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.
Have I told all of you how much I love writing these dispatches. I probably have but I can’t remember for sure, but regardless, I’ll say it again. I love writing these dispatchers I even love the word. Dispatches. I think it kind of makes me feel like I am writing an ancient scroll, maybe on a piece of birch bark or papyrus. Not even sure what that is, but I think I learned about it in junior high. I picture something like birchbark, which I have actually written on when I was a kid on the homestead.
Not only do I love writing these dispatches, but I am very grateful for the fact that they are posted ,that they are being read and enjoyed by other people. I appreciate all of your kind responses. I am also grateful to Daniel Morgan, the marketing director of Project Healing Waters, whose idea it was to publish these.
Been thinking about the holidays the last couple of days. I was recently asked to join a mental health challenge which my daughter Jewel was heading up. Among other things, they are trying to raise awareness of mental health issues, especially during the holidays.
When I worked as a social worker with adolescents in residential treatment, I was always so saddened by the many traumatic stories the majority of those troubled teens had about the holidays. For so many of them that is when the shit really hit the fan. That’s when the serious drinking started. That’s when the serious abuse started. So sad when you think about it. Such a joyous occasions as Christmas should not serve as trigger to take these young children and teenagers back to those traumatic painful times.
As social workers we always had to prepare for the holidays. Even though they were far from home and several of them had been removed and in residential treatment for years,the shit just kept hitting the fan. Whatever their issues were that caused them to be removed from their homes and to be put in a treatment setting, all increased over the holidays. More running away, more stealing, more serious emotional issues of all sorts, more acting out behavior. How very sad to see the cycles repeated.
One year, a 16 year old boy from a remote Alaska village had no place to go for the holidays, so I brought him down to Homer to our family gathering.
I’ll never forget when on the drive from Homer back to Anchorage he said to me, “ you guys drink just to have fun.” I asked him what he meant and he said again, “you guys drink to have fun”. I recall feeling a little defensive. I thought perhaps he was judging us for not being able to have fun unless there was alcohol involved. He went on to explain. He said in his village around the holidays people did not drink to have fun, they drank until they fell over. And I am sure that before that falling over stone drunk phase, a lot of shit hit the fan.
Reading this boys case record was depressing. Two of his siblings had frozen to death as babies sleeping beside an open window, neglected by parents that were intoxicated.
I mentioned in a dispatch I wrote earlier, but possibly has not been posted yet, about the many layers of trauma that most veterans live with. For many of them the first layer of trauma was an extremely dysfunctional childhood.
When I think about my childhood Christmases as a child on the Homestead the saying comes to mind and I can’t remember where it is from, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Fortunately my younger memories are all good. When I feel giddy with excitement and joy that I almost cannot contain, I always compare it to Christmas morning on the Homestead. Aside from doing chores we did not have to work. We finally got to open the presents, most of them home made with love and care.There were always homemade goodies! There was always a feast. It always had a magical feel. When on Christmas Eve, the homemade bees wax candles were lit, that humble one room log cabin was transformed. My mother would set out a bowl of milk and cookies, and in the morning it would be gone. Santa clause cleaned up every crumb and every drop and usually left some sign that he had been there.
I am not sure if the tension between my parents increased as I got older or if I just did not notice it when I was younger. But as I got older Christmas represented increasing tension and pressure and anxiety, which usually came to a head about the time the Christmas celebration started. Getting to know myself better as I have grown up, I am quite sure that for my dad Christmas represented many unpleasant things. Not enough money. Not being a good provider. Not having thought of all the beautiful gifts my mother made for us and bought for us. I’m quite sure he felt left out. Not included. Jealous. Kind of embarrassed and stupid. Less than. Compared. All feelings I am very familiar with myself. Sometimes those tensions escalated to shouting and screaming. Sometimes it escalated to more. That feeling of somebody ruining something beautiful, stealing my joy, has also been something that has stayed with me and has been a challenge for me all my life.
I still don’t do great at Christmas gatherings, whether at my home, my childrens’ home, or somebody else’s. At the same time I have many miraculous and joyful memories of early childhood Christmases that have lasted a lifetime. Those joyful memories have strengthened and the others have faded.
So this dispatch is especially for all of you who have more challenges emotionally or mentally or spiritually, during the holiday season. It is especially for all of you, whether veterans or civilians, who are on a healing journey of dealing with and overcoming and triumphing over multiple layers of trauma. My thoughts and prayers will be with you over the holidays. Stay strong.
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.