One of the greatest gifts in life is friendship. Two Vietnam veterans, Joel Laufman (pictured above on the left) and Dennis Connors (pictured above on the right), know the value of that gift, with a friendship that spans 50 years.
The two men recently met at Omega Institute’s Rhinebeck campus to attend A Retreat for Veterans.
“We’ve known each other since 1968,” Joel said. “I got to Vietnam and he was already there. I was thrown into an infantry company when I had no training to be an infantryman. He mentored me a bit in the early days and helped me out. Otherwise, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”
Veterans face many personal challenges upon returning from service and adjusting to civilian life. Emotional and physical scars from war can linger for years, but having a friend to stay in touch with can help.
“I was there 3 or 4 months before he got there,” Dennis said. “We all tried to help each other. If you were drafted, you were required to stay for 12 months, so there was a lot of turnover. You didn’t really have any friends; everyone was your buddy. I made two or three real friends and Joel was one of them. We were good to each other. Most people didn’t stay in touch. Maybe you write some letters for a year or so and then stop, but we stayed in touch.”
Joel (left) and Dennis (right) in Vietnam circa 1968.
The two veterans wrote letters and exchanged a few phone calls for years. Eventually email came along, making it easier to communicate and maintain their connection. They’ve even visited each other a couple of times throughout the years.
Getting to Omega's Retreat for Veterans
Dennis lives in Kingston, New York, and has visited Omega’s campus for other veteran workshops over the years. This year, he called Omega and asked for a catalog to be sent to his friend Joel, who lives in Athens, Ohio. He didn’t tell him it was coming, but once Joel saw the catalog he applied for a scholarship to the retreat and got it.
Joel drove 10+ hours to join his friend “Denny” and 14 other veterans who all received scholarships to attend the workshop.
The Omega retreat is an integrative program designed to help veterans alleviate the psychological, relational, and spiritual injuries of war. A trained multidisciplinary team of veterans, psychotherapists, and interfaith leaders facilitated the retreat, including Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Steve Torgerson, 30-year Navy veteran and professor Barton Buechner, and former U.S. Navy medical officer Howard Levene.
While most of the veterans were younger men who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Joel and Dennis said that they were still able to connect with them.
“I thought it was really cool to learn about Iraq and Afghanistan. Hanging around with the younger guys was a lot of fun,” Joel said.
Appreciations: From Yoga Classes to a New Definition of Love
Dennis appreciated the leaders in the group, noting that all the veterans were dealing with some form of PTSD and they weren't pushed to talk. He also enjoyed the programs at night and the music integrated into each day. "One of the highlights of the retreat was getting up at 7 a.m. and joining Omega’s daily yoga class," he said. "I also love visiting the Ram Dass Library every time I come to Omega, and I brought home a stack of catalogs to give out to my local friends."
Joel says the retreat was worth the time and effort. One eye-opening moment for him was realizing that noncombat veterans can have just as much trauma as those who served on the front lines. He said he felt for some of the guys who shared their stories and it helped him realize that just being in the military was staggeringly difficult for many of them.
“I had a combat bias,” Joel said. I thought, ‘How can guys in the rear have combat stress?’ It’s taken me more than 40 years to realize that guys that were noncombat could have had just as difficult a time within their own framework of service as I did, and that was a pretty good lesson.”
Joel also had a personal breakthrough about his own self-care.
“My definition of love has gotten much more all-encompassing since the retreat,” he said. “I thought love was the storybook kind where you fall in love and get swept off your feet, like how I felt about my wife,” he said.
They were together for 40 years, and she died a few years ago.
“I've learned that I can make the definition more simple, and with that, maybe I’ll learn to love myself,” Joel said. “I spent many years thinking everything was my fault and that’s not a way to go through life. Now I’m waking up, redefining love, and tailoring it to mean self-love.”
Being in Community & Inviting Others to Join the Next Retreat for Veterans
Since the retreat, Joel has been attending a Quaker meeting in his hometown every Sunday, which he describes as a more meditative space.
He also talked with his local PTSD group about his experience attending the retreat at Omega and one of the guys wants to attend next year. Joel said he's hopeful others will join, too.