Why every community needs military alternatives programs

September 24th, 2012 |

Here in central Virginia, people take great pride in our local heritage. Virginia was home to ten presidents, most notably Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. But it also has a history of militarization. The late historian and Veteran for Peace, Dr. Howard Zinn, says in his People’s History of the United States that the “Old Dominion” has at times been the most highly-militarized place in the world. The small town where I live, home to Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, is a key part of the military-industrial complex, and many of my neighbors are military intelligence professionals. Whenever I see off-duty military personnel walking the streets of my community, I wonder to myself, “What would the Founding Fathers say if they were around to witness the modern, militarized world that they helped to create?”

Without a doubt, they would be appalled by the size and scope of the American military empire. Jefferson was staunchly against the idea of a standing army. While he believed in the universal responsibility of community service, he also believed that militarism was detrimental to the health of democracy. Jefferson was against the principles of state violence being foisted on peaceable citizenry. He wrote to John Jay in 1788, “The breaking of men to military discipline is the breaking of their spirits to principles of passive obedience.”

I can speak directly to this issue as someone who joined the Army at 17 out of high school. Read more…

PTSD: One trauma counselor’s personal experience

September 7th, 2012 |

Trauma expert, clinical social worker and Ph.D. candidate Sarah Crawford-Browne, from Cape Town, South Africa, describes her own experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She describes the overwork that likely contributed to her state of vulnerability, and how coming up with names for what she was experiencing helped her recover.  As told to Carolyn Yoder.

 One day, I witnessed a double murder/assassination whilst looking out my living room window. I had just spent five years working with trauma in Sierra Leone, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uganda and Sudan. Now I was head of service at a trauma center in Cape Town.

The center runs a 24-hour response service to crises in the city, so when I saw the murders, I grabbed my neon-colored response jacket and my response backpack and went down to help. I was involved the full night. Due to the demands of my resource-challenged center, I went right on to work the next day without sleeping.

That same month, I had already responded to two other major incidents—a crisis where an engine had fallen off a passenger plane, scaring the passengers, and a large factory fire which had led to the death of a fireman.

Three days later I woke up at about 1 a.m. completely confused.  My mind swirled in a series of primitive emotions. Nothing was making much sense. The emotions were not linked to language and I could not access words. Eventually at about 5 a.m., I thought, “I am going mad.” Read more…

Why I’m passionate about STAR

September 7th, 2012 |

Although my day job is working as a neuropsychologist at the Minnesota Epilepsy Group and as a forensic psychologist for the Wisconsin Forensic Unit, my passion is sharing STAR. I took STAR levels I and II in Oct. 2008 and March 2009. Since then, I have been developing, promoting and implementing the STAR I training in Minnesota so that caregivers, leaders and organizations in this part of the country can have the opportunity to learn STAR principles, concepts and models. In particular, I want Minnesotans with limited financial resources to have access to this training and its potential for transformation. I want STAR trainings in our community for caregivers and leaders, but I also want to see STAR in jails and prisons so that defendants have the opportunity to learn how to move out of the cycles of violence and toward reconciliation and healing.

To a large extent my passion for STAR has grown from my legal forensic evaluations. I hear tragic stories of defendants who have shattered the lives of others, but who also have their own histories of personal trauma from childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. I hear stories about the cycles of violence all the time. In these evaluations, I have little opportunity to share about the possibilities STAR has to offer. This is one of the primary reasons I am passionate about making STAR available to all.

A major focus of my STAR work in Minneapolis has been to raise scholarship funds so any educator, caregiver, professional, paraprofessional, volunteer or community leader who serves vulnerable populations has access to STAR.

I believe the STAR concepts apply to everyday traumas as well as major traumas and that the peacebuilding strategies offer alternatives to violent revenge responses.  People will always have aggression, injustice and violent options. Our culture teaches them overtly and covertly. But most people are hungry for alternative strategies to responding to aggression, violence and injustice that really work. STAR offers the perspective that there are other options. STAR is also primary prevention for anyone doing peacekeeping, peacemaking and/or peacebuilding work. If you are doing this work, you are working with trauma. These workers need to know how to maximize their potential for self-care and resilience that helps minimize burn out and compassion fatigue.

