Ditte Marcher: “When a soldier returns home, it doesn’t mean that he is at home already”

11 August 2016, 21:26

Ditte Marcher is the legendary director of Bodynamic International and Head of Training/ Board member of Wounded Warrior Ukraine-Серце Воїна, a US non-profit that helps Ukrainian veterans to overcome post-traumatic stress and return to normal life after the war.  

Hidden dangers. Today you have a common enemy. The only thing that unites you is the desire to protect your borders. But when this is all over, there will be just lots of people with their various ideologies and disappointments…

You have some units that are not subordinated to the army command, and they are very disappointed with the state. There are many people at the frontline who are now fighting in the Armed Forces, but who were against the revolution. Suppose, all Russians suddenly duck out, and the war is over. Can you imagine how all these hidden things will explode? I saw this happen within a week in the former Yugoslavia. Everyone seemed to go nuts, friends started killing each other, and the whole nation went crazy.

Of course, there is another scenario, and I strongly hope for it. There are people who are working hard to make a difference. Unfortunately, they are a minority.

What's next? War crimes are committed by both sides. It has always been like that. Today the authorities are trying to crack down on volunteer battalions. This is a dangerous practice that only aggravates tensions. Sooner or later, you will have to deal with the separatists, who are not Russians, but just some spoilt Ukrainians. And sooner or later you will have to decide what to do with them, to seek compromise. If Ukraine could establish the kind of the Truth Commissions that were set up in South Africa, then it would be not about punishment, but about healing. This concerns the Berkut members who fired at the Maidan. I have been to South Africa, and I saw those commissions. There were lots of challenges there, there were many policemen who had kidnapped, tortured, killed, and raped people. But one of the reasons why the Civil War did not break out after the collapse of the apartheid was the TC that existed in every village.

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How it worked. The whole village would come and listen, and a man would talk, appealing to his victims and telling his own sins: we killed such and such people and buried them at such and such places. Victims in their turn could tell what they had to experience and how angry they were. These commissions were comprised of conflict resolution specialists, psychotherapists, psychologists, and priests. Village residents were witnesses, and criminals had to apologize to their victims. Some did it with shame, some were not sincere, but this had a healing effect, and victims could speak truth. It was also important because many people were considered missing, and their relatives could only guess what had happened to them…

In Rwanda, though, they did it differently. It has a tribal society, with two large tribes. If you killed the son of another family, you had to follow a certain ritual and, figuratively, give your life to it. You drink special herbs and become a son of this family. In this way they get many mixed families. It is their spiritual and tribal tradition.

What Ukraine should do. A Danish center was established in the former Yugoslavia after the war. In Sarajevo, Croats, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims had to work together in such centers. My stepfather was there, I was there. We taught them what it means to develop democracy. Because this is something that Eastern Europeans know little about. You didn't have that either. Because democracy is not just about voting rights. The main thing is my responsibility to the society.

Many people now fighting in the East come from the western part of the country. They fight out of solidarity. But if it is only the solidarity with the country, with the land, and not with the people, then you have a problem. I have no solidarity with any piece of land in my Denmark, I don't care, but I do care about my people. I am loyal to the people, not to the land.

All wars are the same. On the one hand, they are all slightly different. On the other hand, if you step back and have a look from above, after the WWII most of them are about money. But people somehow need to be convinced to go to war, therefore, a lot of emotions are created around it. What you need to ask is: who is making money on that war? Who is benefiting? Definitely not those who fight in it, come home with no arms and no legs, and cannot even procure a pension. We have to teach people to be free, not to be slaves. Free people have a choice and make it. But, most importantly, they have to deal with the consequences of that choice. Not to complain about others, but to take the responsibility for their choices. Denmark is not fighting any war, but our soldiers are dying daily. Same as here. No one really knows what you have. Everyone knows you have a problem, but what's its name? Because you are, in a way, not at war with Russia, you can't even say it, or it will invade. You don't want to call this a civil war. So what do you have then? In Denmark, we have the same thing: we are not at war, but our soldiers get killed. In Afghanistan, in Iraq. They are always at the front line. Over the past 25 years, we got 36,000 veterans, out of the entire population of 5.5 million. It is a bit too much for a country that is not at war.

