Message to vets: Embrace vulnerability for balance at home

Message to vets: Embrace vulnerability for balance at home

The story that Hector Matascastillo hopes will resonate with veterans in crisis is a tale of two gladiators.

The gladiators have been summoned to the coliseum for a battle with two lions surrounded by clamoring fans.

The first gladiator enters battle poised, covered in studded armor and wielding a shield and a sword — a spear on his back to level the playing field with the ferocious beasts, who have been bred for the kill.

The gladiator is the fan favorite, and the crowd rises to its feet as he approaches.

I, who am about to die, salute you, he says to Caesar as he enters the fray.

The second gladiator approaches, noticeably less confident. He pauses at the threshold, nerves apparently getting the better of him. The crowd starts to yell obscenities, calling him a coward.

The second gladiator drops his sword, his shield and his helmet. The crowd heaps more obscenities on him.

You coward, get in there and fight, they shout. Now they’re throwing things at him.

The gladiator feels a heavy load on him, wondering if he can do this.

Then he drops his loin cloth and stands alone and naked in front of a now-frenzied crowd that begins to think of him as a clown.

The lions are waiting as he takes his first step toward them. Soon he’s jogging and then sprinting toward them naked, with no armor or weapons.

The crowd stands in awe; you can hear a pin drop. Even Caesar stands as the naked warrior jumps into the fray.

The story plays off a scene in Brene Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead.”

“The only way to overcome the two lions of shame and narcissistic pride is through vulnerability,” Matascastillo said. “And what we do is to teach guys to go from this vertical stance to vulnerable. Isn’t it true that we will stand in awe to watch that naked gladiator rushing those two lions with nothing else to protect him?”

That’s the core message of a program called Change Step, “a cognitive behavioral approach to domestic violence,” Matascastillo said.

The military teaches that rank, speed, power and obedience to your superior officer in a vertical power structure means success and brings promotion. Having power over family members — or being subservient to them — won’t work in the family dynamic. It’s one way of addressing a problem that can lead to domestic violence in veterans, he said.

“What we tell guys is that it’s a relationship mastery program. You learn to live within a vertical environment (in the military). You bring that vertical environment back to your family. Vertical environments in a family don’t work.”

“Power and control is an illusion,” he tells the vets he counsels.

“Power and control is an illusion,” he tells the vets he counsels.

The program starts with a message that vets need to lay down their armor — with their families, with their communities — and walk vulnerably, and inspire others. They get that message, he said.

He has traveled the country and has been a presenter at conferences to share his Change Step program, which is catching on in Florida, Nevada and California.

What the VA offers can be effective, he said. St. Cloud VA Health Care System’s sweat lodges and storytelling circles are alternative therapies that work and need to be generalized elsewhere, Matascastillo said.

But he’s a firm critic of prolonged exposure therapy to deal with the scars of war, which requires the veteran to retell their most traumatic experiences until they are no longer so jarring to relive. Matascastillo says it doesn’t work when the veteran is saddled with a moral injury such as accidentally killing a non-combatant or not being deployed and having a member of their unit die overseas while they are stuck at home.

“We’re tired of hearing about more exposure therapy, because it’s a moral wound. The more exposure therapy, the more shame I feel. And eventually I’m going to want to kill myself,” he said. “Stop exposing me to it.”

He points to the high suicide rate among military members who never deployed.

“It’s a moral wound. I did not go,” he said. “You don’t get to pick your duty, but what if there was something wrong with you and you didn’t get to go. Maybe there was a legal situation that stopped you from going. Maybe you’re facing a domestic at home. Maybe you hurt your ankle, were going through a divorce and didn’t go.

“For us, as sick as it sounds, that’s shame. Why am I not good enough to go?”

Veterans have learned how to hide their shame, because shame is such a motivator in the military. Vets will hide that shame throughout their treatment, “dump their bricks” on the therapist and then live quietly until they blow their own head off, he said.

He knows what it’s like to go through the hell of war and try to come home and adjust. Matascastillo used his own experience battling PTSD to open a social work practice with clients who are mainly veterans accused of domestic abuse.

Change Step has been adopted by the Air Force and Marines, he said, and the VA has asked him to join the national conversation as a consultant on treating veterans who are suffering after serving.

He used to tell his story to audiences dozens of times a year, but he recently stopped. He’s told the story so many times, that it became time to move on, to turn his focus to helping others.

“When I think about my story, I think about the thousands of guys that are out there that could have the story that I’m living now if we do things differently,” he said. “Nothing I did worked. But people around me said, ‘We’re gonna try something else, are you willing to do this?’ And all I had to say was ‘I trust.’ I had nothing else. What are you going to do? What’s the worst you can do to me? Nothing. So OK, let’s do it your way and see what happens. It’s really not about me. I’m just an example of what can happen if a community really comes together around a guy.”

Talk About It

Share stories and strategies for coping in a new online place for Central Minnesota veterans and their families at

Follow the #ScarsofService hashtag on Twitter.

And join the discussion as Terry Ferdinandt and Hector Matascastillo take questions from readers on

About the reporters

Kirsti Marohn has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1998. She has covered local and state government, social issues and the environment. Her father was a U.S. Marine and her husband served in the Minnesota National Guard prior to 9/11.

Marohn became interested in writing about veterans after hearing about the struggles many have faced since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and how community resources were not always adequate to help them.

You can follow Marohn on Facebook and on Twitter @kirstimarohn.

David Unze has been a reporter at the St. Cloud Times since 1997. He has covered primarily courts, public safety and higher education.

The problems that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face came to his attention through the interactions that police and the courts have with veterans in crisis. He also learned about the challenges that vets face when they return home and try to resume their education.

You can follow Unze on Facebook and on Twitter @sctimesunze.