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War veterans and civilians seek common ground in difficult life transition

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The civilian touches the soldier’s buzz cut. Her fingers, nails painted a deep purple, trace the soldier’s crescent-shaped scar — the mark of a head injury he suffered in 2008 in southeast Baghdad when an explosion ripped through the armor of his Humvee.

“How are you doing?” the civilian asks.

“Good,” the soldier says.

The moment between New York City pastor Jacqui Lewis and Army Spec. Patrick Hanley of Reston is quick, and then lost in the general chatter of small-group discussion in the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts on U Street NW, where Washington’s first full Veteran-Civilian Dialogue is underway Thursday evening. Seven groups of about 40 civilians and service members lean into their conversations, perched on the edges of their folding chairs, their knees practically touching. The room, brightly lighted and hung with postmodern art, hums with conversation:

“My brother, when he’s in our lives, tries to be normal, but it’s not normal for him. . . . Conversation is one thing, but doing something is another. . . . I think it’s partly guilt and partly anger. . . . I’m not a warrior. I’m a peaceful person. . . . Some things are being done in my name, on my behalf, and part of me doesn’t want to be disturbed by those realities.”

A small, gonglike sound emanates from a bronze Tibetan singing bowl. The discussion session is over. On to the next exercise.

The Veteran-Civilian Dialogue began 31 / 2 years ago on Fifth Avenue in New York as a project of Intersections International, a multi-faith non-governmental organization that attempts to promote peace by addressing conflict at its fissure points. Co-creators Scott Thompson (a former Army chaplain) and Larry Winters (a Vietnam War veteran and psychotherapist) host a public dialogue every six weeks in Manhattan and have taken it to a handful of other cities on a smaller scale, and by invitation only. The project involves music, poetry and loosely guided one-on-one and group discussions. The goal: a shared, apolitical experience.

“Other cultures understood the transformation of warriors — the Native Americans, the Greeks,” says Winters, 63, who was deployed as a helicopter gunner from 1969 to 1970. “They had transitions, before and after their men went to war. We have a very politically correct way of talking to veterans. We have the yellow ribbons around the trees. We have the welcome-back signs at the airports, but what happens a week after that?”

There have been 2,398,264 service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and the majority have returned home, in various states of health and mind, to live again alongside civilians with various levels of knowledge and empathy. Forty of them are here in this room, for one night only.

Around 8 p.m., 90 minutes into the dialogue, Winters and Thompson place two white chairs in the center of the room, one for a civilian and one for a veteran. Thompson invites anyone to take a seat and talk to the room, or to the person in the opposite chair. Stacy Bare, who served in Iraq in 2007, sits in the veteran’s seat.

“I would like to say to those who say, ‘Thank you for your service’: Remember that you also said ‘Please,’ ” says Bare, veterans representative for the Sierra Club.

His words suck the air out of the room. No one moves.

Winters, both facilitator and veteran, finally steps forward and sits in the civilian chair, because no one else seems willing. “I said ‘Thank you’ because I didn’t know what else to say,” he says.

“And one of these days I’ll get over that,” Bare says.

“What do you need to hear from me?” Winters asks.

Bare shakes his head, smiles, not willing to engage in role play. “I can’t see you as anything other than a veteran,” he says.

Hannah Jacobson, who lives in Adams Morgan and works with arts nonprofit groups, pops up from her chair and taps Winters on the shoulder. “Okay, I’ll take over,” she says. The others laugh, relieved.

“What do you need to hear?” Bare asks.

I needed to hear that you want to engage, says Jacobson, 22. “So how do we move forward?

“I suppose by having this conversation,” Bare says.

Justin Ford, who served as an airborne combat engineer in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, slips into a seat.

“One of the things you learn in the military is trust through action,” says Ford, 30, veterans director for the Truman National Security Project and president of VETPAC, which supports congressional candidates who are veterans. “A civilian shows no action in their thank-yous. A parade is one thing but what about a job? After I got out [of the military] . . . there were too many thank-yous and not enough opportunities.” He notes the high unemployment rate among veterans, which stood at 13.1 percent in December.

“Some of us aren’t in a position to give that kind of opportunity,” Jacobson says. “What can we do instead?”

“When an American service member gets out of the military it’s good to welcome them back,” Ford says. “They’ve been in a different world. I’d much rather make a friend than have someone tell me ‘Thank you.’ It’s a matter of just being there.”

The soldier looks at the civilian.

The civilian looks at the soldier.

“Can you say that last part again?” Winters asks from the sideline.

“Just being there?” Ford says.

Winters nods.

“Just being there.”

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