The Hero’s Journey


I’m one of a several people who are called upon to deliver a Code of the Warrior presentation at Returning Warrior Workshops (RWW)  offered to Navy and Marine Reservists returning from extended deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring  Freedom (in Afghanistan).  Returning service members are invited to bring a guest- that individual who was instrumental in supporting them while they were deployed – usually a spouse, significant other, or family member.  These two day workshops are normally held at a very nice hotel in some pretty nice places (Waikiki Beach, Sedona, Arizona, Palm Springs, to name a few of the places I’ve been) and their purpose is to facilitate the reintegration process upon returning from a long deployment forward.  I’ll get to why this is an important issue for the military.

My presentation, which helps kick off the weekend, is entitled ‘Code of the Warrior.’    It was initially intended to reinforce that military service is an ancient and honorable profession, and what makes it honorable is that we do not fight and kill indiscriminately, or for personal reasons.   Military service deals death and destruction according to ancient rules which stress restraint and greater purpose.  While the presentation I give does make this point, I don’t spend a lot of time on it.  I focus more on framing their service and their deployment within what Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist of the 20th century, referred to as ‘The Hero’s Journey,’  a pattern which he found in every culture around the world, and which he argued is fundamental to how all cultures identify their heroes.

The script for Campbell’s Hero’s Journey goes something like this:  An individual either chooses to or is forced to leave a relatively safe, comfortable and predictable environment.  Our ‘hero’ then enters an unpredictable, risky, dangerous environment or situation.   The hero’s journey involves struggle and risk, resolve and persistence.  The journey reinforces old values, and provides the foundation for new ones – with new perspective and new wisdom.  The hero then returns home transformed by the experience, and faces new struggles to reintegrate into the world left behind. The hero’s journey is not complete until the hero has returned and added new strength and wisdom to the world left behind. The hero must give back to his or her community. 

What makes the hero’s journey heroic is confronting and overcoming fears, frustrations, and self-doubts and using the strength acquired in that process, to subsequently improve his or her community.    The alternative to heroism during this ‘journey’ is to choose retreat, comfort and safety over risk and progress, to place blame, shun responsibility, and to become a victim.  Nearly always, the heroic journey involves failure and pain, and demands that the hero persist and find the strength to survive and prevail. In so doing, our hero is ‘transformed’ – becomes stronger, smarter, wiser, more resilient, and also humbled by the failures that the journey entailed.   Then the transformed hero returns to transform the world to which s/he returns. 

This final piece – the struggle to reintegrate, and to positively impact the world to which the hero returns – that is the focus of my remarks to the Returning Warriors Workshop.

I begin my presentation with the story of Odysseus’ struggle to find his way home after the Trojan War.  Most have heard of ‘The Odyssey’ but many are unfamiliar with Odysseus’s story.  I then share how Joseph Campbell found Odysseus’ story to represent the basic structure of how all cultures identify their heroes.   I offer examples –  Christ, when he went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights and confronted the Devil;  Viktor Frankl, who was pulled out of his Psycho-therapy practice in Vienna into the German concentration camps (and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning about his experiences);  Vadm James Stockdale who was shot down over North Vietnam, and spent over seven years putting his Stoic values to the test in a contest of wills with his captors; Pat Tillman, who left a lucrative career with the NFL to join the Army Rangers, and Chris McCandless of Into the Wild fame, who embarked on his own self-styled hero’s journey.   These last two never came back from their heroes’ journeys, reinforcing the point that the hero’s journey involves risk.  

These are dramatic and inspiring examples of heroes’ journeys.  But ‘the hero’s journey’ is available to each of us – if we choose to take it.   The point that I make in the Returning Warriors Workshop is that those who have volunteered to serve in the military, especially in a time of war, have chosen their own hero’s journey. They have chosen to leave the comfort and security of the known, the predictable, the comfortable, to enter the demanding and uncertain world of the military in time of war.   By the time I meet them at a Returning Warrior’s Workshop, they have been overseas, served in whatever capacity was required of them, been somehow transformed by the experience, and have returned home. Now they are in the final (and key) stages of their hero’s journey –  reintegrating with those they left at home, and finding ways to use their new strength, wisdom, and insight to make the world they left behind better.  Much of the story of Odysseus is about his struggle to re-integrate into his world, and to reconnect to his wife Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

For returning warriors, this reintegration process can be very difficult.   This point has been repeatedly made in popular films:  The Best Years of Our Lives was a powerful story of WW2 vets coming home and struggling to find their place in society.  The Deer Hunter addresses that same struggle for veterans of the Vietnam War, The Hurt Locker for veterans in the current conflict.   

When one is engaged in a ‘hero’s journey,’ life is not easy, but it can be relatively simple.    The tasks and threats are frequently straightforward and relatively clear. The mind is focused.  There are friends and there are enemies.  The senses adapt and tune in quickly to the dangers.   Soldiers have well practiced procedures and drills to prepare for contingencies.  Threats, fear and necessity tie us to our fellows, and we learn quickly who we can trust, and who we cannot.  Survival and mission accomplishment grab and hold our attention.   

At home, life is more complicated.  The variables and distractions are many.   Relationships with spouse, friends and loved ones are complex, and society’s rules are malleable and often unwritten.  At home, the threats are amorphous, subtle and often difficult to recognize.  It is more difficult to focus our energy and our will.  We are often stymied and frustrated by unseen forces.

If upon returning home, our heroes are unable to reconnect with and contribute to their community, their journey is incomplete, tensions are unresolved and the potential for good remains unfulfilled.

 The Returning Warrior Workshop provides an opportunity for returning service members to focus on that often neglected piece of their journey.  For those finding the return and reintegration particularly difficult, additional resources and professional help are available.   Tools are provided to facilitate communication with friends and loved ones, and help with the process of finding closure.  Making a positive impact on the home front is the final step in making the hero’s journey truly heroic.

And then the cycle begins again. Heroes do not long rest on their laurels.  The next journey calls.

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