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.
The image that title conjures up for me is a parent walking into a room and one of the kids is crying. It’s time for that parent to figure out and sort out what is going on. Why the tears? Make sense of it all. Not only so they know what’s going on, but to help that kid make sense of whatever brought on the tears, understand their emotions, see what they can learn from that experience. It could be one of the most important things parents do. And, I would venture a guess, that most parents are not taught that important skill. They either learned it from their parents or they didn’t. So sad when you think about it. All of those emotions that we are given, that we experience, designed to give us important information, we are never taught to interpret or to understand or to grasp how to use them. Sadly, too many times, children are just scolded, or shamed, told to shut up and bottle those strong emotions of anger or sadness or jealousy or fear. “Quit being a baby“. “Grow up!” “Stop being a scaredy-cat“. “I’ll -teach -you -to hit -your -brother!” This said as a parent is hitting the offending child to punctuate what they are yelling.
I was always so impressed and blown away when I watched my children helping their young children deal with their emotions so much differently than I dealt with theirs. So much differently from the way my father dealt with mine. I don’t know where they learned it. It certainly wasn’t from me. Probably their mother. When there was any type of crisis with our children, their mother’s first task was to get me out of the room. Some amazing things must’ve happened after I left the room. I might have learned a lot had I stayed on the other side of the door and eavesdropped. But alas, I was too busy getting my own quivering quaking inner child under control. Coming from the kind of childhood I had, it is easy to understand how watching my grown children deal with their young children, and helping them make sense of their emotions, always blew me away. Several things always happened simultaneously at those times. Part of me went right back to being a young child, and in an instant, became terrified that on top of the strong emotions I was feeling, I would be somehow hurt, humiliated, shamed. That part of me would just freeze. Go numb.
Another part of me stood in amazement with jaw dropped! Watching my children dealing with their children in such a different way than had been done to me, then I had done to them, it was like watching aliens. Another part of me suddenly became a young child again in a safe environment, and I soaked up the goodness that my children were passing on to my grandchildren. I was right there in the goodie line. Getting my share. It may be a couple of generations late, but what the heck. Better late than never!
“So what does it feel like? Where in your body do you feel it? What do you think it’s trying to tell you? What do you want to do about it? When did you start feeling it? Hell, I’m still not sure what I’m feeling and where in my body I’m feeling! Can you imagine the Headstart my grandchildren will have in life!
To say I always felt extreme pride at those times as I listened to my children talking to their kids, is to put it mildly. I was in awe! Totally blown away! Of all of my children’s accomplishments, which are many, I am the most proud of how they handled their children’s emotions. I am sure it will save countless trips to the therapist, save lots of money, and prevent many divorces.
I’ve cried twice in the last 24 hours, so something within me, a higher self, a kind inner parent, is asking, “what’s going on here?”
As a hunter and an outdoorsman who has spent a lot of time in the wilderness, I have learned to pay attention to the little things, the little clues, and see what they mean, see what I can learn from them. I have learned many times over how easy it is to get into serious trouble by not paying attention to small details. Rocks that are ready to fall on you. Ground that is ready to slide out from under you. Quicksand that is ready to pull you down. Icy rivers that are ready to sweep you downstream. There are always little warning clues if you only pay attention. I have missed countless opportunities to shoot the game or catch the fish I was after, or never found those beautiful high mountain valleys and camping spots, because I missed those small cues, I did not pay attention to nature’s signs and arrows along the trail, pointing the way.
The first time I heard the term “mindfulness” defined, the first thing that jumped into my mind was being out in the wilderness. Paying attention. Noticing the river or the quicksand or the landslide or the avalanche before it swept you away. You don’t have many choices once you’re being swept down the stream in that emotional flood. Not much you can do when you’re being tumbled over and over and suffocating under an avalanche of fear. Being alert is the key, noticing the early warning signs that’s what mindfulness is. Learning from our emotions but not being swallowed and controlled by them. I have heard it said that we should feel the heat but not be consumed by the flames.
I was driving back from the Bozeman Airport with Montana. No, not the state, a young veteran. Hey, we’re in cowboy’s country, his Dad’s name is Rooster! We had just taken some veterans who had spent a week fly fishing at Freedom Ranch, to the Bozeman airport.
It’s a couple of hours drive, lots of time to talk. Two guys in a van. A young veteran in his early 30s who helped eliminate ISIS! An old veteran, almost 75 years old, who helped fight the Vietcong. As we drove and talked, differences slipped away. Differences of age, what war, who the enemy was, why we were there, what good we did. Differences in scars and wounds. Differences in what state our own country was in when we returned. Lots of differences. But like always, when veterans get together you quickly find those areas of commonality and go there. Telling our stories, hearing those of others.That’s where the good stuff is. That’s where the healing is. That’s where the goosebumps and the tears are.
We had a lot in common besides our military experience. I used to work as a clinical social worker with teenagers who had serious social and emotional issues. Many of them had been incarcerated for serious offenses. Montana has done very similar work as a drill sergeant, at a youth academy for a similar type of youth. They run it like a Boot Camp.
After Montana got the job of working with veterans through Project Healing Waters, he told me that he thought to himself, “I am helping young people find their way forward, and I am helping older people find their way back.” I had him repeat that so I would not forget it! Beautiful!
