Veteran Civilian Dialogue at Intersections International

Last week I attended The Veteran Civilian Dialogue (VCD) at Intersections International. I had no idea what to expect, besides what the title of the event suggested.  What I couldn’t believe, was how moved I was, how many thoughts and emotions I had, and that I haven’t been able to stop talking about it since. At the beginning of the three hour event I sat amongst 100 strangers, and by the end, I realized that they weren’t strangers at all. I was infused with a sense of my fellow man, and our responsibility care for one another.

Scott Thompson, founder of VCD, was kind enough to answer a few questions. To learn more about the program and how you can attend, click here, and to learn more about Intersections International, click here.

group discussion at Veteran Civilian Dialogue. photo by Mike Nagle.

What prompted you to start the Veteran Civilian Dialogue?

The Veteran Civilian Dialogue started 2.5 years ago when we invited Larry Winters (veteran, psychologist, writer, and friend) to our office at Intersections.  The short story is, he looked at a group of about 15 of us and said, “you all have something I need for my healing.”  He then flipped it around and said, ”I think I have something for your healing also.” In this moment VCD was born.

What is it exactly, and how is it different from other programs for veterans?

It is a bringing together of equal numbers of veterans and civilians to talk about the impact of war upon both groups.  I can’t underestimate the importance of equal numbers, since it is what helps to create a level playing field between these two groups.  Many of the attempts to “help” veterans do not work.  In fact, many veterans do not show up for events that well intended civilians embark on, where the frame is a mental health one, that asks the veterans to be weak, damaged or pathologized.  VCD is not psychological healing, rather it is social healing.  It is the bringing together of social identities of veterans and civilians into new and vital relationships with each other.  I believe this goes to the spirit of what true reintegration into society means.  Veterans have told us that they can’t heal by themselves and can’t be reintegrated back into society without talking to civilians.  This work speaks directly to this issue.

How would you describe what takes place in the course of the evening?

The evening is a carefully planned series of conversation structures that take people from the safety of relating to themselves, into a pair, then a small group, then a large group and beyond.  Sociodrama, psychosynthesis, group and dialogue process, are some of the elements involved.  We also learned that creative expression is important for many people, both veterans and civilians alike. We started inviting both veterans and civilians to share their work and now poetry, songs, and vignettes of plays are sprinkled throughout the evening as a way to deepen and enrich the evening of dialogue and conversation.  It is quite an elegant and poignant evening.

Do people come back to VCD repeatedly? If so, any thoughts on why?

Over 1200 people have experienced VCD to date.  We have found that more than 300 have returned on numerous occasions.  We invite this.  I say that as long as this resource serves you, please make use of it.  For many is the first time in which they’ve been invited to have a conversation with another group that they know very little about, sensing that each has something very important for the other.  War has had a major impact on our society, both on soldiers and civilians and there is virtually no place for this process.  I think it is also a forum that is safe for people to speak openly.  Again, there are not many places for this to happen in our society.  There is deep listening, there is deep care, there’s deep appreciation, and there is deep understanding.  I think these are priceless.

What do you think civilians gain from attending VCD? What do veterans gain?

I think civilians gain a keen insight into the experiences that soldiers have during their tour of duty.  I think civilians have an opportunity to be able to deeply support soldiers.  I think civilians are able to share their own personal experience and the impact of war.  I think civilians are able to experience a collective sense of responsibility for what soldiers have enacted.  Almost as if they agree to step forward and carry their stories and experiences for them, that the responsibility is transferred, or at least shared by the civilian population on whose behalf they thought.  I’m told time and time again that veterans feel honored and respected in a way that bumper stickers, acknowledgment at the airport, and other more surface attempts try to convey.  Veterans are able to feel deeply seen and witnessed for some of pain they have experienced both in combat and in their difficulties that reintegration.  Somehow being seen and witnessed in this way is quite powerful.  Indeed, much of this process is about a witness for the war inside that lingers long after combat.

Why did you choose to include performance and participation as components of VCD?

I think I alluded to this or provided a partial answer above.  I don’t quite look at it as performance.  We are learning that the simple act of creative expression is vital for people’s health and healing.  We simply invite that creative expression to be a part of the evening of the veteran civilian dialogue.  Art touches and reaches the intersection between head and heart quite nicely.  The creative expression is wonderfully sprinkled throughout the course of the evening lending grace, depth, beauty, and power to the conversations themselves, which are a thing of beauty themselves.  I would conclude by saying that participation as a component is the heartbeat of the veteran civilian dialogue.  It’s amazing that what is called dialogue in our culture rarely includes dialogue.  Often it is talking heads, panel discussion or Q&A,. Rarely is there an actual dialogue.  So participation, conversation with another human being is what it is that we are modeling.  In fact I would say the veteran civilian dialogue is modeling a process of communication between groups that are either in conflict or unrelated to each other. Until we can be in relationship we won’t experience a sense of wholeness, we all know is our birthright.

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