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.
Lessons come in many shapes and sizes. I put them into two categories. Those that are pleasant to learn. They are easy. Fun. It’s sort of like a freebie. You learn something important, you walk away a better and wiser person. You didn’t even have to work for it. And then there is the other kind of lesson that might hurt. There was a steep price. There might’ve been physical or emotional pain involved. You might have felt embarrassed, like you’re stupid. It might have been at someone else’s expense. But one thing about it is this. It seems to me that once you enroll in the class of life lessons, they just keep rolling in. Whether you want them or not.
Once you have made the conscious decision to learn. To improve. To be more mindful. More finely attuned to your thoughts and feelings, it seems that you run into lessons everywhere. Most of these lessons have several takeaways, you can choose the one that you need the most, that suits you the best. I said earlier, that you don’t even have to do anything for some of these lessons to come along and bless your life. But it would also be true to say, that’s the price we pay for all of these lessons is just living life. The price we pay is all the tiny decisions we have made to bring us to the point of being open to these lessons.
Hard lessons are always hard. But like other aspects of growth, or facing your demons, it becomes easier, you become stronger. It becomes easier to admit your weaknesses, your shortcomings, your flaws, or your PTSD. It becomes easier to laugh or joke about some of our oddities or our quirks. It becomes easier to be more accepting and forgiving of ourselves.
The lesson I just learned here, once again, at the Bozeman airport was not to judge. To always think the best of everybody and to send healing loving light to everyone around you. And, that people will not only treat you as you treat them, but they even treat you as you feel about them, the way you were thinking about them.
You think someone is going to be crabby and rude to you ,you believe they look like a rude person. Guess what? You will be giving off those crabby rude vibes, and that’s the way they will treat you.
Having to learn this lesson once again, was a bitter pill for me to swallow coming from where I have just been for two weeks. I just spent two weeks with two different groups of veterans. It was a very supportive accepting nurturing healing environment. I would say pretty much zero judgment going on. I would say pretty much 100% healing and loving light going on.
Could be that I am a bit tired from the two intense weeks. It could be I was hungry, or just plain tired. It could be that I once again had to let my cynical judgemental, and a little bit angry and fearful self, poke his head out just to see what would happen.
I had a couple of hours to wait at my gate so I decided to order a Montana elk burger. The service was wonderful and the food was wonderful. The waiter was very friendly and helpful, he kept checking-in on me. Asking if I needed anything. Asking if my water was OK, even though it was just an inch from the brim.
Before I knew it, kind of like a drop of ink slowly polluting a glass of water, I started becoming annoyed. I think the next time that overly friendly smiling waiter comes by I will say something to him like this. “I’m a 74 year old Vietnam veteran. I’ve taken care of myself for quite a while. How about if I just raise my hand if I need help. I just want to sit a while and relax, I don’t want you coming by every few minutes and disturbing me.”
I knew I would not say anything. I sort of listened to that inner self of mine like you would to an unruly child, and cajoled him back into silence. While I was at it, I checked my inner landscape just to make sure my unruly ‘sometimes hold it in and then get angry self’, wasn’t anywhere close to the surface. All was OK. Felt heard and listened to and was mellowing out.
But I couldn’t help but wonder why, coming from the experience that I had just had, this friendly waiter was annoying me. “Yep“, I said to myself, “I do have that inner self that quickly becomes annoyed. Quickly feels he is being forced or controlled. Quickly feels he needs to ‘by-God stand up for himself and just tell somebody off’”!
I was having trouble holding off that annoyed self when the check never came. So I stood up, preparing to leave, assuming a waiter would come over and tell me what to do. He finally stood and came over. Still smiling. Still. Uber helpful. I was on good behavior and asked him, “how does a guy check out of here?” He said something a little too quietly so I did not catch it. I asked him to say it again please. And then I heard him say, “It’s on us.” I heard him but I still did not get it. So I asked him what he meant. He pointed to my Vietnam veteran hat and said, “You’re a Vietnam veteran. It’s on us.”
