By Alison Perry

A Vietnam era veteran weeps in my office repeatedly out of regret for sleeping with young girls forced into prostitution while stationed in Korea.

An OEF/OIF era veteran sustains a lifelong back injury as a result of someone else’s poor judgement. He is then marginalized by his unit, beat up repeatedly, and raped in the barracks before a medical discharge.

A Vietnam Marine sniper veteran is haunted by his actions of “picking off the innocent”, shooting a villager squatting to relieve himself, and a family’s water buffalo (on which they depended for survival.)

Few know the deep interior wounds and memories of horror that our veterans often harbor. Many of them have been exposed to the unspeakable. Few understand why it is difficult or even reprehensible for our veterans to hear “thank you for your service”, or to be called “heroes.” In their own eyes, they can view themselves as evil, tainted, and not fit for polite society.

It is why places like Central Oregon Veterans Ranch – sanctuaries for the morally and spiritually wounded – are so critical. We simply cannot underestimate the power of belonging that is facilitated in these environments (Thomas Joiner, national suicide researcher, cites “lack of sense of belonging” and “feeling like a burden” as the two primary reasons people die by suicide. Among veterans these are pervasive and are often at the root of why veterans “don’t seek help.”)

These sanctuaries can function as a hospital for the soul; a place where peers who have endured similar experiences find peace, support, belonging, and even redemption. Instead of forcing “reintegration” on our veterans, we should focus on integration – into community and within the self – first.