The first STAR training held in Minneapolis in June 2010 included a rich diversity of 25 participants representing a variety of religious traditions from the Somali, Native American, Asian, Caucasian, African-American and LGBT communities. After that, I was inspired and encouraged to organize additional STAR workshops here. STAR trainings were held in June and September of 2011, and June 2012.  We have two others planned for September and October 2012.  I founded the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute as the administrative organization that raises scholarship funds and hosts STAR trainings in Minnesota.

I have accomplished this by working with STAR EMU in the certified training program and with the guidance and support of a 15-member community-based advisory committee. We received funding from Spread the Peace grant from Mennonite Church USA, for STAR’s development. Scholarship contributions come from individual donors, churches and a family foundation. My flexible work schedule allows me to pursue this passion to share STAR.

I have a vision of multiple STAR I workshops to be held in Minneapolis over the next five years and to develop the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute as a program site for STAR in Minnesota. In the future, the Minnesota Peacebuilding Institute will also sponsor training resources in trauma awareness, restorative justice, nonviolent peacemaking and conflict transformation, and apply these concepts and principles to special populations such as combat vets, groups with historical harm, immigrants and refugees, LGBT homeless youth and those affected by bullying.

Donna Minter, Ph.D., L.P., has practiced neuropsychology and forensic psychology for over 15 years in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She and her husband Bruce Brunner enjoy riding recumbent bikes on the many wonderful bike trails in Minneapolis and she hikes in the woods whenever possible. She is an active member of Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis.

Interested in starting STAR in your community? Contact star@emu.edu and get in touch with Donna at 612-377-4660 or STAR.Mpls@gmail.com to hear more about how to get started.

Healing and resiliency in a post-war setting

May 30th, 2012 |

I was born in Jajce, which is in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I lived there until the city went under siege in 1992 when I fled as a refugee and lived in another region until the end of the war in 1996.

A year later, I came to study at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) where I graduated in 2002 with a degree in conflict transformation. My husband, Randy Puljek-Shank, is also a CJP graduate. We now serve as representatives for East Europe for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief and development organization of North American Mennonites. In our role with MCC, we work almost exclusively through local partners doing peacebuilding and community development.

Post-conflict life and trauma

I think attention to trauma healing and resilience is a necessary aspect of life here in the Balkans. Trauma has become a household word. There are many different forms of trauma that I observe within the individuals, community and society in which I live and work. There are no wars at present. But we experienced four wars[i] in the former Yugoslavia, between 1991 and 2000, each with different traumatic events. There were concentration camps and massacres. Many people were refugees. Some lived under siege for years, including the four-year siege of Sarajevo. People risked being shot by snipers every time they went out to shop or to go to work. Now there are civilians in our society with post-traumatic stress and reactions, including veterans.

There were other conditions that created continuous, ongoing high stress and trauma. For example, during the war nearly everyone was equal. Everyone was affected by the war and everyone qualified to get aid. When the war ended, “normal” life returned and people no longer had equal opportunities. The country’s infrastructure was in shambles. There were not enough jobs so the unemployment levels were high.

So a different kind of fight for survival started. The trauma of survival shifted from running away from guns during the war to the present situation of not having enough money to feed the family and send children to school.

Some people left the country, some people were lucky enough to get jobs, some people received financial help from the state to rebuild their houses or apartments, and some people did not get any kind of support at all.

Another part of the ongoing, complex trauma is what I call the political rape in our society. In the former Yugoslavia, with the exception of Slovenia, we live under the constant threat of potential armed conflict. This or that group wants to separate from this or that country. We justify the crimes committed in the region in the name of defense and out of fear. The politicians use this reality to get elected, stay in power and keep fear present, which increases mistrust and the inability to live together.

