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Mil-Tree – Community and military coming together

Mil-Tree – Community and military coming together

Published in the Summer edition of the Basin Wide Spring Magazine 2013

One in eight returning Iraq veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They can’t hold jobs, are incapable of intimacy and creative work. Some can’t leave their homes because of extreme fears and phobias. The current reported rate of suicide is twenty-two veteran suicides per day and PTSD symptoms are higher for veterans over fifty. The key to healing, says psychotherapist Ed Tick in his book, The War and the Soul, is to understand PTSD as a soul wound that affects the whole community.

Twentynine Palms, home to the largest marine base in the world and part of the high desert communities is intimately affected by PTSD. The question is, what can we do about it?

Fundraising party at Bobby Furst's, Memorial Day 2013

Fundraising party at Bobby Furst’s, Memorial Day 2013

Cheryl Montelle, an extremely busy mother, wife, teacher, writer and part-time resident of Joshua Tree read Ed Tick’s Book and decided to do something.

“At the beginning of Ed’s book he talks about a veteran who came in and said, ‘my soul has left my body and I know where it is, it’s sitting next to me.’ “That just breaks my heart,” Montelle says while sitting at Pie for the People, a local Joshua Tree restaurant. “Ed said there was a lot the community could do… I thought okay, I am part of the community, let me reach out to others.”

Cheryl Montelle, a small and lithe woman, looks straight ahead. There is both determination and self-questioning in her voice. It’s been a long day, driving the two-and-half hours from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree and spending all afternoon and evening in meetings, yet she is still focused and energetic.

Montelle was so moved by The War and the Soul that she immediately called Ed Tick and invited him to Joshua Tree. Tick and his wife Kate Dahlstedt, both therapists, offer Soldier’s Heart retreats to returning veterans and community.  Tick agreed to come and held a book reading and community meeting at the Red Arrow on April 8th and 9th of 2012. Dale Fredenburg, a Vietnam veteran, was touched deeply. He has since participated in Soldier’s Heart retreats and has become a Mil-Tree board member.

When asked about his experience of the Soldier’s Heart work, Fredenburg says, “Ed discovered through his experience with vets… that throughout history, cultures like the American Indians had warriors. They prepared their warriors to protect and defend, taking them through rituals and ceremonies, like graduations. That is exactly what we do. We go to basic training, you graduate.You go through advanced training and you are flown into the theater. …you have your first combat experience, it’s another ritual and ceremony that moves you to a different level of warrior. There is one more level that fox hole soldiers, many, but not all, experience, It’s what I call, Berserk. Once you have been in the chaos of combat you are so crazy, you have no fear of death. You have been changed. You now have to find some way to march back to rejoin the tribe and fit in.”

Mil-Tree, under the 50(c)(3) Western Gates, Roots, and Wings Foundation is a grass-roots organization that offers healing through events like retreats, listening circles and art related workshops.

This has been a deeply personal project for Montelle. “What I see (for Mil-Tree),” says Montelle, “is an interaction between the veterans and the general community through art and communication. Mil-Tree is creating safe places for healing to occur. There is a need for this, and a broad collective consciousness is growing in terms of supporting veterans.  For example, as I was forming Mil-Tree ‘I Got Your Six,’ a celebrity driven organization was forming in Los Angeles.”

After the Ed Tick meeting, Montelle sent out a mailing to residents, press and political representatives in the Morongo Basin. That was the beginning of Mil-Tree and it is admittedly a work-in-progress. Montelle doesn’t know exactly where it is going, but her present focus is to build a solid organization, inspire participation, bring about community awareness and offer situations for sharing and healing. So far she has started with a bang.

Montelle has gathered an impressive board with Dale Fredenburg, a Vietnam veteran and retired marriage and family therapist; Jodi Callahan, retired Marine who actively donates her time to local causes, and is a Visitor Use Assistant for the National Parks Service; Paula Jeane, a life-long educator and service provider, currently teaching psychology at Copper Mountain and Yoga in Joshua Tree; Louise Mathias, a writer, consultant, and vice president of Federal Grant Development and Training, a Washington DC based consulting firm; and Laura Ransdell a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) who has recently opened her private practice in Yucca Valley.

Since its inception, Mil-tree has organized monthly meetings, weekly writing workshops, hosted an open mic night for military personnel and veterans at Pappy and Harriet’s, a lecture by veteran Paul Henderson on the role of the Warrior, and a talking and listening circle, including pot luck and music at the Art Queen. On this year’s Memorial Day weekend a fundraiser was held at artist Bobby Furst’s studio to raise funds for an upcoming Soldier’s Heart retreat. Montelle has brought veteran-actor Brian Delete out to perform an excerpt from his one man show Memorial Day and writer Paula Caplan to read from her book When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home.

Caplan, an activist for veterans, has started the When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home Project to encourage communities to welcome their veterans and provide a safe place for listening and story telling. Caplan provides guidelines for conducting these conversations and has been working with Mil-Tree representatives to set up “Safe Listening.”

The next Mil-Tree sponsored event is a four day Soldier’s Heart retreat on October 10th through the 13th, 2013 at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center.

Through Montelle’s concerted efforts, and community response, Mil-Tree will continue to offer lectures, book readings, workshops, gatherings, retreats, movies, and theatrical events. Community awareness is rising and it looks as if Mil-tree is becoming a viable part of the high desert communities.

For more information on Mil-Tree go to Mil-Tree.org

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