He went on to say how unbelievably grateful he was to be making a living, to be earning money doing this type of work, in this beautiful setting, close to where he was raised! Using his experience, his training.
He played me a song on his iPhone that he helped co-write and his songwriting buddy recorded. An amazing song! I read him something I had written about this veterans retreat. We had a lot in common, our differences slipped away.
We talked about the healing we had witnessed here at Freedom Ranch at this fly fishing veterans retreat. We talked about the miracle of veterans healing veterans. There are no doctors and patients. There are no therapists and clients. Just veterans sharing stories, sharing their successes and failures, sharing ingredients in their recipes for reclaiming their souls and their lives.
Many times during this drive, because of things we were talking about, Montana would rub his arm and say, “wow that gives me goosebumps.” Indeed, we were talking about stuff that gives you goosebumps, stuff that makes you get teary-eyed, stuff that puts a lump in your throat. Good stuff!
At this point in the drive back from Bozeman, young Montana told me a short story. I had heard the same thing said in different ways. I had experienced it myself. I had written songs about it and performed them. I had written a piece about this very thing when I was in a deep dark depression feeling very hopeless just a few months ago. Yet hearing his story told in a different way, with different words, with a different metaphor, well, it made me cry. A young soldier was told by his platoon sergeant to dig a hole. He was given a shovel and a bucket. The young soldier started digging. He dug deeper and deeper. The young soldier shouted for help, “how am I ever going to get out of this hole?” Somewhere from up above the answer came, “just use those tools the military gave you!” The young soldier kept calling for help, all the while digging himself deeper into the hole. Soon the VA came by, and threw a bunch of pills down in the hole. The young soldier started taking all the pills and kept using those military tools, he dug himself deeper and deeper.
At this point in the story, something inside of me shouted, “I love this story already and I don’t even know how it is going to end.” But I knew it was going to have the ending I needed to hear. It’s one of those stories where you get goosebumps and tears and lumps before the punchline. I forgot that Montana was telling the story, I forgot that we were in a van driving down the highway. All I could see was that young soldier digging himself deeper into that dark hole. I became that young soldier. It all came flooding back. I remembered. I kept listening. Montana continued.
When the young soldier was about to give up, he heard something and looked up. Another soldier jumped in the hole. He was dirty and grimy and bloody. He landed at the bottom of the hole beside the other young soldier. “What good is this going to do us, now we’re both down here in this hole“, said the first soldier.
“Don’t worry, I can help you“, the second soldier replied, “I’ve been here before I know how to get out.”
This is when I started crying. That feeling of release. Of knowing you are finally rescued. The wait is over. I cried for that soldier within me who spent years in that dark hole waiting for help! I cried for that brave young wounded soldier within me, who had been in that hole many times, who knew the way out! That young brave inner soldier who could now perhaps at times be a guide to others. It brought up a lot of good stuff.
I guess I needed to feel that again, to revisit it, to revisit both of those soldiers in the hole. The one afraid and paralyzed, not knowing how to ask for help, not knowing how to get out, and the one who has been there many times and has the way out memorized.
It reminded me that I can certainly feel more sympathy for those people who seem stuck and see no way out. For those who don’t even know they are stuck, don’t even know they need help. I can certainly do a better job of keeping my eyes open and offering my help. I can also get better at recognizing when I once again let myself get into that deep dark hole, and to remember to stay calm until that other soldier arrives to show me the way out, that other soldier within me who is gaining just a little every day.
I called my wife Bonnie this morning, and told her that story that Montana had told me yesterday. And darned if I didn’t cry again! All good. All good stuff!
You can talk about a lot of things in a couple of hours. You can feel a lot of things. You can remember a lot of things. But at the end of the day, at the end of the trip, just a few things that you both said stick with you. And as time goes by even those things fade. Even what you felt, even those goosebumps and tears fade away. Or do they?
I believe they stay with us, they become part of us, just like all the trauma we have been through has become part of us. I believe they are added to all of those other goosebumpy and teary experiences. They are added to all of that other good stuff that keeps us going, that helps us remember how to get out of those dark holes, or how to help others get out.They are added to that reservoir, to our strength,to our core, to our most noble and higher self.
So to answer the question, “so what is going on here?”, I guess I would have to say. A lot of good stuff! A lot of healing!
A few days before this, a veteran friend of Montana’s had come to town. They had spent some time together. Without going into detail, Montana told me that this friend was going through some really rough times. When I hear a veteran is going through some really rough times I think I have a pretty good idea what that means.
Montana invited this young friend to come fly fishing with us, even though he wasn’t technically part of the program, he would be a helper. Montana told me that he had let this friend read the story I had written about our trip back from Bozeman, the story of the soldier in the hole. He said his friend loved it.
The next day I met this friend on our fishing trip. He went out of his way to seek me out in private. With touching words and real emotions, he told me just how much the story meant to him – it could not have come at a better time in his life. He went on to say that he got back on track, it was just what the good doctor ordered. Was I the good doctor? Was Montana the good Doctor? No. I give him all the credit. He did the hard work. He asked for help and was ready when it came. That’s what all these veterans at this healing retreat are doing. Asking for help and being open to it. No matter how many times they find themselves in that deep hole!
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.