Through it all, I see the trans-generational transfer of trauma. My generation grew up hearing the stories of the horror World War II and elements of these stories have been played in front of our eyes in these last wars in former Yugoslavia. As a society we have successfully given a new generation our reservoirs of trauma and told them to carry it.

Healing and resilience

Following the war, the Balkans was in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Immediate needs had to be met first through relief and rebuilding, then by a focus on development. In 2002 when Randy and I arrived back in the region, we tried introducing our partner organizations to trauma work. We translated parts of the STAR manual and adapted it to the local context. We did some basic trauma education, explaining what trauma is and exploring together how it impacts individuals and communities. We offered tools for individuals to develop their inner strength and resilience. There wasn’t a lot of interest.

It took five years until we began seeing more openness to trauma healing processes. We found relationship building as a way to open the door and develop trust, safety, and security to those we work with.

Currently, one of our partner organizations works with veterans from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. They offer a basic training where the veterans come from different sides of the conflict. During these week-long trainings they share about their experiences with war. It is very intense but it offers a space to listen, empathize and break down prejudices. The organization stays in touch with these veterans and gives them the opportunity to be involved in peacebuilding activities such as developing videos about the consequences of war, visiting each other’s front lines, and seeing each other’s memorials. A small number of veterans have become interested in being involved in the peacebuilding work. This might seem like a very small achievement but it is an important step in the trauma healing process for individuals and the community.

Moving forward

I believe we need to continue to find ways to allow ourselves to feel pain and grief. We can’t allow the constant fighting or post-traumatic stress to take our humanity away from us. Trauma healing can provide a safe place for crying, feeling the pain and reflecting on what happened as we learn to regain our humanity. Building positive social networks helps develop our communal resilience, to work together to overcome the obstacles that are present in daily life.

The longer we are here, the more we understand the significance of trauma education in the Balkans. We continue to take parts of STAR and adjust and adapt it for different aspects of our work. STAR is a cutting-edge approach to trauma across the world. It covers not only how you deal with on a psychological level but how it affects your entire being including physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

Trauma healing gives hope as we change our focus to developing resilience in our society. This is why trauma is not only a curse, but a gift.

Amela Puljek-Shank lives in Sarajevo with her husband and son. She has worked as a facilitator and trainer with Seeds of Peace and with the STAR Project (Seminar on Trauma and Awareness and Recovery) for religious leaders at EMU.





[i] War in Slovenia 1991, in Croatia 1991-1995,in Bosnia and Herzegovina 1992-1995; and in Kosova 1999-2000).

When soldiers come home from war

May 30th, 2012 |

Soldiers come home from war with visible and invisible wounds. Here are four common realities veterans face, and nine suggestions for support.

Reality #1: Returning to civilian life involves a number of significant changes. In a short period of time, service personnel may go from the discomfort and close quarters of military life to the comforts of civilian life, from an environment of danger the safety of home, from a situation of receiving and giving orders to the give and take of family life.[i]

How to be supportive:

  • Expect that finding the new normal will take time. During the time away, the soldier has changed. So has the family who stayed behind. Roles have shifted. Family dynamics are affected. The readjustment won’t happen overnight.
  • Refrain from playing down problems or needs that emerge. Long-term distress in trauma survivors is strongly linked to others expecting the survivor to recover more quickly than is realistic. [ii] At the same time, don’t excuse or tolerate abusive behavior.
  • Seek help from a member of the clergy, mental health professionals, or trusted family members if issues are difficult to talk about. Even if the veteran refuses to go for help, family members can benefit from seeking advice and support for themselves.

Reality #2: Soldiers expect to experience the fight-flight response when undertaking dangerous missions or coming under attack.  But in the safety of home, battle-similar sights, sounds or smells can trigger outbursts of irrational and erratic behaviors that are distressing to both the veteran and to loved ones.