Well, I’m sure that you as a reader are right there with me at this moment, probably feeling a lot of the things that I was feeling at that moment. Amazed, overwhelmed and incredulous! I came home in ‘68 and this is the first time this has ever happened. What was even more amazing was how I felt. I felt like I had just won the lottery. I just spent two weeks in a healing veterans environment. I have just been recognized and appreciated. I had just gotten my first free meal because I was a veteran. And I learned, once again, a wonderful lesson for a fairly inexpensive price. I did not even have to scream and holler at the waiter and make an ass of myself. As I left that restaurant area and walked down to my gate, I was thinking and feeling a lot of things. Mostly how fragile we are as human beings. How those thoughts and feelings run our lives and rule us (unless we learn to be a master of them, of course). I had just come from spending two intense weeks with Veterans with various degrees of PTSD and disabilities. All a witness to how these God given emotions can go awry, can get stressed out, and numbed out. How our natural hardwiring can melt down and get short circuited. How that happy-go-lucky fully-functioning and healthy young man can come back from war, depressed and angry and feeling hopeless.
I thought about how quickly I became annoyed and started making up stories about a waiter who was treating me like I was helpless, and ignoring me when I needed him. I thought about how telling me my lunch was on them caused me to feel such deep gratitude and humility. I thought about how fragile we all are and how we all need each other. But mostly I was thinking about the fact that I could, at least now, more easily laugh or smile at myself when the various lessons of life come along.
On my way to my gate I ran into Greg, one of the vets I had just spent a week with. He told me they barely made it to their gate on time and that next time we needed to leave earlier so it wouldn’t be so anxiety-inducing for them. He was traveling with another man, and at their age with their PTSD negotiating airports was quite anxiety inducing.
He told me a touching story.
“When we got here I told Joe that I had everything under control and for him not to worry. I told him he could relax and stay calm and he didn’t have to run until I said run. As we got through security and I could see what time it was and how far we still had to go I looked at him and said, “OK now we have to run.”
We all have our airport challenges. We all have our challenges in life. Whether we are combat veterans, or veterans of any trauma of life.
For whatever reasons a combination of life traumas and my time in Vietnam, certain situations trigger me more than others. It seems the airports have more than their fair share of triggers. Given the fact that I am getting so hard of hearing, it makes it almost impossible to hear any announcements at the gate. Which number, which zone, which group, anybody needing special assistance, military, parents with young children, it’s all just noise. Sometimes by the time I finally board, I just kind of melt into my seat!
A few months ago a kindly gentleman at the gate told me that I should board when they called for people needing special assistance or extra time to board. So I started doing just that. Made my life so much easier. The hardest part for me now is lining up behind those people who obviously need much more assistance than I do. Had you been at the Freedom Ranch retreat where I had just come from, I don’t think any
one of us would’ve looked like we needed any type of special assistance. An 80-year-old Vietnam veteran could still do 25 push-ups! There are many kinds of disabilities. So many you cannot see.
So I’m sitting there at the gate trying to keep my anxiety down and now I am making up stories about the mean witch at the gate. She’s probably going to tell me I have to board with everybody else in my group number four. (I know I know I have some authority issues, waiters may not be authority figures but still they have some control over me!). I am trying to hang on to that good feeling of having had lunch bought for me because I am a Vietnam veteran. So I bravely walk up to the gate, to the wicked witch and her assistant. I pretend I am special. I act like I am an important person with something extremely interesting to say. Before I can stop him, that inner overconfident entertainer takes over: “I just have to share something special that just happened to me with you ladies”. OK, maybe I did say, “(with you lovely ladies who are so gracious and helpful”) and I relayed to them how the restaurant just across the lobby had paid for my lunch. They were genuinely both touched. The lady in charge replied, “you are free to board when we call for our veterans to board.“
As I returned to my seat I felt sort of like a yo-yo or a ping-pong ball. Traveling down from Alaska to the unbelievable healing experience of singing and talking to these veterans and interacting with them, hearing all of their inspiring stories, to the anxiety of entering the airport trauma, to wanting to throw the waiter out the window, to just such humility and gratitude and embarrassment and chagrin at having my meal bought for me, to the soft emotions I felt at Greg shepherding his veteran friend to the gate. A man who for the first time was traveling without his Service dog of seven years. How he told him he had his back and not to worry until he said run, and then bouncing back to my own gate anxiety and my fear of the gate ladies, and then back to myself, the best version of myself. Sitting there calmly waiting to go home.
Yo-yo or ping pong ball. Doesn’t matter. I can wish I were steady as a rock. With my feathers never getting ruffled. But the first step, the very first step is noticing and accepting where I am. And today I notice I am a lot like a yo-yo or a ping pong ball. And the small miracle is, I can chuckle, I can smile. And I send some healing love and light to my veteran Brothers who are all traveling home. Welcome home.
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.