Navy’s Returning Warrior Workshop breaking mold

You have thoughts about what the military is “like.” All of us do. Typical stereotypes include the following:

You have thoughts about what the military is “like.” All of us do. Typical stereotypes include the following:

The military isn’t into “sharing feelings.”

The military thinks counseling is for sissies. The military encourages bravado. The military is filled with people who love a good fight.

For most of my life, I’ve shared some of these thoughts. Then, last month, I attended a Returning Warrior Workshop (RWWs), and my beliefs were shattered. RWWs are run by the Navy Reserve and designed for sailors who have recently returned from an overseas deployment.

When Dustin asked me to be his guest at the workshop,  I wasn’t enthusiastic.

I’ve been to military workshops before. Most of them are incredibly bland and reminiscent of the world’s most boring college lecture. They are run by people whose hands are tied by regulations and whose pay is not necessarily affected by performance. There usually is no incentive, nor room, for meaningful conversation.

“This will be different,” Dustin said. “Trust me.”

Guests are put up in a nice hotel. Our RWW was in Baltimore and held at the city’s inner harbor. If nothing else, I was excited about a weekend away with my husband.

When we checked in, we received the usual conference handouts: pamphlets with things like “The Phases of Reintegration” printed on them. Snore, I thought. More of the same. What the military promotes is historically at odds with its reality. How many times have I received a booklet informing me of the stress of deployments, then been met with the unspoken directive to “Soldier On”?

I was skeptical when we arrived for the first dinner. You can take the military off base, but can you ever take the military out of the military?

That was before Eric Harris came onto the stage. He is energetic and funny, and perhaps most importantly, not military. He didn’t have on a uniform. He didn’t speak in acronyms. His hands weren’t tied by the same formalities.

The weekend opened with National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones’s motivational film “Celebrate What’s Right with the World,” a truly beautiful and moving presentation.

Service members in civilians clothes talked about coming home from deployment. Some got emotional. Everyone seemed to be relaxed. Senior officers in civilian clothes mingled with junior members in civilian clothes. It was all so normal.

There were breakout sessions with presentations of concern to individual service members and their guests.

Dustin, who has been schooled in service etiquette since the day he entered the Naval Academy at age 17, actually raised his hand and asked personal questions.

I wanted to take a picture of it. Never before, in my 14 years of knowing Dustin as a commissioned officer, have I seen him “break character” in a military setting. At the RWW, he was Dustin the father and husband, not Dustin the service member.

After 36 years of feeling at the mercy of the military, for that one night, the military celebrated me and everyone other family member in attendance. We even got a standing ovation.

If you or a loved one has recently returned from a deployment, don’t be fooled by the sound of “workshop.”

This is unlike anything you’re experienced in the military before.

Find a listing of upcoming RWW on this website: