Back to battlegrounds: Some veterans seek peace by returning to places of war

Former U.S. Army infantryman Alex Munoz, who served in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, visits a religious shrine earlier this year in Lalish, a mountain valley in northern Iraq. Courtesy of Alex Munoz

Traces of old battlefields seem forever wedged inside the minds of many combat veterans: friends killed, wounds sustained, deaths inflicted. But scores of ex-service members are willingly returning to old combat sites, some seeking their own tranquility – some just hoping to savor peace after the dust has long settled.

From Germany to Vietnam to Iraq and other lands of past U.S. wars, American veterans like 96-year-old James “Maggie” Megellas have stepped back in time by heading back in person, rekindling harsh memories but re-connecting with – now – welcoming locals.

“I crossed the Waal River again where I recall one of my boats being sunk by an enemy shell. I lost half my men,” said Megellas, a retired officer in the 82nd Airborne Division, referencing his company’s famous, 1944 daylight traverse of the Dutch waterway while under German fire. He was invited by officials in the Netherlands to visit after publishing his 2003 book "All the Way to Berlin." 

“Some things are indelible, stamped on you as you live your life, and you take them to your grave. I had a whole lot of them. So I never had any desire to go back. But after I wrote the book, it was cathartic, so to speak. I was able to go there,” said Megellas. Following an overture from the German government, he also flew back to Germany, where in 1945 his unit helped secure the surrender of Berlin.

For some veterans of the Vietnam War, the compulsion to again view that country helps fuel a Tuscon, Ariz.-based nonprofit called Tours of Peace, which escorts groups of about 10 veterans and their family members to Vietnam for two-week "healing visits" once or twice per year. The cost is about $3,500 for each person, covering all travel expenses, according to the organization's website. 

"Many cannot imagine why Vietnam veterans want to return to a country that brings up so many memories and images of war. However, seeing Vietnam as it is now, meeting people who survived the war, and those who grew up in the post war years, gives veterans the opportunity to bring closure to their Vietnam war experience," reads a passage on the group's website. 

"The trip has an emotional component which is addressed daily in a group meeting or on an as-needed basis," said Jess DeVaney, a Vietnam veteran who operates Tours of Peace. Last week, he was preparing to depart for another excursion. For first-timers, who are taken by bus to re-visit "places of personal meaning" and to conduct humanitarian projects, "the emphasis is reframing the old military experience with Vietnam as it is today."

That same sentiment – how life can thrive after war – is coloring the current Iraq stay of Alex Munoz, a former Army infantryman who was deployed to that country from September 2007 to November 2008, and to Afghanistan for almost all of 2010.

Munoz, 33, is temporarily staying in a region of northern Iraq as part of a joint project between the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and Iraq's University of Duhok (UoD) with the intent "to build the capacity of UoD's Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies."

"I can honestly say I've never been anywhere so welcoming to Americans as I've felt here. The Kurds I've met have been especially grateful to Americans for the support given to them," Munoz said via email, acknowledging he is "a long way from where I served in Iraq." 

That area of the country, he added, "is extremely safe, with street crime virtually unknown (shop vendors often just cover their stalls with blankets and leave for the night and money exchangers have left me standing in front of large piles of cash unattended while they made small talk with friends). I've eaten more than my share of free meals here, enjoyed the occasional free taxi. 

"While things are not perfect here, their lives are better and improving — and these things wouldn't have been possible without U.S. assistance," Munoz wrote. "And in that sense, it is gratifying and humbling to be here and to be reminded of that."

While trips back to old lands of violence may not be mentally healthy for all combat veterans, such ventures do seem to be on the rise, said Dr. Sydney Savion, a Texas-based behavioral scientist and Air Force veteran.

"Many find it inconceivable that a veteran – now a civilian – would want to return to a country that conjures up memories of war. But many simply yearn to make peace with perhaps an unfathomable sense of loss," Savion said. "... The demand for the experience appears to speak for itself. 

"Revisiting these sites is not without risk. Because clearly facing such harsh memories could evoke positive feelings for some and for others it may conjure up those memories that can cause negative feelings. Not everyone is going to respond to the trip in the same way," she added. 

Not all health professionals endorse those types of cleansing journeys. But according to Savion, some research has shown that "direct therapeutic exposure to the source of the trauma has been very effective in ... reducing intrusive memories." Veterans who want to go back to find fresh answers should first begin an internal rejuvenation process to deal with any old nightmares, she said. 

"It is important that veterans take the first step as healers of themselves," Savion said, "in order to restore peace and bring about healing within."