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Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with Dr. Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt of "Soldier's Heart"

Kate Dahlstedt: Even when our veterans have done a fair amount of healing, have adjusted pretty well, are able to sleep well, are able to manage their relationships and so on and feel pretty much like they are at peace with their experience in the war zone, they still very often carry what we call “soldier’s heart” and that was actually the name that was given to what we now call PTSD during the Civil War. It’s a sense of having experienced human beings at their worst. Maybe at times also human beings at their very best, but often the experience of war is human beings, man against man, really being at their worst and so that leaves people with a real heaviness in their heart. When we were trying to find a name for our organization, “Soldier’s Heart” just seemed to fit.

Ed Tick: Another aspect of the name “Soldier’s Heart” comes from our work in Vietnam. We lead healing and reconciliation journeys back to Vietnam every year. One of our veterans who had only been in combat for four months before he was wounded and shipped home has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for 40 years. A Viet Cong veteran known as “Mr. Tiger” who was at war for 25 years against the Japanese, the French and the Americans sleeps like a baby, he’s 90 years old, he’s healthy, he has no PTSD.

Our vet said, “I don’t get it. How is it that I was only here for four months and it’s ravaged my life whereas you were at war for 25 years and you’re just fine?” Mr. Tiger said,“Oh my brother, I’m sorry but that’s very easy to answer. The answer is in America you look for the wound here,” and Mr. Tiger pointed to his head,to his brain, “but in Vietnam we look for the wound here in our heart” and then tapped his chest and showed his heart. “We love each other. We love you. We apply love and community and understanding to the wounds of war and so we all heal together. When you just look for the wound in your brain and try to fix your brain chemistry, nothing’s going to change. But if we all get into our hearts together and grieve what we had to do at war and love each other, then we can love each other back to health.”

Carol Boss: Let’s talk about Healing Journeys to Vietnam which is one of the important programs of Soldier’s Heart. When did that begin and briefly explain to us what the program is.

Tick: We began leading Healing Journeys to Vietnam in the year 2000, just a few days after the 25th anniversary of the end of the war, and we’ve been doing it ever since. We lead annual Healing Journeys to Vietnam, so we’ve been there ten times so far.

Again, as we were saying earlier,we look for comprehensive holistic means for healing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and so we step far beyond the therapy setting to go back to where the wounds occurred and practice reconciliation, forgiveness, making friends and atonement for the actions committed during warfare.

So when we go to Vietnam we don’t only take veterans, we also take family members, survivors, widows of vets who have died, children of veterans, peace activists, students and spiritual pilgrims. They all have business with Vietnam and in fact, of course all of us as Americans have business with Vietnam and with any people we’ve ever had conflict with.

When we go to Vietnam we immerse fully in Vietnamese culture. We take our veterans back to where they served. They don’t only want to see their old battlefields, but we meet with the local people, we often will go to a village that our veterans helped destroy and meet with the villagers who survived it.

Boss: Kate, what would you say are some of the main reasons that individuals, particularly veterans, choose to go on these journeys to Vietnam with you and Ed?

Dahlstedt: I think that veterans of the Vietnam War are often curious about Vietnam today. They’re also very anxious about the idea of going back and so they do it because they,at some level, know that they have unfinished business.I think that they want to see Vietnam thriving so that they can have new images in their heads than the ones that they left with where it was really kind of a moonscape after they used so much of the Agent Orange.I think also at another level they really do want to make peace with the Vietnamese because of all the guilt that they feel and they really are looking for some kind of atonement. However, when we begin to arrange our trips, we find that they also get very scared, really terrified of going back.

Boss: What is the fear and apprehension about for them?

Dahlstedt: The fear is really a frozen consciousness and that’s what happens in war. When they left Vietnam it was a war zone and there were “good guys” and “bad guys” and there were people who were trying to kill them. They also did things that they’re not proud of and so there’s a sense that when I go back there they’re going to get me, they’re going to know who I am and they’re going to know what I did and they’re going to punish me for it. What happens of course is when we get there, that’s just the opposite of what happens.They are welcomed with open arms and we reassure them about that and tell them about that, but they have to really experience it.

