Transforming the Wounds of War: Mil-Tree’s Mission to Bring Veterans, Active Duty, and Civilians Together Through Arts and Dialogue

By Lisa L. Morgan

Mil-Tree is a grassroots nonprofit organization in the hi-desert community of Joshua Tree that serves both San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. Intent on welcoming military personnel home not only in word, but in action, the organization focuses on providing a safe space for veterans returning to civilian life. Recognizing the loss incurred by leaving the close-knit unit formed in the military, this organization strives to help build new relationships within the community. Active military, family members, and civilians work together in different types of art workshops and projects, including movement, writing, art, music, theater, building, and rock climbing. Dialogue circles and retreats are provided to help support the ongoing transition from military service into civilian life.

“We have found that arts and dialogue are the best way to bridge different parts of community, building on trust and the things we have in common,” says Founder and Executive Director, Cheryl Montelle. “Often our programs lead to personal transformation and growth, and the synergy created between our participants is recognizable and profound.”

When asked what brought the idea of this organization to fruition, Montelle shares, “It is funny how things fall into your lap. I originally read a novel called The Lotus Eaters. It was about a female photojournalist that covered the Vietnam war. What I found fascinating is that this character became addicted to war — to the rush of adrenaline. I looked in the bibliography and I ended up reading Tim O’Briean’s book, The Things They Carried, to understand a bit more about what going to war was like. I mentioned this to a writer friend of mine, and she said that I should pick up a copy of Dr. Ed Tick’s book, War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, wherein a veteran confided that his soul had left his body during one of the battles he was fighting and sat next to him. One of the things that Dr. Tick stressed is that in our culture, compared to indigenous cultures, the military initiates you in, but there is really no initiation back into civilian life. Long story short, I contacted Ed Tick who came out to do a reading and a community gathering. He stressed that if we want to help our veterans, then form a community group.”

“The Desert is full of creative artist types, so I put something out on my mailing list and in 2012. A handful of us met and came up with a name for a little group that would support veterans through the arts and dialogue. A Mmarine veteran came up with ‘Mil – Tree,’ combining the word military and Joshua Tree. I felt that a great bridge back into community would be through the arts, a. Along with building activities and rock climbing. To go a little deeper, we also hold retreats where dialogue dives deeper. The civilians listen to the stories veterans need to tell in order to move on. These retreats have been held in person, and more recently, online due to Covid. Dr. Tick has been one of the main facilitators for the retreats. Other professionals that work with veterans co- facilitate as well. I could not have done this without the guidance of Dr. Tick.”

“I would take a guess that we have served around 100 veterans and active-duty members over the past 10 years, nationwide. It is not always easy to get veterans to come out and engage. We strive to make all our programming welcoming, and either plain old fun or meaningful and insightful.”

January 22, 2022, Mil-Ttree will be holding their semi- annual spoken word fundraiser, “Live from Joshua Tree.” This is a wonderful evening full of stories and songs, themed, “Desert; Any Desert.” Montelle has hand- chosen 10 people to share a desert story and/or song. “I have been doing this show for years,” shares Montelle, “but only recently as a fundraiser for Mil- Tree. It is very popular and a lot of fun. I always have at least one veteran tell a story or sing a song, but this show is not limited to veterans or military stories at all. It is about the community as a whole. I look for folks from as many different parts of the community as I can.”

Because of Covid, Live from Joshua Tree will be a hybrid of sorts. A limited number of tickets for live attendance will be made available, and the rest will be available for the event that will be live streamed. The event will be held at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center , in the Sanctuary building, which will only be filled to half of its capacity to keep everyone spread out and safe.

The event hopes to raise funds to create a staff. “Right now, I run the organization with the help of a wonderful volunteer board,” shared Montelle. “My strength is programming; I am good at that. My hope is to hire a more efficient Executive Director. I was a dancer and actress, now a Pilates teacher and writer. I have had to learn as I go to run an organization, and I know someone else could do it so much better. Still, passion counts for something, I guess.”

Military members who have participated in Mil-Ttree programs are vocal about the benefits. Army veteran Richard Finn says, “Mil-Tree has created a platform for veterans in which I can participate, volunteer, or lead life- changing workshops. They have found a way to tap into the core of what our veterans’ need in order to be heard and to again feel productive. Through art and open nonjudgmental communications, Mil-Tree’s constant support has improved my spirits and helped me remember how much of an impact one positive person or group can make in the lives of others.,”

“I was truly fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in the movement workshop with Mil-Tree,” Army veteran Sonia Johnson shared. “This experience helped me to remember my own personal resilience and created a safe space to explore rebuilding trust in our communities”

Navy doctor, Lieutenant Scott Pengelly declared, “We created a safe space – veterans with civilians, right there with us, where it was possible for us to risk writing about the wounds we brought back from war. As we rode on the blessings from our rituals to beauty and grief, I tore off 95 pounds of armor I no longer need. At long last, I finally accepted the gift of ‘welcome home.’ In the days that followed Art of Resilience (a Mil-Ttree program), I have survived letting go of suffering. These days, I now wake up smiling at the joy of possibilities in my life, back home.”

For tickets and details for the fundraising event, go to LiveFromJoshuaTree.com

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