I Lay Down My Burden and Rise – Navy Veteran Steve Fronckowiak
The original story first appeared through Veterans Rites and is here offered
with permission from Veteran Rites.
Photographs are courtesy of John Crary
A man in need of voice. A child in need of play. A life in need of severance. A soul in need of the land.
A man named Steve walked into the circle. Walked out onto the land. He laid down what didn’t serve him any longer and buried the items of a life that he needed to sever himself from.
His story is not unique yet the story he had to tell to get there is.
All of his life Steve felt that each of his communities and those that thought themselves mentors from childhood until he was 44 were there to suggest what they thought the right path was. From early school experiences to a military college, then on to seven years as a Surface Warfare Officer in the Navy, and finally twelve years in corporate America he never felt that he had a voice that was heard, aside from the esprit de corps he felt in the military.
When society spoke up and said it is about time he gets married, he found a partner that shared many of the same interests and that seemed, at the time, enough to build a relationship and family from. A marriage over fifteen years that in retrospect was long on enmeshment and codependency and very short on communication and true understanding on both sides. Day after day Steve and his wife looked and worked for a solution… a new job, a new location, new opportunities, and when society said the time was right…kids. Over fifteen years they struggled and put every emotional dollar they had into raising two young children. The kids thrived while the relationship shriveled and died. Happiness, Laughter, Joy…those were all emotions that were shared rarely if at all. Something was missing. Something needed to change. That change came in the form of rites of passage ceremonies in the wilderness with The School of Lost Borders and Veteran Rites.
It takes courage to serve. It takes courage to be partnered with someone who has served or is serving. When you know deep in your soul that the life you are living is no longer serving who you know yourself to be, it takes courage to find the voice and say it. Even when the voice tells you that the person you are with is not the person your soul is meant to be with. Steve’s ex-wife heard that voice and with courage heeded what it had to say. She came back from her own vision fast with School of lost borders with a story that Steve couldn’t possibly comprehend for he had yet to learn the same vocabulary of the story as it had to be told. She came back with her own truth. The truth that told her that her life was no longer serving her and had to change.
She could have left it at that. Tell what needed to be told and leave. Instead, she offered a doorway and threshold. The threshold was Veteran Rites Rite of Return, a ceremony like hers but for veterans, a connection made through Veteran Rites co-founder and elder guide Larry Hobbs. Four days with no food, little shelter, and no contact with another soul. Total severance out on land that has hosted ceremonies for thousands of years. Steve walked over that threshold and took his place in the circle. This was going to be fucking interesting.
AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH FUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCKKKKKKK the earthquake came out in a roar! It was the moment to tell the land and those in the council why he was here and what he was claiming. A lifetime of restraint, A lifetime of taking direction, A lifeline (slip) (time) of people-pleasing and doing what society and others expected or what THEY thought was the right thing. A marriage full of so much dysfunction to call it marriage was practically living irony….Steve couldn’t even speak when it was time. Trembling as he sat looking at what he had placed on the altar that morning; a wedding ring, keys, and bits of a motorcycle crash that had nearly cost him his life, he just sat there and stared and trembled. At that moment a military helicopter flew overhead (the only one anyone saw during our time there) and at that the ROAR broiled up from inside and exploded out!
“This ends here. This life of voiceless existence ends fucking here!!! IT STAYS HERE!!! he yelled. Steve stood up, approached the altar, and took the wedding ring, the key, and bits in one hand and with the other clawed at the hard ground with the other. When the ground wouldn’t give, he opened up his knife and stabbed it into the dirt. The ring, the key, and bits were buried. He stood. He wept. He continued to tremble but the earthquake was over. Those in the circle held that space. His brothers and sisters held that space.
After that, there was no turning back. An intention was claimed and it was honored and accepted by those in the circle around him. Solo time awaited as did the ceremonial death that had to accompany it.
A circle of warriors stands together holding a rope. Each has been through hell. Each is here on the land ready to face themselves. Each promises to come back. Each of these warriors has set an intention to claim what they are there to claim. Each will go out and face the demons that guard the gifts they are seeking. Each promises to come back. Each knows that they will not be the same when they do. It’s not exactly a conscious thing yet but they know.
