JOSHUA TREE — It’s taken him more than 40 years to cope with the invisible wounds of war, but now, thanks to a local organization, Dale Fredenburg is finally making the mental journey home from Vietnam.
Fredenburg was drafted into the Army in 1967. He served in the 1st Air Calvary Division and fought in Vietnam.
He’s one of thousands of veterans living with post traumatic stress disorder and now, he’s making it his mission to help younger generations of veterans get the proper healing after war.
Fredenburg works with Mil-Tree, a local nonprofit organization that works with active-duty military, veterans and civilians to welcome veterans home in a more profound way.
Mil-Tree’s mission is to help military members and their families deal with the aftermath of war in a holistic, artistic and non-clinical way.
The organization reached a major milestone earlier this month when it hosted a training retreat at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center.
Nancy Sumner, a retired Air Force veteran, attended the weekend retreat.
“I was at the retreat and it was a life-changing event,” Sumner said. “The closeness and willingness of the civilian population to listen and open their minds and hearts. Veterans can heal veterans, but without the community holding them up and actively listening, our community will not heal.”
Sumner lives in Glendale, but said she was happy to revisit the Hi-Desert, where she trained in Twentynine Palms for multiple deployments years ago.
Fredenburg said the retreat focuses on workshops and exercises that allow combat veterans to properly tell their stories and induce a deeper understanding among civilians.
“We had an exercise where the veterans stood around the civilians and they were in the middle of the room,” he explained. “They stared off and faced each other and there were drums going. It was a challenge of who shot first. It was a kill or be killed experience. Processing that is powerful experience for a civilian.”
The Soldier’s Heart training retreat was the first in what Mil Tree hopes will be many more.
“It’s a process that as a community and as a nation, we’re all responsible for,” Fredenburg said of giving veterans the proper reception when they return home. He said proper training for families of returning veterans is also a vital component.
“It takes a community to bring a warrior home,” Fredenburg said. “I see Support the Troops bumper stickers and I wonder if they’re just paper thick. Where’s the traction, where’s the depth? This is more than a bumper sticker.”
Mil-Tree was founded by Cheryl Montelle in 2012. The organization borrows heavily from the philosophy and methods of Dr. Ed Tick, a psychotherapist behind the non-profit group Soldier’s Heart and author of “War and the Soul.”
Montelle said the goal with Mil-Tree is to bring the community together and create a safe space for veterans to share their stories.
“Mil-Tree is definitely being inspired by the Soldiers Heart model, and then we’re putting a Joshua Tree spin on it by using arts and communication,” Montelle said.
Since publishing his book and founding Soldier’s Heart with his wife, Kate Dahlstedt, Tick has been tapped by the Department of Defense to train more than 2,500 Army chaplains about how to facilitate the homeward journey for warriors.
“The military has nothing so holistic, assumes PTSD cannot heal or transform and only responds to symptoms, not the whole person,” Tick said via email from Hawaii. “Many in the military now use my book and our approach both downrange in Afghanistan and for homecoming and healing.”
Tick and his wife are quietly leading a revolution in PTSD therapy, but there’s still plenty of work to do.
The recent spike in veteran suicide rates over the last decade, coupled with climbing divorce rates among military families, signals to Montelle and Fredenburg that something more needs to be done.
“There’s an initiation into the military, but there has to be an initiation back into society,” Montelle said. “We want to just welcome our vets home in a more profound way.”