here by an organization called Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. Here at Freedom Ranch, surrounded by fellow veterans who share similar traumatic experiences, and floating down the peaceful river while fly fishing, magic happens, healing happens, camaraderie and deep connections happen. It is humbling to witness this, to be part of this. No therapists. No medicine prescribed. Just nature. Just healing water. Just caring Veterans who smile and nod and validate as you tell your story. They don’t need advice. They don’t need sympathy. They just need that nodding head and knowing smile, saying, “I hear you, I’ve been there, I know what you’re going through, I know what you’ve been through, I admire your courage, I got your back.“
Tears flow. The healing waters flow. And as veterans, collectively and individually, we take another step towards the light, towards higher Ground. At the end of my first evening of performing for these veterans, I talked for a few minutes about how I always feel connected so quickly to fellow veterans. It is similar to meeting a fellow recovering alcoholic. You instantly know you are among family, you are among your fellow tribesmen. Sort of like meeting a long lost friend you haven’t seen in a while. All the memories of all the things you have done together come flooding back in just an instant. When you meet a fellow veteran, you look at each other and you recognize each other. There is a strong bond of commonality and understanding. The difference and the details don’t matter. He might have been a cocaine addict, I was an alcoholic. He was in the infantry in Iraq, I was in the artillery in Vietnam. He was wounded, I wasn’t. He did three tours, I only did one. He was not in a combat zone when he was seriously injured during training, another guy was seriously injured in combat. The details really don’t matter. We share a much larger commonality, of what we’ve been through, and what we are now doing in an attempt to get to a better place, in an attempt to find purpose and meaning and joy in life, in an attempt to no longer be an angry or depressed victim, believing we have no choices. That is our bond, that is our commonality.
I went on to say that meeting fellow veterans is like meeting instant friends. Jack, sitting just to my right, looked out the window at the Big Hole River flowing slowly by, full of healing water, bank to bank. He pointed at the river, and with his booming deep bass voice, he said, “Yep. Instant friends, all you gotta do is add water.” I love it! I’ll take it! Instant friends. Years in the making.
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.