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Finding peace: Veterans visit monastery to heal traumas of war

Staff Photo: Karen J. Rohr. Father Gerard Gross, a monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, plays "On Eagle's Wings," at a Healing Ceremony during the Spiritual Healing for Veterans Retreat at the monastery.

Staff Photo: Karen J. Rohr. Father Gerard Gross, a monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, plays "On Eagle's Wings," at a Healing Ceremony during the Spiritual Healing for Veterans Retreat at the monastery.

CONYERS — On a recent Tuesday morning, a group of military veterans, along with a few of their wives, gathered at the Monastery of Holy Spirit to hear what Father Anthony Delisi had to say about anger and forgiveness as it relates to war.

"What if we can't forgive ourselves?" asked a Vietnam veteran.

"How do we handle memories that give guilt and shame?" inquired another.

"What about the anger that was directed to our spouses and children?" remarked another.

As the discussion unfolded, silent tears were shed and answers from the monk and fellow veterans were offered up.

The group is part of a four-day Spiritual Healing for Veterans Retreat, the first of its kind in Georgia. The retreat is designed to assist those veterans coping with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and other mental health issues related to their service in the military.

"There is no opportunity for them to resocialize. Readjustment can be a difficult task. In less than four days, you're back in your living room without your buddies around you. You're going from the battlefield to your living room."

The retreat, aimed at veterans from all faiths, entailed sessions such as Forgiveness and Healing, Contemplative Prayer, Strength through Suffering, The Journey Home and Grace in the Moment. A Grief Ceremony and a Healing Ceremony were also incorporated.

The goal of the retreat was to offer veterans a path to peace by helping them develop a relationship with God, said retreat co-organizer and Vietnam veteran Andy Farris.

"A lot of people are now starting to see that PTSD is really a moral wound or soul wound and one of the things we're looking for is forgiveness, for what we either did or didn't do in the war," he said.

Farris said that according to Veterans Administration statistics, 1.2 million veterans sought treatment for PTSD in 2010. Of those, 60 percent were Vietnam veterans.

One reason why Vietnam vets are now seeking treatment for mental stress experienced four decades ago, he explained, is because recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are opening old wounds.

"All this stuff you just stuffed away for 40 years just pops loose," Farris said.

The retreat was designed to serve veterans of all ages, said Farris, and a quick survey of the retreat session on Tuesday showed faces old and young.

Farris included another statistic in his literature about the retreat: According to the Rand Corporation, in 2008 nearly 20 percent, or roughly 300,000, soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms of PTSD or major depression, yet only half sought treatment.

Farris said veterans ranging in age from 23 to 88, who fought in wars including WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, attended the retreat.

"We covered three generations," said Farris.

An outgrowth of www.healingveterans.org, a nonprofit operated by Farris, the retreat is being videotaped to create mini-retreats for presentation at churches and veterans organizations. Specifically, the condensed retreats could be aimed at citizen-soldiers who have served in the National Guard, said Farris, and representatives from the Georgia National Guard visited the monastery to review the effort.

"What I can do is carry the message of the monks with me," Farris said.

From 2000 to 2010, 10,000 Georgia National Guard soldiers have been deployed overseas for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Farris said that while those enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces arrive back to the states onto a military base and undergo a debriefing, National Guard citizen-soldiers are sent directly into the home environment after an outprocessing of about three or four days.

"There is no opportunity for them to resocialize. Readjustment can be a difficult task," Farris said. "In less than four days, you're back in your living room without your buddies around you. You're going from the battlefield to your living room."

Farris suffers from PTSD from his experiences in the Vietnam War as an infantry officer with the 25th Division from fall 1967 to fall 1968. One image, among others, imprinted in his memory is that of him holding a wounded soldier while a medic worked to save the soldier's life and another soldier held a two-way radio to Farris' ear so that he could call for a medivac.

Asked whether or not the soldier lived, Farris said, "I don't know. I wish I knew."

Farris said that for more than a decade after he returned from Vietnam he was a workaholic and an alcoholic incapable of forming any kind of intimate relationship with anyone.

That changed in 1982 when he visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Looking at the names of soldiers who lost their lives in Vietnam, he also saw his own reflection and thought "Why them and not me?"

Farris then went to work helping veterans obtain small business loans through the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program.

Now 67 and retired, Farris lives in Roswell with his wife and is the father of two college-age children.

"I'm just a guy and I happen to be a veteran, but I happen to have this feeling that what I'm doing is the work that God wants me to do," Farris said.

To learn more, visit www.healingveterans.org.