Taking Off the Uniform

by Jim Tritten

Jasmine and I entered the medicine circle, arm in arm, from the east, the direction of the rising sun and the new day. Dusty tan stones lined the sandy path to the center. The acrid tang of burning sage hung in the air. We turned to the south and walked to the makeshift altar. We poured cool water from an earthen jug over each other’s hands, and the water dripped into a large yellow and red basin. We dried our hands on thin cotton towels, smiled at one another and turned around to face the center of the circle.

Our medicine man, David Singing Bear, a Marine Corps veteran of Cherokee descent, chanted while he waited for us with a Storm Cloud ceremonial blanket. He unfolded the sacred cloth, woven in red and black, grey and white, and raised it to the sky.  He called on his gods to bless us as a couple, and me as a returning service member. Based on Native American rituals that welcome home warriors after battle, this ceremony was the culmination of an eight-day retreat the National Veterans Healing & Wellness Center in Angel Fire, New Mexico.

David draped the woolen Storm Cloud over our heads and shoulders. Jasmine and I, who had been married then for 20 years, spoke to each other in total privacy. I thanked her for being there for me when I needed her most, when I was at the deepest depths of PTSD. David resumed his chant and  we emerged. He continued his song, and I felt lighter, as though a burden had been eased.

We walked back to the center of the circle and turned to the north, and there stood two colonels, one in Air Force blue, and one in Army green. They stood at attention, next to a sculpture of a rifle with bayonet in the ground, helmet on the stock. I adjusted my frame, stood ramrod straight, felt my heels click together, and raised my right arm. I executed a very crisp, very Navy salute. They slowly returned the salute and said, “Welcome home, Sailor.”

I remember dropping my arm, and not much else. My chest shuddered, eyes shut against the sting of tears, and I lost all sensation of sound, smell, or my feet touching the ground. Jasmine  took my elbow and led me back out through the center of the medicine circle, along the sandy path lined with stones. The first thing I saw through the tears, and the first thing I could feel was the rest of my fellow veterans and their spouses, my village, my community, clapping me on the back, hugging me with abandon, welcoming my return. I had taken off  the uniform twenty-seven years earlier, but today I was finally home.