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What makes people go to war? There are many reasons. I have met those who went because their life was traumatic, and the war for them was a holiday. Some have romantic illusions, some have ideas, some have fear of Russia, some have hopes for a better future, and some do it for the right to speak their own language. And I think that you have a deeply rooted desire for freedom, which you have never had. But it would be good to try to understand what kind of freedom you really want. Because people seem to fight in the name of freedom, but in reality they have very different ideas of it. Many are focused not on the future, but on the past…

And this is where, I think, my country might help you. We are a very ancient democratic state, which has been developing its democracy over hundreds of years. We were never occupied, except by the Nazis. We have the mentality of the free people. A long time ago we somehow contributed to the rise of Kyiv, and maybe it's time we came back, not as Vikings any more, but in another capacity. I think Scandinavia has something to offer Ukraine. I'm talking not just about Denmark, but also about Norway and Sweden. In fact, we have lots of similarities, we don't have purely capitalist lifestyles. We have very many things that could help build a secure future for Ukraine.

Helping Ukrainian soldiers. I was here when the Maidan started. It was a strange feeling. You could sit and eat a pizza, as just 20 meters away from you bullets were flying. As if the doors to another world were open. I have similar experience from Lebanon. I was taking a walk with my son in the beautiful Roman ruins when the shooting started. I bended down my son's head immediately, and we began our descent from the mountain top to the valley. As it turned out, the Israelis were fighting Hezbollah. You could sit, eat a sandwich and watch the war… When I left Ukraine, the situation here got worse: the annexation of Crimea, the war, it all happened too quickly, and there are many people here to whom I am attached. I got a call from Roman Torgovitsky, who had also been to Maidan. He had heard that I was doing something, and two months later we started a training session. It was rather chaotic, but we coped. Many people really benefited from that first session. We acquired several powerful veteran co-trainers. Then we had the second, the third, the fourth, and the fifth sessions. The teams of Pobratymy and Wounded Warrior Ukraine work with the veterans. Over a thousand people are involved in our projects now, and it will grow bigger. Today we have teams who have experienced veterans, psychologists and psychotherapists, who also got certain training and know what to take care of in the process.

To recover from war. The biggest challenge is that the military don't want to talk to psychologists. And they absolutely don't want to talk to military psychologists, out of fear of ruining their careers. This is what the idea of my program was based on. It came to my mind in Japan, where I supervised drug addicts and alcoholics, and where I learned a lot about the Alcoholics Anonymous organization. I thought that some of its principles could be implemented in some other social systems, when people know each other, peer-to-peer.

By that time many veterans had taken their lives, and the newspapers wrote: "We have so many programs, why don’t veterans take advantage of them?!" I talked to the veterans from the Balkans and I heard: "We don't want to talk to psychologists! What do they know? They think they can save us!" Veterans were very acutely aware that they were being treated like kids, with pity. And I thought that we could take soldiers who also had PTSD, but had a better internal structure, help them cope with this, and at the same time give them some skills so that they could help others in the future.

Those who failed to open are not that many. I know the way to everyone's heart, I have certain advantages, and I have developed an entire system. Since the age of 22 I have been working in war-stricken places, I have been imprisoned, shot, cut, and tortured. So there are very few things that I cannot deal with in soldiers using this principle: peer to peer.

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How does it work? First of all, when working with a soldier, you have to speak his language, you have to forget the language of psychology. Second, for me it is essential to teach people dignity and interrelations. And thirdly, the main message is, you are not sick. You have a normal reaction to an abnormal situation, it reduces the level of fear, and you are sharing this. For example, having flashbacks is very scary, but having the fear of flashbacks is even worse. And if you can tell about it so that people can understand, it is unpleasant, but it shows that you're not crazy. This is a normal, healthy reaction. Already by doing this you reduce the fear. At the beginning of the training session, we work to reduce the fear and acquire new resources. These include new resources of our bodies. Veterans learn how to be careful and aware of the signals sent by the body, how to monitor the information coming from it. In this way, we build up the contact between the brain region housing our bodily ego and the region, where our intelligence abides. I will explain this using a very simple model of the triune brain. The brain, of course, is much more complex, but when I train soldiers, I always think of how to explain to them the complicated things in the simplest way possible. So, the triune brain is made of the reptilian brain (reflexes and instincts needed for our survival), the apish brain (our bodily sensations and emotions that are very useful to animals living in flocks and allow for communicating and living with each other) and the human brain (our ability to create and develop). It is important that all sections of the brain, especially the apish and the human brains, interact and collaborate, because they are all part of your personality. However, the brain where your instincts lie is not part of your personality, it's part of your survival. It does not communicate with your personality too much, and it can do things you would never do. This region of your brain doesn't care about what your personality thinks. The only thing it cares about is how to save your life. Your personality may or may not accept it, but this is how it is.

