By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A BIG, PUSHY ALPHA MALE decided to air his dissatisfaction with his cell-phone service provider as he stood across the counter from Jeremy Williams, a wireless consultant with Sprint Nextel. To the outside viewer, the testy exchange between the two men wouldn’t have looked unusual, but Williams is a seven-year veteran of the Marine Corps with three tours of duty in Iraq under his belt.
“I turned on killer mode,” says Williams, a 25-year-old Long Beach native stationed at Camp Pendleton during his service in the corps. “I wanted to beat him senseless. It would’ve taken one punch for me to kill him.”
Williams says it took him about three hours — plus a beer, a few cigarettes and a plate of hot wings — to calm down after his confrontation with a fairly typical customer who nevertheless managed to trigger his posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “That’s just what it’s like dealing with PTSD in my daily life,” Williams says. “I’m very uncomfortable about being a civilian.”
He’s not alone. According to testimony before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which is reviewing legislation to fund suicide prevention and treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder in vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Veterans Affairs hospitals can expect as many as 700,000 new cases in the next few years. It will be a big challenge for Los Angeles, since L.A. County has the largest concentration of vets in the nation, and the West Los Angeles Healthcare Center is the largest VA hospital.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Senate legislation is a provision to support research into “best practices” for suicide prevention and posttraumatic stress reduction. For troubled vets, those two simple words open up a whole new world of possibilities, including one field of therapy that might surprise people: meditation and other “mindfulness” exercises.
The toll of war on the human psyche is nothing new. But the response of mental-health workers to the latest generation of traumatized warriors marks a novel turn in borrowing Eastern spiritual practices. The National Institutes of Health is funding studies of soldiers in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Boston involving mindfulness-based stress-reduction techniques applied to posttraumatic stress disorder. In California, psychologists and meditation teachers are developing similar strategies.
Jeremy Williams, the formerly camo-clad killing machine now manning a counter at a Sprint Nextel, attended a retreat sponsored by the Coming Home Project, learning skills that put him at the leading edge of the trend. “A couple of times a week, I use relaxation techniques,” he says. “I take some time to meditate by myself, just being aware of thoughts and checking in with myself.” This from a warrior who counts the Iraq invasion of 2003 and the Second Battle of Fallujah among the “high points” of his career.
The retreat was designed by Joseph Bobrow, a meditation teacher and psychologist who founded the Coming Home Project through San Francisco’s Deep Streams Zen Institute in 2005. In the 1980s, Bobrow spent two summers in Plum Village, a monastery in France where Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh led retreats for Vietnam War vets. Fast-forward to the war in Iraq. “I needed to do something to help me regulate my feelings about the war,” Bobrow says. As soon as he announced the Coming Home Project’s lineup of workshops, retreats and pro bono counseling services, he started getting referrals from VA hospitals and military medical personnel throughout California. “There’s a pretty big gap to fill,” he says.
The stress-management techniques are carefully tailored to the needs of each vet because “It’s difficult to use the body as the focus of attention when the body has been injured,” he says. “In that case, the emphasis is on breath counting or simply learning to ‘watch thoughts.’ ”
SOME VETS DO RESIST USING coping skills adapted from Buddhist practices, mostly because the initial experience of mindfulness — and even the word “mindfulness” itself — is so alien. For young vets used to video games and pounding music — and the din of the battlefield — “Being still is just too freaky,” Bobrow says.
But while some soldiers are leery of meditation, the Buddhist notion that suffering is a shared experience can be a big help to their family members. Spouses and children of soldiers are beginning to grasp that vets aren’t the only ones affected by the trauma of war. “I realized I have secondary PTSD,” says Tonia Sargent, whose husband, Ken, returned to Camp Pendleton after he sustained a severe brain injury in Iraq. “I get triggered because he gets triggered.”
Sargent, a wellness instructor, says that in the three years since her husband returned to California, they and their two daughters have had to deal with “emotional, mental and spiritual brokenness.” Yet, she says, “The system’s not prepared to help us deal with what I call a permanent bipolar situation. Every day has its highs and lows, but there’s never a medium.”
At an event the Sargents attended in Houston honoring injured vets, Sargent was shocked to see how blind the well-meaning organizers were to the emotional issues faced by people like her and her husband. “Ken was so overwhelmed by the crowds and the noise that he retreated to the men’s room and started establishing a perimeter,” she says. The only space for the vets to socialize between events was a hotel bar — “a place for traumatized vets to hang out and self-medicate.”