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.
Last night I was getting ready to sing to eight veterans, and one trip leader, a total of nine. As they were gathering, I got a text from a friend who said he was in the audience of a Jewel concert back in Boston. She had just come on stage. He even sent me a photo of her on stage.
Amazing this technology we have at our fingertips. Here I am sitting in front of a group of veterans, all seated in this comfortable living room of this lodge. At that same moment she is somewhere in Boston on her stage. She is starting a nationwide tour which will take almost two months. Since she is playing with several other popular groups, I imagine the venues and the audiences will be fairly large. Over the course of the tour, she will be singing to many people, touching many lives with her inspiring songs and voice.
After all the veterans had gathered, I told them about the text I had just gotten. I used that theme as a springboard for my evenings offering. I call it an ‘offering’ rather than a performance. For some reason, it fits for me. Instead of seeing myself as the performer, the entertainer, and them as the audience or the listeners, I see us all as bringing something, as being participants, as all having something to offer.
To treat every audience the same no matter how large or small, is something that my first wife Nedra and I believed very strongly, and tried to pass on to our family when we performed together.
Later after the divorce, Jewel and I performed together for a few years, mostly in bars and restaurants. I told a story about one evening when she and I were playing in a place called AmVets, short for American Veterans, a place in Anchorage. There
was only one man sitting at the bar, nobody at the tables. You could tell by the way his head was nodding that he was either really sleepy or had been drinking a lot. When we got up to go to the restroom we could tell he had been drinking a lot. As we sang our songs it was very obvious to see that Jewel had a bad attitude. You could hear it in her voice, you could see it in her face. She was communicating her thoughts and feelings, as only a young teenager can do. So I reminded her that the size of the audience didn’t matter, that we were getting paid, that our one-man audience deserved our very best. I could tell I was not getting through to her.
A few moments later this extremely inebriated man came staggering up to the stage. He looked up at us. The stage had stopped his forward momentum, but his feet were still kind of shuffling like a wind-up toy when it runs into something and doesn’t stop. You could tell he was trying to focus on us, and was getting ready to say something. He looked at Jewel and said, “Whaatshh yorre problmm sourpuss?” Message delivered. He proudly staggered out the door. He had probably been sitting there at the bar for some time thinking about this. I imagine that he clearly felt he was being talked down to, or sung down to. And he was being dismissed, not seen. Like any of us in that same situation, it takes courage to go up to the manager and say that we had a waitress who was very rude, it takes nerve to give someone feedback.
After he walked out the door, I turned and looked at Jewel and raised an eyebrow. I didn’t need to say anything. But the lesson stuck. She often refers to it. So here I was. With nine fellow veterans. Veterans who see each other and hear each other. Veterans who don’t feel unimportant or discarded or set aside. Veterans who feel honored and important. Veterans who understand each other because they know where they have all been. It is healing. It is emotional to be talking or singing while feeling strong emotions, while watching the audience of nine sitting just in front of you and beside you within reach, with their emotions showing on their face, and in their body language, and in their tears. Happy tears. Peaceful tears. Tears of coming home.
As is usually the case, when I got done, conversations started. That’s the important stuff. Kind of like a good dessert after a meal. And the really cool thing is this: It’s not about me. It’s not about fans saying how great you were. It’s not about you feeling that you did a good job, delivered a good product, that you met the audience’s expectations, that they really got their money’s worth. Nope. It’s about feeling safe enough to open up that private room of healing. That personal space. And it’s about realizing that every time you do that, those scary memories, those demons, those voices, have less power, less of a hold on you. It’s about believing more and more that the shit you went through was real. It’s about believing more and more that life will always throw shit your way, new shit or old shit recycled in the form of Flashbacks or triggers. But ultimately, it’s about believing more and more that there’s always a way out, and that each time, you find that way out sooner and quicker. It’s about learning sometimes just to hunker down, and keep breathing, and keep telling yourself help is on its way. I’m OK.
Sitting here in the sun writing this here at Freedom Ranch, I feel very inadequate, at a loss of words, to describe what us 10 guys went through here last night. I guess you would’ve had to have been there. I tried to sum it up as I talked with these veterans last night…I told them that so far the most important healing and satisfying performance of my life was right here singing to these brothers all within arms reach. That my most important gratifying healing performing experience so far, had been the night before as they were practicing fly casting on the lawn and I pulled up a chair and sang them a song I wrote called, “Welcome Home.”