My apish brain has the emotion of fear, but I can learn how to use my body and breath. Especially breath, because it's not the lungs that are breathing, it’s the muscles that are stretching. If your breath is shallow, you cannot withstand a lot of fear. And then it can turn into terror, and no one can withstand terror, because it is at the deep, instinctive level. I tell people that there is a difference between simply being afraid, being scared and being terrified. The trick is not to run away from fear or to get rid of it, it is impossible and even bad, but to be able to retain, suppress, and contain it in contact with another person. And here you need your body to help you with this. Otherwise, you will get either terror or the denial of fear. And if you really deny your fear in a frightful situation, this means that you are stuck in your instincts, you are too much in your instincts. And people who are 100% frightened don't even know it, they can't feel it. The only person who cannot see that something is not right with you is yourself. What we really need to train is this apish brain, the emotional intelligence that is very attached to the body; then you can normalize your body's chemistry.

For those who cannot attend training. When we have post traumatic stress, we need help! We cannot cope with it on our own! Period! You may be a Doctor of Psychology, but when you have PTSD, you need help! You will never tell a doctor who has acute appendicitis to operate himself. When we have PTSD, we exclude ourselves from the society, and the society excludes us. It is mutual exclusion. Some say: “The society doesn't want us.” Wrong! You don't want it either! It's like you exclude yourself from the flock. Sut we are all social animals. Anyone living outside the flock dies. If not physically, then psychologically. If you look at the cases of suicides among Danish veterans, these are people who exclude themselves from the flock: first, "I don't want to talk about it," then their family pulls away from them, they don't want to be together, then they die in their mind, and ultimately kill themselves. Therefore, it is important to explain to people that when a soldier returns home, it doesn't mean that he is at home already. The real return might take many years. People often ask: "What can I do at home alone to cope with this?" It's impossible.

Many years ago I came home from Somalia, where there was a war and a horrible famine, where hundreds of women and children were dying every day. The air was always full with the sweetish smell of death. It was awful to see how children died, expired their last breath, and their mothers died with them, holding them in their arms. You don't even need a war… I spent almost three months in all this. Then I returned to Denmark and landed at the airport, where food is everywhere, clothes, and all sorts of junk. I had to meet some friends at a restaurant, and then a friend of mine started complaining that the government decided to raise some taxes. And I just had a fit of hysteria. Thanks God I didn't beat her up, but I threw a chair at her with curses! I just came from a place where people are dying to one of the richest countries in the world, and you dare complaining! But she has not been there. She came from her own house, with her own concerns. Then I began to distance myself from my friends, to criticize them for being stupid. But this is certainly not so. They live with their own problems, but I came from another part of the world and could not stand this. At this point, you already start to lose, because you only see your own part of the world, you don't see your friends any more. This is the moment when you can become a fanatic: now all have to see the children starving in Africa, and no one is allowed to talk about anything else. This is a part of my trauma. And this is a way to get isolated in my own country. This is what happened to many soldiers who came back from war. How can you sit here, eat your pizza and jabber when people are dying there? This is absolutely the same. It was the same on Maidan: we sit and have a breakfast here, and we die there.

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We have to remember that the families of those fighting in a war live in the constant fear for them. They watch TV every day, and it seems to them that their loved ones may die any moment. So, they also need help. After living through something that is far from the norm, and the war is exactly such thing, you will never be the same. You will change. Instead of downplaying and depreciating yourself, you have to accept that part of your history and your personality, you have to grow due to your post-traumatic stress, rather than diminishing yourself. This also means that your environment will have to get to know you anew. “Hi! I'm your new girlfriend! I look the same, but I'm not the same. Nice to meet you! Let's have a date. Because you are not the same after the Maidan and the war, I’m sure about it.” What I have to live through is so unusual that I have to redefine my whole mode of existence in this world. And my father, mother, girlfriend or brother — all of them have to redefine themselves for me. This takes time and help. We need someone to support us and to help us get back to the flock.


Ditte Marcher is director of Bodynamic International. Born in 1959 in Denmark, she is the daughter of Bodynamic founder Lisbeth Marcher. Ms. Marcher is a community and human rights activist, body-oriented psychotherapist with years of experience, co-author of shock trauma and post-traumatic stress reaction treatment methods recommended by the UN for use in flash spots. She has collaborated as a psychologist and conflict resolution specialist with the UN peacekeeping forces and Doctors Without Borders in the Middle East, South America, countries of former Yugoslavia and Africa for 20 years. She is the founder of a rehabilitation program for soldiers suffering from the effects of psychological traumas sustained during armed hostilities.

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