Boss: Ed Tick, what is the importance of one having the opportunity to meet with their former enemies?

Tick: There’s a wonderful African proverb that goes, “An enemy is one whose story I have not yet heard.” When we go to Vietnam, Americans and Vietnamese, veterans and civilians tell each other their stories. When war survivors tell each other their stories, they end up declaring we are brothers and sisters who survived the same hell.

One Viet Cong veteran we meet with every year in the MeKong Delta is Tam Tien who was severely wounded and left for dead and really has a miraculous story of survival. Tam Tien said to our group of visiting veterans one year, “From now on and forevermore American and Vietnamese veterans must be the lips and the tongue of the same mouth telling the rest of the world the same story.” By going back to Vietnam, all of the survivors; Vietnamese and American enter into a shared identity. We survived the same hellish war together. We have to be in this together from now on as friends and allies rebuilding both of our countries from the wounds that that war gave to all of us.

Peace Talks Radio host Carol Boss talks with U.S. Vietnam War Veterans Al Plapp and Tommy Laughlin, who both went back to Vietnam on a healing journey with Soldier's Heart

Carol Boss: Al,did you ever think about returning to Vietnam? I’m interested in your reasons for why you would want to return.

Al Plapp: Well I’d always wondered about the people. I had a picture of a little girl on my wall every since I came back that I’d taken over there that I fell in love with at the orphanage where I worked at. I named her “Sarah.” So I always had that on my wall to think about the people.

About four years ago I met Dr. Tick and Kate and Dr. Fisher at a conference and they were speaking about this journey back and when I heard that I thought, I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to go back. I talked to my wife about it and we agreed and last October we went back.

Boss: What motivated you?

Plapp: Primarily because I wanted to reconnect with the people. I wanted to reconnect with the culture. I still am and was at that time confused about our own culture. I couldn’t understand all the aggression that we have here, all the anger that we have here that they didn’t have over there even during war. When I returned over there, they were the same. They don’t have the anger, they don’t have the PTSD. The culture shock was coming back here, not going there.

Boss: Tommy, had you had thoughts about returning to Vietnam?

Tommy Laughlin: Not for many, many years; decades. People started going back I think in the ‘90s, veterans started going back and that evolved. I thought about it. When I was over there in ’67, I recognized it as a very beautiful place. Even though we might have considered it Third World, I thought it was beautiful. I thought the people were very clean and industrious. I didn’t really think that it required a lot of change. But in any case, I was taken by the beauty of it despite the circumstances. In that sense I always thought it would be a nice place to be a tourist in peace time.

But after people started going back, you still have the anxiety and that fear. You spent basically a year in a dangerous situation so I couldn’t really conceive of going back without being armed until I went to a workshop with Dr. Ed Tick. He had what he terms a “spiritual approach” to recovery from these issues.

I had recognized during some of my hospital stays at the VA the spiritual side of me, and probably others as well, wasn’t being addressed at all and I went looking for help in the hospital spiritually. Even though I don’t have a faith base or a particular religion, I recognized there was something lacking there and it was basically almost 20 years before I found somebody to help me address that.

As soon as Dr. Tick talked about the Soldier’s Heart journeys back to Vietnam and that dynamic,I stepped right up and went back and haven’t regretted a thing about it.

Boss: When you returned, how were you first received by the Vietnamese? What do you remember about that first encounter?

Laughlin: Well, that’s a very good question. I think I perceived less about the Vietnamese than myself. It was healing in itself just to step down on the ground and not be afraid. They are a very gracious people. That’s just basically how the whole trip went.

Boss: Al Plapp, what happened when you met Vietnamese vets for the first time on your return trip?

Plapp: Well there was always just a little bit of anxiety because the last thing you recalled were rockets still going off and people shooting. So I went back and intellectually I was fine, but emotionally the imprint was always there. When I stepped on the ground I was able to see smiles and to see the graciousness of those people that I had experienced a long time before that and in a sense it felt like yeah, I know these people, they’re like family.

