For Valentine’s Day, we asked movers and shakers in veterans’ service organizations:What’s LOVE?
“Love is, at its essence, a kind of capacity…
to be present for others.
to allow for our differences.
to endure difficulty.
to go beyond our self interest.
Love is the capacity to do all of this with an effortless grace that allows us fully and spontaneously embrace all that is.” -Eric Walrabenstein, Veteran, U.S. Army, Bootstrap Stress Management System
Eric Walrabenstein is a nationally-recognized expert in the fields of yoga and mind/body health and the founder of Yoga Pura, one of Arizona’s largest yoga centers. As a former infantry officer in the U.S. Army, he knows first-hand of the sacrifice and dedication the members of our armed forces make every day. His wide-ranging experience in the military and civilian sectors, combine with his profound understanding of yoga technology and mind/body health to make him uniquely equipped to help our troops and veterans end their struggle with chronic military-related stress conditions. In addition to his work with BOOTSTRAP and teaching at his Arizona center, he regularly travels the nation training yoga, meditation, and mind-body health teachers from around the world.
“The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you,but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time.The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.”
Yeah, I know. You’re circling the yoga studio in your car, not sure if you really want to go in. Everyone walking in seems so… bouncy, and they’re smiling, and what the heck are they happy about? Plus, you’ve seen the “7-Days of Gratitude” started on FB, and a few of your friends have even posted things they’re grateful for.
What a bunch of goody-two-shoes.
After all, you’re intense. You’ve seen the most extreme part of life. War, poverty, suffering, pain. Violence, tragedy and danger. You’re fierce in your beliefs, and so is everyone else you know. You walk on the earth. But those people who go around saying they’re grateful? You’re not so sure. Reality check?
You gun the engine, race ahead, trying to find a parking spot on the crowded street. Who the heck put this studio here, anyway? What fool thought to put it next to a Starbucks and a hot dog stand? You shake your head. Honestly, you like your intensity. And you don’t feel like “letting go.” Besides, what is that? Letting go. Do they think there’s a window in your brain to open, and your intensity will just go away? BIG LOUD AWFUL THINGS have shaped who you are now. And while there’s stuff you could do without –like the lack of sleep, or the reel that plays back and forth in your head …there were good things too. Like feeling you had a sense of direction, fighting for the person next to you, and knowing they’d do the same for you. Things were so certain ….and now? The only thing certain is everyone is talking about gratitude, and it kind of annoys you.
So now, you’re circling the block again, and you’re wondering…. yeah, you comprehend the meaning of gratitude. Life, liberty, pursuit of happiness means more than it did before you went to war. Some of your friends lost the chance at all three in a gritty battle or alone, at home, when hope had run out. Will they understand war ushered in the best friends of your life? That the brother and sisterhood is unquestioned? Yeah, sure, there was trauma, but there were funny things that still make you laugh. Will they get it? It was the best and worst time of your life, and you’d do it again (only this time you wouldn’t lose your best friend). Do they understand it was the intensity that kept you alive? Do they know how much it pisses you off to be tossed off as an ‘adrenaline junkie?’ It seemed that way, but you weren’t though it’d be a lie to say that war wasn’t exciting. You were fighting for the guy on your left and your right.
Finally, you find a spot. It’s three blocks away from the yoga studio, but it will do. You park, gather your stuff –the yoga mat with the wrapper still on it, and a towel. You follow the others with yoga mats strapped to their backs. Some look rushed and harried. One even walks into you and doesn’t say, “sorry.” So maybe some of these yoga people are assholes, which makes sense: in any given group, there’s always going to be one.
You reach the door, no time to hesitate, there are people behind you. But you remember one thing someone wrote here on WarRetreat:
We know you miss your war. It’s fine. We’re not asking you to become anyone else. If you’re already grateful, maybe you’ll find more. But no sane person is going to insist. And maybe you won’t like yoga. Maybe your thing is to climb a mountain, ride a bike, or write a poem.
You check in, find a spot. The music starts. You sit, and breathe. And then you do it again.
It’s no secret that the effects of PTSD are felt among family and friends. The agitation, hyper-awareness, lows and highs are taken in by everyone around the person with PTSD.
“Kateri’s eight-year-old son now also counts the exits in new spaces he enters, points them out to his loved ones, keeps a mental map of them at the ready, until war or fire fails to break out, and everyone is safely back home.”