Smudged in. Steve stands in the early morning light as the sun sets the valley aglow. His brothers and sister one by one leave this physical plain and leave the circle. Steve leaves to claim, to wander, to wonder, and to sever from the world and the life that is no longer serving him.
My pack is light
But my Burden is
The crow’s wing is
In the sky above me
And in the Circle
I do not fear
Today is the day
What is in your head when all of the noises of the world aren’t there to fill in the silence?
Steve had found the circle where he would truly bury his life and rise up new. That was night one. He made the circle and at dusk took his ring, key, and bits of the motorcycle to it.
From his journal day one : “ To truly sever can and does and will bring about a sense of peace. Beneath the rock circle I drew above I severed. My tokens of Titus, the kids, and our figurines were the witnesses along with the ancestors on whose land those items will now remain. Buried the ring in my own circle. Yelled. YELLED to the land to hold the emotions. Fell apart.
From his journal day two: “I am going to head to the western meadow this morning to identify who I am and remember who we are. I am going to leave the people pleaser there in a hole. “There his spirits led him to the ugly tree, “ The ugly I grew out of to survive. I may be living now but the ugly I grew through is still at the base of me. While it is there, and real, it doesn’t define me for I have grown taller and will starve [the ugly] for what it needs to survive”
From his journal day three: “Someday I will be nothing more than a momento. A memory. I better be damn sure to stop wasting my fucking time on anger, despair, fear, or worry. Every one of these fucking moments count. I need to take some of these moments for myself. I want to be the best memory for those that hold it.”
From his journal on day three: ”After not seeing anyone for a few days you start to feel a little like the last man on earth. Little Twilight Zoney.“
From his journal on day four: ”I can’t protect Alex and Sierra from the feelings and emotions they will experience. They too are whole human beings and will feel. I can speak my truth…I can teach them how to speak their own..” “Today I will ponder what it means to die and what a good death is. May my ancestors and spirits guide me.“
From his journal day four, ”I am wrecked. My body is empty, my screams are ensconced in the dirt. I got no more. I wonder if the things I saw would be there if I looked for them later? “
Morning of Day 5:
The land has held me and held. And will keep what I came to lay down in it. Both the tokens of my severance and my ceremonial ashes are laid down here. The spirits showed me what I needed to see, I hopefully heard what they had to tell me. For the spirits that held me, kept me safe, blessed me with the voices, Thank you.
I am a grounded man with a voice who speaks his TRUTH without fear.
I have kind of lost a home or feeling of it. And in some real sense have found one here on the land and with these people.
I feel like I am packing for a journey from home (land) to the world as it was created by man. I will return to this land.
This will be hard.
The easy part is over.
Steve Fronckowiak was a US Navy Surface Warfare Officer who deployed with three different commands from 1998 to 2005. After trading his uniform for the suit of corporate America he spent the next 12 years searching for the comradery and esprit de corps that was left behind the day he crossed the threshold from military service to civilian life. In life outside he was never able to speak his truth, display the wildness in his heart, or fill in the blanks of who he really was. He was led to the Veteran Rites of Return by his ex-wife and friend. On the Land he was able to sever from a life that wasn’t serving him any longer and claim a life of Truth, a life of Voice. He found Home.
“I am a Grounded man with a Voice that can Speak my Truth without fear.”
Veteran Rites initiates Veterans into Whole Identity, Purpose, and Belonging after military service so they and their loved ones can enjoy the future worthy of their sacrifice. Through ceremonial Rites of Return in the wilderness and Circles of Return in society, we heal the veteran soul with non-medicated solutions that provide lasting freedom from the invisible wounds of military service.
We are on the front lines of Veteran Suicide Prevention by providing a true rite of passage for warriors suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress, Moral Injury, Military Sexual Trauma, Isolation, and Suicidal Ideation.
One Circle and One Ceremony at a time, we can prevent further casualties of war on American soil. This is the responsibility of a whole nation. To do this, we need all hearts and hands in the movement to welcome our warriors home with Love and Honor.