Boss: Tommy, I think it was you that said to me in a prior phone call that you found the Vietnamese more respectful of the Americans’ situation than some in our country here in the States. How would you explain that?

Laughlin: I wish I could explain it. I just think it’s part of the human condition to have a difficulty with admitting, even to oneself, that they’ve been wrong about one thing and another; maybe about our entrance into the war at all or the aftermath or how our culture has treated not just returning veterans, but the Vietnamese as well. I don’t know how to explain it. I wish I could. It has been part of the recovery. I’ve finally accepted that I can’t explain it, I just accept it and try to keep on surviving.

Boss: Al, when you went on your trip, were you meeting with the Viet Cong vets, North Vietnamese vets? What kinds of things did you talk about if you did meet with them?

Plapp: Well, our first encounter was going down to the MeKong Delta Tam Tien’s place. Tam Tien was a Viet Cong. He was the former enemy. He greeted us with a big smile and hugs. You kind of go, “wow!” He wants to hear your story. He told us his story. We shot him, left him for dead. He was treated for like nine months, as I remember, in the Cu Chi Tunnels and over there, but he held no grudge. He really wanted to meet the person that shot him to say that he held no grudge, that he forgave him.

Boss: What do you think is so different about how the Vietnamese seem to heal from war and forgive as to compared to what you’ve experienced or have seen in America?

Plapp: That was expressed all the time in our journey over there. Why? Why the difference? Basically I can accept that they fought for their homeland, they fought for their culture, they fought for their families, they fought for an ideal,they fought for a way of life. The soul comes together to form the soul; the internal of yes, this is truly who I am and we were over there because it was a political war. It was an intellectual war. We didn’t have a reason really to be there and we were told to just go out. Our reason for being there, our sole reason for being there, was to survive. They don’t have PTSD because they were fighting from the heart, they were fighting from the soul and they didn’t have that conflict.

Boss: Tommy Laughlin, was there an activity that you participated in on your healing journey that was especially significant for you, for your healing?

Laughlin: There were a couple of factors in there that were significant, first of all the bonding with the fellow vets that were on the trip. Their understanding of what you went through while you were there the first time and what you’ve been going through in the past years is built in, no need for explanation.

There were also wives and other people that weren’t veterans that were on the trip. And even though they weren’t all veterans and hadn’t all been in combat, it was a community. For the first time in 40 some years I was in a community that was accepting, not just of my experience in Vietnam, but also the experience of the previous 40 years; being alienated, withdrawn and isolated, depressed. Depressed maybe more than angry because that’s how you deal with your anger. But the community, in this sense of community, that was marvelous. It was wonderful being able to communicate with people that didn’t make judgments on you. The previous question you asked about explaining the circumstances of our return and our culture were not in that community. It was marvelous.

The other significant factor has to do with the Vietnamese themselves. To visit a kindergarten that Americans have helped to found and keep going to help people work and make their lives better in Vietnam and to visit these children and have them sing to you and treat you as honored guests and patrons was just marvelous. Before, in ’67 when I was there, everybody was in danger. Nobody was safe in that country; not women, not children, certainly not soldiers. But to see those kids and for them to welcome us like they did and to know that they didn’t have to go out in the yard or the home and be in danger from war, it was a marvelous thing. It was one of the happiest moments in my life to be able to witness and accept that and have that experience.

Boss: Al Plapp, do you feel that you reconciled with the Vietnamese?

Plapp: Oh yes, yes and I’m looking forward to hopefully going back again in a couple years. I was able to reconnect with the culture. I was able to reconnect with the people that I had respected in the beginning. It felt like going home. It felt like a place I needed to be. It felt like a place I understood better than my own country and my own circumstance here. I was allowed to not be so anxious and not to be so involved with my own reactions to the war that I had here. I could let that go over there.

Boss: How do you imagine that sense of reconciliation was for the Vietnamese in terms of meeting American vets that returned to Vietnam?

Plapp: They were always gracious. Every time we asked the question, “Why don’t you have PTSD when we do?” they just would say, “Let it go. Just let it go. It’s okay. That was in the past. Live for today. Live for tomorrow. Forget the past.”