It’s the story of Daniel Rodiguez, who fought in the mountains of Afghanistan, away from anything he knew, literally fighting not only for his life, but for the men he knew so well. He’s back, and Brian Mockenhaupt writes about him in the 80th Anniversary Edition of Esquire Magazine.
Best advice he’s gotten: “It’s not how you start something, it’s how you finish it. Where I’ve been and what I’ve gone through haven’t defined me; it’s where I want to go and how I finish my life that drive me and motivate me.”
Brian Mockenhaupt served in the US Army and completed two tours of duty to Iraq with the 10th Mountain Division. Since, then he has written extensively about veterans, war, as well as the aftermath for publications ranging from Esquire to the Atlantic. You may also find his work for purchase on his website.
We sat outside a barn in Oregon, the sound of sheep and goats in the background, happy to see on another. I’d traveled north to Oregon in need of a change of scenery, and also to touch base with friends. I felt blessed that he’d chosen to drive a few hours to visit with me.
This friend was an old friend/new friend. I call him that because this was the first time he and I had ever met. While he had met my husband, he and I had only carried on a conversation for 4 years over through blogs, emails and phone calls. We had mutual acquaintances, made through the experience of war. This long awaited meeting was special.
I’d followed him through is many missions overseas to rough and dangerous territory. He was a good man, pressed to do dangerous risky work, among people who needed and wanted him there, and others who only wanted to kill him. His point of view always gave me a deeper perspective in trying to understand the bigger picture of things in Afghanistan. Gradually, his role came to an end, and he returned home. But here, something ominous awaited him in the form of PTSD. We knew he was in trouble because he admitted as much to us via emails and phone calls.
To say many of us were worried is an understatement. But we all loved and believed in him, and hoped a change would come about.
It did. And what it took was a move, and being in a place that didn’t resemble the arid landscape of Afghanistan, where nature and beauty came together and most of all –where he was needed and could find a new a new purpose. He’s finding a balance of things. We talked about his life as it is now, and he told me that prayer works a lot, as does reading the Dalai Lama. He described something that the Dalai Lama said, about the difference between laughing with people and at them.
My friend said this wasn’t an easy thing for him to do –he used to be a deadly mimic. But all the while, in doing so, it was a way for him to deflect what he was really feeling, and also to ignore the feelings and humanity of the other person. So while it’s not easy, it’s what he’s practicing now as he makes his way through civilian life.
You have to take care of others, of their well-being, by helping them and serving them, to have even more friends and make more smiles blossom. -The Dalai Lama
We talked about how it wasn’t that different from the years when he was in command of so many young men and women. There was discipline, and he served them well by extending patience and order. He is still very much a warrior with the people skills acquired through service, now burnished with the wisdom of the Dalai Lama. He still has PTSD, he still struggles with sleep, but rather than edging into a pit of despair, he has resources now to help him cope.
We ended our meeting as the late afternoon set in. He left to continue on this fruitful path, one that teaches him compassion through the ability to laugh with others.
The Women Veterans Retreat at Tassajara Mountain Retreat Center from June 17th – June 21st 2013 and
The Whitewater Rafting trip open to both men and women from July 30th to August 2nd.
Both of these events combine nature and engaging physical activities with meditation, Sensory Awareness and mindfulness practices. The intent is to provide Veterans with connection, community and tools that support them in using their strengths and experiences to find a meaningful and productive path in civilian life.
US Navy veteran Scott Gunning made this video about a White Water Rafting retreat by Honoring The Path of The Warrior.
US Army veteran Steve Lewis talks about his experience: “You get a bond, and you have fun….” Here’s what others have said about these events:
I really can’t put into words what this trip meant for me, but I can say that this was easily one of the most meaningful and special experiences in my life. I got more out of this 4 day trip than I did in the entire 5 months that I was in the [...] PTSD program.”
“I just want to take the time to say thank you both from my complete and whole heart for what you two have given me this weekend. I’m speechless cause the gift you both gave me was HOPE. And I really can’t remember the last time I truly had it. The act of pulling a trigger from a man made weapon on another human being has shattered my person. You both have given me the hope and energy I need to some how find a way to try to put my shattered soul back together.”
