August 11, 2011Bob and Moe Eaton’s marriage, shadowed for more than 30 years by nightmares from the war in Vietnam, was about to implode. Ken Kraft, an Army officer who proudly served in Iraq, felt betrayed by his son’s refusal to carry on the family tradition of military service. Eli Painted Crow, a former Army drill sergeant, felt betrayed by the nation that sent her to war on dark-skinned, tribal people like herself.
These were just some of the rubbed-raw emotions that a couple dozen war veterans and several family members brought to an unusual retreat in Oregon. In this deceptively quiet setting, a film crew recorded real life dramas brimming with outbursts of bitterness and laughter, tears and hugs, dark humor and dawning revelations. The focus of the four-day gathering, just before Memorial Day 2008, was to sort out what they wanted to say—in a poem or a song or a concise statement—to a crowd of people preparing a public event to welcome these warriors home from war.
“I’m asking you to f------ listen!” Eli Painted Crow shouted at the other participants in a particularly tense point in the new documentary called “The Welcome.” A retired Army sergeant and Native American peace activist, Painted Crow was fed up with interruptions as she attempted to explain how she felt about her deployment in Iraq, where fellow soldiers called combat areas Indian country. “I just want to be heard with your hearts,” she added, before stomping out the door to cool off. “If you don’t hear me with your hearts, I can’t heal.”
In another scene, a member of Veterans For Peace said he felt like the enemy in Vietnam. Another Vietnam vet retorted that he wasn’t the enemy but killed people who were the enemy. That set off a whirlwind of war justifications by other veterans.
Such scenes pull viewers intimately into the inner turmoil of the aftermath of war that swirls through many veterans across America. Throughout the 93-minute film directed by Kim Shelton, veterans and family members openly struggle to tame the turmoil long enough to find some pathway to healing.
“Sometimes you stumble into something out of a sense of duty or good intentions only to find yourself absorbed and overwhelmed beyond anything you might have anticipated,” a reviewer for The Oregonian, Shawn Levy, wrote of this low-budget film that was an audience hit at the Ashland (Oregon) Independent Film Festival this spring.
“From virtually the outset, with a poem by Laura Carpenter, a veteran of Afghanistan about to deploy to Iraq, ‘The Welcome’ drills directly through any emotional reserves you might bring into it,” Levy added. “You're unsteadied, startled, galvanized, and brought to sobs again and again. There are dark jokes and harrowing accounts of the hellish confusion of war and its grip on the memory. There are angry outbursts as the various veterans try to establish terms of respect and conduct with one another. There are wry laughs and monumental silences. And there are staggering moments of courage in which the veterans look as if they're merely speaking aloud but in which they are actually performing open-heart surgery on themselves -- in front of an audience and a movie camera.”
Amazingly, the participants ignored the camera as they candidly interacted with each other and with retreat leader Michael Meade, described by the filmmakers as a “mythologist and story teller who specialized in working with traumatized communities.” Meade’s ritualistic mixture of Native American chants and Irish stories grated on Eli Painted Crow and another Native American woman veteran. But after an outburst about respecting traditions, they participated on their terms.
“One of the ways to heal is to find out what our gifts are and begin practicing giving them,” Meade said, in guiding the group to write poetry, which he defined as “the speech of the soul,” in preparation for a Memorial Day event at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
Retired Army Captain Ken Kraft wrestled with how to make sense of a phone call he’d gotten in Iraq that his son had deserted from Army ranger training and denounced the war. He felt betrayed, he said, and bolted from the podium back to his seat. At the Memorial Day event, Kraft praised the intense interaction at the retreat and read a poem about his pride in being a soldier and noted that he was trying to reach out to his son.
A young woman veteran shyly read a poem about the shame of a sexual assault by a military superior. Another young woman vet read a poem about older veterans reaching out and clearing a path for them.
Cynthia Lefever, whose son was severely wounded in Iraq, read a poem about a dream in which rows of wounded soldiers marched down a road toward her, beseeching: “Be our mom—for God’s sake, bring us home!”
“I found a voice I didn’t know I had,” Mandy Martin, another of the retreat participants, said in a recent PBS television interview. "The impact has been pretty immense," she said of the veterans' healing project. A follow up on the film website notes that she now works at the Department of Veterans Affairs as a congressional communications officer.
Moe Eaton, whose husband Bob served in Vietnam, read a poem about his frightening mood swings and suicidal statements. “Me: Why can’t you count your blessings? He: I don’t know.”
Bob Eaton then haltingly told a story, which he said he’d never been able to tell his wife, about surviving a battle in Vietnam and having to shovel up the remains of dead soldiers blown apart by artillery explosions. “I thought every f------ night that that was going to happen again,” he added.
At the Memorial Day event, Bob Eaton pulled out a guitar, stared at the packed auditorium full of neighbors, friends and strangers and brought down the house with applause when he growled “I was heavily medicated for depression. I wanted to get off the medication and took up the guitar. You’re the first audience I’ve ever played for.”
“You’re coming home/ Feeling all alone/ Thousand-yard stare/ Nobody there,” he sang and then stopped, nearly breaking down. The audience clapped again encouragingly. “When will it end?/ The guilt and the shame/ Now it’s back again,” he continued. “That old war/ It still haunts me.”
In a recent PBS television interview about the film, Moe Eaton said the couple’s participation in the veterans’ retreat “had a lot to do with saving our marriage.” She realized, she said, that Bob’s war nightmares wouldn’t go away by continuing to say “get over it.”
For Bob Eaton, playing a song he wrote at the Memorial Day “Welcome Home” event launched a new career singing at veterans’ gatherings. “It gave me the courage to keep going,” he said.
The documentary was made by Kim Shelton and her husband, Bill McMillan, who are both therapists in Ashland, Oregon. They created the Welcome Home Project to provide resource materials for communities interested in holding similar events and are seeking film festivals and organizations that would be interested in hosting showings of the film.
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