Why Pilgrimage Journeys Can Be Meaningful Experiences for Military Veterans


Participation in pilgrimage journeys is on the rise globally with people undertaking journeys on every continent and within vast cultural contexts. We know that motivations for these journeys can be based in a religious/spiritual framework, but many people participating in a pilgrimage have no particular religious motivation or expectation from the experience. Yet, there is a general “quest” that occurs for every pilgrim and every type of pilgrimage journey.

In light of this, are there particular reasons for why a pilgrimage might appeal to a military veteran? There are certainly exemplars of military pilgrimage for active duty personnel (e.g., hike to Masada for oath-taking ceremonies for the Israel Defense Force), for military veterans (e.g., Museum of the Marine Corps), and for those honoring war dead (e.g., Normandy, Gallipoli, and Pearl Harbor). But what about pilgrimage journeys aimed at healing and transformation for military veterans? The Warriors Pilgrimage to Lourdes is one specific pilgrimage that fills the need for such journeys for military veterans. Beyond this, depending on the individual, and the context for the journey, nearly any pilgrimage journey can provide a framework for healing and transformation. While not an exhaustive list, I have detailed below some key reasons why pilgrimage journeys may be particularly meaningful for military veterans and, moreover, why these journeys may lead to healing and transformation.

  1. Honoring those who have gone before – military personnel have a strong tradition of honoring the service members who have served in the military, in general, and, specifically, those who have previously served in one’s particular unit. Such historical narratives underpin the legends, myths and ethos of military culture. Military veterans will find that pilgrimage journeys provide a framework for honoring those who have come before and becoming aware of one’s own place in time and space. I have interviewed dozens of pilgrims and, without exception, they share with me about a sense of awareness of others who have moved through the same space and even note the significance of seeing older pilgrims and younger pilgrims sharing an experience. Additionally, most pilgrimage journeys follow ancient paths and the route goes through historically significant landscapes and geological/architectural structures.
  2. Side-by-side movement – movement, and tasks, in a military context are often completed side-by-side (e.g., physical training, marching, cleaning weapons, etc.). Such side-by-side physical positioning, and parallel activity, leads to conversations between and among those participating in the activity or exercise. Often, conversations evolve into more personal disclosures and increased support occurs. This type of side-by-side and parallel movement also emerges as part of a pilgrimage journey. Because the body is in motion, focus is on the horizon (rather than on face-to-face eye contact), the physiological systems are active (i.e., blood flow, heart rate, oxygen levels) and the pace is comfortable, pilgrims have decreased defenses and increased openness to share with one another and offer mutual support. This is further discussed below in the action versus talking section.
  1. Ritual and rites of passage – The overarching culture of the military is embedded with ritual and rites of passage. Such rites of passage include boot camp or officer candidate school, promotion ceremonies, and unit specific rituals. The late anthropologist Victor Turner (1974) suggested that rites of passage, particularly pilgrimage, lead to various levels of communitas, which is an organic sense of communing with those taking part in the rite of passage. More readily available exemplars of communitas include the phenomenon that occurs when there is a sense of unity among concert-goers of a high intensity concert, participation in a political rally, profound spiritual engagement, and/or combat experiences. The pilgrimage journey itself is a rite or passage, but there are many rituals that comprise the journey — many of which are meaningful because of how the individual pilgrim constructs the experience. A military veteran may carry with him a photo of a friend killed in combat or bring a stone to leave at a sacred point of the journey. Other pilgrims may undertake the journey as a result of a shared plan with a loved one who has died and the journey brings a sense of closeness and comfort for the living.
  1. Identity transformation – When a young woman or young man enters the military, s/he transitions from a “civilian” to a soldier, marine, sailor, etc. This process of identity transformation occurs vis-à-vis a rite of passage as mentioned above, but carries with it new identities, roles, language and relationship to the non-military world. There is a sense of belonging to one’s military community and an in-group status/identity is formed. For veterans leaving military service, the shock of losing one’s military identity can be significant. Inherent in a pilgrimage journey is the adoption of an identity of “pilgrim” (even if this is contained to the duration of the journey) and one now belongs to a community of pilgrims. During some types of pilgrimages, the pilgrim even adopts a new name for the duration of the pilgrimage and operates within this identity throughout the pilgrimage process. Beyond this, pilgrims often remain connected with other pilgrims met during the journey and maintain close contact via phone, social media and email. Often the new community will gather for reunions and reminisce about the pilgrimage experiences as well as life experiences beyond the shared journey. For many military veterans, this is a similar camaraderie as that which was experienced in a military environment.
  1. Focus on action versus focus on dialogue – military personnel often are either training for or engaged in the execution of action plans. This mission focus, and rigid hierarchical structure, is often missed once a veteran has left military service. The veteran has spent years using his/her body for a particular objective in a particular space. Researchers writing about therapeutic landscapes have noted the importance of the body moving through a particular geographical terrain (Andrews & Moon, 2005). Another researcher suggested that “shared direction of movement and a shared vista results in fewer non-verbal signals passing between individuals walking together, than if they were seated opposite in a more static environment.” Additionally, the social interaction that occurs while walking is “experienced as low in emotional intensity…this may help to facilitate more emotional depth in conversations…and possibly even remove the perceived need to share anything significant about oneself at all” (Doughty, 2013). For military veterans used to a focus on action, rather than dialogue, as well as operating in a side-by-side, parallel environment, a pilgrimage journey may provide the optimal conditions for movement based healing.


Andrews, G. J., & Moon, G. (2005). Space, place, and the evidence base: Part I—an

introduction to health geography. Worldviews on EvidenceBased Nursing, 2(2), 55-62.

Doughty, K. (2013). Walking together: the embodied and mobile production of a

therapeutic landscape. Health & Place (24), 140-146.

Turner, V. (1974). Dramas, fields, and metaphors: Symbolic action in human

society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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