How to be supportive:

Practice the following physiological first aid techniques during times of calm so that everyone is prepared when this type of brain hijacking occurs. They interrupt intense hyperarousal. Even if the veteran opts not to participate, the rest of the family will benefit by using the exercises to keep them calm and centered.

  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) short-circuits hyper-reactions simply by tapping acupressure points.  This calms the emotional centers of the brain and balances the nervous system and body’s energy system. Instructions for this simple but effective practice are at  www.eftuniverse.com
  • Autogenic breathing is taught to law enforcement officers, Green Berets and other elite forces to help them perform well under high stress: Breathe in to the count of one-two-three-four. Hold, one-two-three-four; Breathe out, out-two-three-four; Hold, one-two-three-four. Repeat three times, or as often as needed.
  • Get professional help. Hyperarousal and flashbacks are signs of trauma. EFT is a research-supported trauma resource that is available throughout much of the world.  The DVD Operation Emotional Freedom follows the experiences of a group of veterans as they use EFT to recover their lives. The Veterans Stress Project www.stressproject.org offers information and free confidential EFT sessions in the USA.

Reality #3: Participating in harming others, even in the line of duty, can result in post-traumatic stress reactions.[iii] When those who were harmed or killed were civilians or prisoners, veterans often feel they can’t tell anyone at home and thus live with soul-wrenching secrets. [iv]

How to be supportive:

  • Believe what the veteran tells you even if it is difficult to hear.  Resist the urge to change the subject and listen. Safe people–family members, faith leaders, mental health professionals–are needed to assure the veteran that he/she is not alone and that all things are hearable and healable.
  • Acknowledge that this is also a systemic issue even though it is individual solders who live with the consequences. Blaming atrocities on “a few bad apples” or “a rogue solder” allows cultures of impunity to operate in secret. Join with others working to expose the truth.
  • Explore restorative and creative justice processes that provide ways to make things “as right as possible” while leading toward a path of forgiving oneself and others.

Reality #4: Veterans who escaped death or serious injury while on duty may harbor feelings of guilt and shame over thoughts of relief that they are safe.

How to be supportive:

Recognize that the “Thank God it wasn’t me” response is a universal reaction most people never voice. Naming and normalizing it goes far to lift the shame.

Above all, the strongest message you can convey is, “Welcome home.  You are not alone.”


iiNATIONAL CENTER for PTSD http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/effects_of_disasters_risk_and_resilience_factors.asp

[iii] MacNair, Rachel M. Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing, 2002, Praeger Press, Connecticut. NOTE: MacNair uses the term “perpetration-induced traumatic stress.” This term can be problematic because it calls up an implicit accusation of wrong-doing by implicit reference to “perpetrators” a term used in legal terms to describe criminals. We prefer the term participation-induced traumatic stress because it separates the experience of participation in activities that harmed others from any implicit moral or legal judgment.

[iv] Personal communication of MacNair quoted in Grossman, page 9.

Grossman, Dave, The Psychological Consequences of Killing, www.killology.com/art_onkilling

A justice system at its best

April 18th, 2012 |

(Photo by Diane Gumm)

In March of 1994, in my former role as Bureau Chief in the Criminal Bureau of the Polk County (Iowa) attorney’s office, I read a troubling police report.  A few days earlier, members of the Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines awoke to find neo-Nazi graffiti scrawled on the side of their synagogue. There were no immediate suspects but there was anguish, anger, and outrage.  At one level, the incident was a galvanizing experience, bringing together the religious community of Des Moines in a way that I had never witnessed.  However, the incident also brought forth shadows normally hidden within many good and well-intentioned people, who cried out for a justice that had the character of that sought by vigilantes and lynch mobs.

After two weeks of uncertainty throughout the community, police made two arrests.  Charged with felony criminal mischief were an 18 year old male and his 17 year old girlfriend.  I decided to hold onto the case rather than assign it to one of the felony prosecutors.  I did so less because of the facts and more for the possibilities.

