Welcome Home Project honors returning vets

Some 30 American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their family members will attend a five-day retreat starting May 22 as part of the Welcome Home Project. They will come together and use the expressive arts to tell their stories and support one another.

The Welcome Home Project will culminate in a Voices of Veterans public program at 6 p.m. Memorial Day, Monday, May 26, at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.

The retreat will be held at Buckhorn Springs near Ashland, a place that once was a healing site for local Native American tribes. Facilitating the gathering will be Vietnam-era vet Michael Meade and Peggy Rubin, founding director of the Center for Sacred Theater in Ashland. Both Meade and Rubin are scholars of mythology, storytelling, theater and the role of story and ritual in healing cultural wounds.

Meade has worked with veterans, street gangs, Native Americans, prisoners, refugees and the homeless as each group has struggled with isolation and the perception that they do not belong, that there is no "home" here. He uses myth and story to help illuminate a path toward purpose and connection to the self and the society in which we all live.

Rubin has presented classes, workshops and trainings throughout the world on mythology, theater and social artistry and is the principal teaching associate of Jean Houston. She has studied extensively with Elaine De Beauport, founder of the Mead Institute and leading teacher of humanistic and behavioral applications of current brain/mind research; and with William Emerson, pioneer in the field of pre and peri-natal psychology and its importance in understanding human development.

Others helping the veterans and their families include Michael J. Maxwell, a veteran and therapist for veterans; Pat Chandler, a longtime veterans counselor for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Carl Robinson, a Vietnam War veteran and Native American who has counseled veterans for years; and Lauren McLagen, a member of the readjustment and transition team at the Salem Vet Center.

Non-partisan and non-political, the Welcome Home Project was created by Ashland husband and wife team Bill McMillan and Kim Shelton out of their desire to support returning soldiers, but not knowing the best way. After talking openly about the situation, they found many others who shared their concern.

"We want to bring the community together and narrow the distance between soldiers and those who haven't experienced war," said McMillan, a marriage and family psychotherapist who has worked with veterans. "The goal is to fill in the gaps between war and peace, trauma and renewal, isolation and homecoming." An important part of the retreat will be spent creating ways the veterans and family members can share the experiences of their time of service at the public ceremony on Memorial Day.

The Voices of Veterans program will be created by veterans at the retreat who express their memories and feelings through poetry, visual art and theater. There will be about 30 people on stage, including some family members and a set of parents, Meade said.

"We want to give the veterans a voice," McMillan said. Often that voice is expressed through poetry, which the veterans will perform on stage. Mead and Rubin will teach the audience welcome songs from different traditions and lead them in singing.

"It's an old tradition from other cultures to welcome back the warriors by singing them into the community," Meade said. He will be telling stories from different cultures that relate to battle and homecoming.

The intent of the public gathering is to allow the audience to be compassionate witnesses to the stories of war and to the difficulties soldiers face returning home. There will be three tables in the lobby with information from veterans' organizations.

"Healing can happen when the burdens of war are shared by the greater community," said Shelton, an award-winning documentary filmmaker. "All too often, that conversation is avoided."

Oregon Shakespeare Festival has donated the use of the Bowmer Theater for the event. The festival premiered the returning-soldier-themed play "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter," which offers free tickets to veterans. In the New Theatre, there is a Remembrance Tree designed by scenic designer Richard Hay, where people can hang notes in remembrance of vets.

"We want to restore the idea that Memorial Day can serve our nation as a public ritual for healing in the aftermath of war," McMillan said. He and Shelton plan to make a documentary film so that communities nationwide can be motivated to create their own welcome home ceremonies for returning veterans. Tickets to the public welcoming home ceremony will be free to all veterans, $15 suggested donation for non-veterans. Tickets are available at Paddington Station in Ashland, Grocery Outlet in Medford and at the door. Wheelchair access is sold out. There will be space in the Bowmer lobby to watch on a monitor, and those with a limiting physical disability will be seated by an usher.

To register for the retreat, volunteer or make a tax-deductible donation, see or call 482-1072.

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