It’s one of my many story songs. I tell a story about how the song came to be. Sometimes in the middle of the song I’ll tell another little story or two. When the song is done you can always count on me telling another story. It’s kind of like a package deal. It’s not that I feel the need to explain or embellish or stretch out the song. It’s more like introducing a near and dear friend. You don’t just say, “this is my friend Jim.” If the setting is intimate and you’re among friends, you want to say how you met Jim maybe mention his major accomplishments, what makes him special. I do the same thing when I have someone over for dinner. Call it old school. I tell my guests what they are having, “This is a black bear roast that I shot last fall out on my property by the cabin. This is some lettuce my wife grew in the greenhouse. We froze these nettles when we picked them last spring.”
It used to embarrass me when my dad did that before dinner. He’d say “Everything on the table except the salt, we grew right here on the Homestead, including the butter.” I hate going to dinners where you have no clue what you were eating or where it came from. If it is a gathering of people where everybody brought a dish, I hate not knowing who brought what and what it is. It’s not that I think my audience is a bunch of dummies. Like they won’t get it without my explanation, like they won’t feel the full impact. Part of it might be the singer songwriter style. And part of it is also that I always love hearing how someone else’s song came to be. So I introduced the song.
In about 2007 I was flying from Seattle to Anchorage. A guy in the seat in front of me was wearing desert camo. I tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned around I said welcome home and I shook his hand. The guy beside me in civilian clothes heard me, and told me that he had been over there for the past year volunteering as a civilian. He was an attorney. I shook his hand and said welcome home to him also. As we talked, these two men had very different opinions about our involvement in Iraq. But I thought to myself that they both deserved to be welcomed home because they both had done a service and had risked their lives.
I landed in Anchorage and had a four hour drive to get to Homer. Lots of time to sing and write. Lots of time to think about the welcome home I did not get when I came back from Vietnam. I thought about the wars since Vietnam. Who made the decisions to go to war? What were the reasons? What have we found out years later about the real reasons we went, about the good if any that we did while we were there? I thought about all the different motivations for going. People join for many reasons. Some are drafted and did not volunteer. All of that aside, they all deserve to be welcomed home. If we, as civilians, or even as veterans, have a problem with any war being fought, we should take it up with the politicians, and not take it out on returning soldiers.
Just because nobody said welcome home to me when I first got back from Vietnam doesn’t mean I can’t say it to others now. It doesn’t mean I can’t give others what I did not get. And by doing so, I am giving it to myself as well. An important lesson in life. I think it might have something to do with, ‘do unto others.’ It works!
There were no flags waving, sure as hell wasn’t any marching bands
I was a troubled boy of 21 when I got back from Vietnam
I didn’t know what I expected, I didn’t know I’d feel so alone
I didn’t know that there would be no one there saying, soldier welcome home
I’ve done what I’ve had to do to take away the pain And I have tried to do for others what I didn’t get that day
And it don’t matter from which war or how young or old
I shake their hand and I look em in the eye and say soldier welcome home
Welcome home my arms reach out for you Welcome home I know what you’ve been through Welcome home mothers fathers all my daughters and sons
Welcome home, welcome home, welcome home
You’ve been my flags awavin’ you’ve been my marching band
It isn’t always easy living with this wounded man Your gentle love has taken me to places I’ve not known
With your arms open wide saying, “soldier welcome home“.
There’s a time for disagreement and there’s a time for debate
Don’t let the innocent feel your hate
Sometimes we have no choice,
But we all deserve to hear that healing voice
Welcome home my arms reach out for you welcome home you did what you had to do
Welcome home mothers fathers all my daughters and sons
Welcome home welcome home welcome home.
Just a small group of veterans standing around me in a loose semi circle. Some had their cameras out. They all were holding their fly rods. But none of them looked antsy, like I was interrupting their activity or acted like they had their mind on fishing. Like there was somewhere else they would rather be. They were all right there. In the moment. Listening deeply. Not just hearing but feeling what I was saying.
Just one song , “Welcome home.”
One song.. A handful of vets and the fly fishing instructor, who was also a Vietnam veteran. Another Vietnam veteran could not stop talking about that one song on the lawn that evening. Everytime he mentioned it, it was sincere and with deep emotion. I totally got him!
A beautiful setting in nature beside the Big Hole River in the Big Hole Valley Montana. Just one song in the evening Sun. But a whole lot of healing. There’s always room for more healing. There’s always room for another 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.