Read more…

The nature of community: restorative justice and permaculture

April 2nd, 2012 |

"Permaculture for the People"; Photo by planet a. via Flickr.

Humans are inextricably connected to the earth. We inhabit, breathe, drink, and eat this strange blue globe that is our only home. The oldest religious traditions recognized this scientific claim by weaving stories, almost myths-as-memory, which describe humans as creatures crafted from the dirt: adam and adama, human and humus, culture and cultivate. Indeed, the plurality of human cultures grows from natural biodiversity. And we are social animals, dependent for better and worse on lives beyond ourselves. Restorative justice agrees by stating that society is interconnected, which reframes crime as the cause and effect of damaged relationships and disconnection from a sense of belonging. If this is true, then the proper response to crime, to the violation of people and interpersonal relationships, is the obligation to make things as right as possible, which includes the rehabilitation of the offender.

But rehabilitation to what? If crime is personal and societal, which are interconnected, then simply rehabilitating offenders to this broken locus, especially after the alienating and shaming force of prison, can perpetuate the cycle of violence, evident in recidivism and incarceration rates. The legal system also alienates victims by emphasizing crime as an offense to the state. If restorative justice is right, then situating crime in the nexus of social relatedness demands the restoration of society itself, which should include the realization that we are also embedded in nonhuman life.

Read more…

Trauma healing with the next generation

March 16th, 2012 |

Lee Yates

I found the application for STAR – Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience – while surfing the net late at night. I was searching for some type of retreat or renewal, something that would help me sort through the grief of my grandmother’s death and the early stages of burnout in my church. My wife was surprised that the STAR description caught my attention. I had not been a victim of trauma. Trauma was not something I had talked about. I wasn’t even sure what the connection was, but I was drawn to the training.

After completing the STAR workshops, I tried to figure out how to adapt my STAR experience to my ministry with youth. Along the way I had an epiphany. The description of trauma victims seemed closely linked to the psychological issues and difficult experiences of adolescence.  I started to reorient my middle-school youth ministry. I treated both the youth and parents, who were living in a time of constant change and upheaval, as people who were experiencing trauma. I provided resources and I asked questions that reframed their perspective. The results were positive.

Read more…

Recognizing the signs of trauma in youth

March 16th, 2012 |

(Photo by Rachel Titiriga via Flickr)

If you live or work with young people, it’s likely that you’ve felt their enthusiasm when a good idea catches their imagination, or listened to their laughter and banter as they hang out with friends.

But you may also observe behaviors that concern you: irritability, anger, aggressiveness, withdrawal, feeling sad, substance abuse, cutting, or getting in trouble with the law.

The root of distress in young people can be trauma, the result of experiencing or witnessing something that involves a threat to survival. Or the trauma can be from growing up in an unsafe environment where layers of trauma are undercurrents that can explode on a daily basis.

Viewing young people’s experiences and behaviors through a trauma lens provides a way of understanding them, and of knowing how to reach out in supportive ways.

Read more…

Elicitive pedagogy in the digital age

February 20th, 2012 |

Lost in translation? (Koru photo adapted from Jonathon Colman via Flickr.)

When a few of us on staff and faculty at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) came together last year to begin discussing the possibility of doing an online course – something we had never done before – we were met with some resistance, not the least of which came from Howard Zehr, Professor of Restorative Justice at CJP and a pioneer in the field.

Fast-forward one year: Howard and Brenda Waugh (MA ’09) are now three weeks into teaching the class, “Recovering the Vision: Conversations on Restorative Justice,” which is being carried out completely online. The students – all practitioners – hail from diverse locales in North America, Europe, and Australia. First-year MA student, Jenn Bricker, and I have had the pleasure of helping Howard and Brenda facilitate this course. And from deep skepticism, Howard has now become a strong advocate of the possibilities of CJP doing more online. What happened in the course of that year?

Read more…