“Soldiers, above other people, must suffer and bear the deepest wounds of war,” sadly states Brigadier General James T. Cook, who has served in the U.S. Army Reserves for 30 years. Brigadier General Cook is one of a growing number of people nationwide, both inside and outside the Armed Services, who are turning their attention to providing solutions to heal the wounds of war.
Some injuries and disabilities are visible badges and scars demonstrating the destruction of combat. Others are less easily seen, but may be even more devastating. As demand for troops overseas continues with the military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations not showing any signs of abatement, soldiers are being repeatedly redeployed overseas, even in combat zones. In an investigation of the impact of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in Afghanistan, the RAND Corporation released a study in April 2008. Researcher and study co-leader Terri Tanielian states, “There is a major health crisis facing these men and women who have served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Out of the 1.6 million troops who have been deployed since 2001, the RAND study reveals that nearly 20% of those (300,000 people) report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression. Of these people, only slightly more than half have sought treatment for these conditions. In a finding that may be even more alarming, only half of the people who actually seek treatment receive treatment that the researchers deem “minimally adequate.
”What these numbers may not reveal are the people who do not report symptoms right away upon their return. Brigadier General Cook cites that post-traumatic stress disorder can show up years later, even if someone is initially assessed and medically cleared. Nagging experiences, such as the flashbacks that torment veterans, can linger. People may not know how to cope with the emotional energy that remains lodged in the body, survivors guilt or other feelings they may even numb with alcohol or drugs. Without adequate availability of services, soldiers may not know where to turn to receive help that does not feel like the stigma of receiving mental health services.
In an effort to provide meaningful services to soldiers returning from conflict, and to allow them to not only return to their lives but to reintegrate and reunite body, mind and spirit, groups and organizations across the country are attempting to create what may prove to be new models of service delivery.
Sue Lynch is the program director of the private nonprofit organization There and Back Again. Lynch is an attorney and officer in the Judge Advocate General Corp (JAG) in the U.S. Army Reserves. After serving in the 1991 Gulf War, Lynch experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. She describes her sense of despair, not knowing where to turn to for help, “I was 21 years old, sitting in my apartment, flipping through the yellow pages, trying to find out how to get relief, how to get help.” From this experience, Lynch wants to facilitate the expansion of a delivery model to train people in new models of care across the country.
Since grief and stress are more than merely cognitive experiences and trauma can be deeply held within the body at a cellular level, There and Back Again emphasizes the importance of intense cognitive work combined with a physical hatha yoga practice. Lynch cites the work of noted clinician, researcher and medical doctor Bessel van der Kolk, who put the diagnosis of post- traumatic stress disorder on the psychological map, in the diagnostic guide to conditions used by clinicians. Dr. van der Kolk, she says, will not take on a client unless yoga is a part of their practice. Lynch knows first-hand the importance of a physical practice in combination with the psychological work. After eight years of trying to manage post-traumatic stress disorder with only the methods available in Western psychology and psychiatry, she discovered yoga practice, which helped her to more effectively cope with and actually alleviate the symptoms. The combination of the yoga and psychology and medicine, she feels, is important. As an essential trauma survival mechanism, we instinctively disconnect from the body and post-traumatic stress disorder continues that disconnection. Healing includes reconnecting. To support the process of reconnecting, Lynch is now a registered yoga teacher who takes groups of veterans on the mat through There and Back Again.
Yoga as a complementary healing modality for post-traumatic stress disorder is growing in use, particularly after the positive results posted in a feasibility study funded by the Samueli Institute, implemented at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Richard Miller, PhD, President of the Center for Timeless Being and member of the advisory board of There and Back Again, developed the protocol
used in the study that features a yoga nidra (deep relaxation) protocol known as integrative restoration, or iRest. This demonstrably improves sleep and reduces stress and anxiety, particularly since it can affect change even at a cellular level.The Specialized Care Program at Walter Reed includes regular yoga classes taught by yoga teacher Robin Carnes. Approximately 120 service members attend the Specialized Care Program each year, but this is only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of service people in need of services, support and tools for healing.
Brigadier General James T. Cook sees the connection between the need to heal what he describes as this country’s wounded warriors returning from combat with the bigger picture of healing the planet. Soldiers are taught to preserve and protect, and the mechanics of war means that they do so through a path of destruction. In order to create transformation, he envisions a Warrior Water Center; included in this model of a center are therapeutic modalities to heal physical and mental wounds as well as spiritual paths to assist people in their healing journey. Water therapy, yoga practices, Ayurveda, cognitive counseling, family-based programs to address group trauma and even soul retrieval, are part of the vision which culminates with channeling the warrior ethos into training people for careers in ecology through a green warrior institute.
The RAND Corporation study has estimated that the cost to society of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and the current rate of suicide among military personnel ranges from four to six billion dollars. While these numbers are staggering, they fall short of representing the collective trauma. After all, as Brigadier General Cook points out, humanity is tribal and this issue is a community responsibility. To heal the wounds of war, we must support the wounded warriors.
Yoga for Vets provides listings of yoga studios and teachers who offer four free yoga classes to military veterans. To find out where to go or to offer yoga classes to military personnel, visit: yogaforvets.org.
- There and Back Again: thereandbackaganinlaw.org
- Warrior Water Center: warriorwatercenter.org
- Richard Miller and the Center of Timeless Being: nondual.com
Felicia Tomasko has spent more of her life practicing Yoga and Ayurveda than not. She first became introduced to the teachings through the writings of the Transcendentalists, through meditation, and using asana to cross-train for her practice of cross-country running. Between beginning her commitment to Yoga and Ayurveda and today, she earned degrees in environmental biology and anthropology and nursing, and certifications in the practice and teaching of yoga, yoga therapy, and Ayurveda while working in fields including cognitive neuroscience and plant biochemistry. Her commitment to writing is at least as long as her commitment to yoga. Working on everything related to the written word from newspapers to magazines to websites to books, Felicia has been writing and editing professionally since college. In order to feel like a teenager again, Felicia has pulled out her running shoes for regular interval sessions throughout Southern California. Since the very first issue of LA YOGA, Felicia has been part of the team and the growth and development of the Bliss Network.