All events are nondenominational and are completely free of charge to veterans. We do, however, welcome contributions from veterans and members of the broader community so that other veterans may attend future events. Please support us as you are able: Honoring The Path.
People often ask me why I “do” yoga. This is usually followed by: jokes about guys doing yoga, questions about levitation, and references to contortion. Once the laughter settles, I’ll answer in one of several ways. If the question comes from a guy or group of guys who are joking about “guys doing yoga,” I say something about how horrible it is to be the only guy in a room full of women. That usually gets their attention. If the question comes from an overly-muscled person who questions the “manliness” of yoga, I usually respond in the form of an asana. Usually eka pada koundinyasana that transitions into a variation of Mayurasana.
When the question comes from someone who really wants to know “why I do yoga,” I will sit down and tell them about my yoga journey.
Over on Parc Bench, Gregory Victor reviews the new book on Tim Hetherington by Alan Huffman. He was also a great admirer of the film Restrepo, was also deeply appreciative of Tim and how he lived his life. Do read the review, over at Parc Bench.
Here I Am is a fitting tribute to the life’s work of a man who constantly risked his life to give voice to people devastated by war. -Gregory Victor, Parc Bench
This is a true story. The names have been omitted to protect the truly loving and caring. A group of well-heeled yogis, who have every earthly possession to make their lives comfortable, were given the opportunity to donate a few bucks to support our new community yoga classes for veterans at the VA and a local base. Their response: they didn’t think they should have to donate something that the government should already be providing.
This response isn’t atypical of those who are far removed from the realities of the politics that control the conditions of our veterans and their families. The truth is that funds are stretched, and while one would think that the VA provides yoga teachers at every single hospital, it doesn’t. We think it should too, and have written about the disparity of funding for yoga and other movement-based therapies in governmental institutions. However, to lounge on principles is akin to driving in a luxury car through a tough neighborhood and pretend to not notice the stress and suffering out the window.
Rob Schware, the Big Poppa of the philanthropic yoga movement and co-founder of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, writes in the Huffington Post, Veterans Trauma and Yoga: Are we moving quickly enough? He writes:
Are there enough yoga teachers and therapists to complement the work of other health professionals addressing the growing health crisis those now face who have served our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even Vietnam?
Rob lists several resources, including our grassroots partner, Yoga For Vets. A civilian, Rob has an interesting professional background, and could easily sit back on the laurels of his career. But thankfully, he doesn’t.
I think the real issue is whether people are willing to put aside their personal politics, and help those in need. War is one of the less desirable products of our own humanity, and because we are a part of it, we at WarRetreat accept the consequences (both good and bad) that come from it. We know personally that war brings tragedy and suffering on every level. Driven by our own humanity, we own it. Because of this, we’ve witnessed the fruits of ownership, which is a sense of community, caring, and the creation of ways to address the suffering of others to offer a helping hand. Without ownership, we might as well lease a big car and drive through life, ignoring our environs.
This isn’t to say that we would dissuade anyone from being politically astute and even active. However, WarRetreat draws lines when it comes to bringing politics onto the mat –there is a fine line between activism and politics, especially in the U.S. where we live in a highly divided political environment that is both provoking and suffocating. One thing for sure, talking about politics makes people talk in short, desperate sounding choppy phrases. It tenses people up and closes people off. It seems to be the antithesis of finding stress reduction through yoga. Our goal is to help those who have been through the confusion of war find a bit of peace so that they may live the productive lives they desire.
Honoring The Path of the Warrior is having its Spring Fundraiser, a raffle to fund a
Whitewater Rafting trip and a retreat for women veterans.Go here to purchase your tickets! Your support is needed in order to make them happen, as all of the events are offered to OEF, OIF and Gulf War veterans at no charge. The raffle prizes are some of the best I’ve seen: resorts in Mexico and Calistoga, a white water rafting trip, massage, art work. Really, kids. These are serious prizes.
Here’s what one veteran had to say about a past HTPW event:
“Coming to the one-day events with other veterans, I feel like I am coming together with my family. As vets we kind of walk with the same rhythm. There is a sense of kinship. You know that other person understands what is essential. You’ve lived on what is essential and you know you can be
fine with that. This is why mindfulness and meditation goes so well with veterans. It is about getting down to that essential stuff – breathing, walking in silence. It is like what we learned and were trained in, in order to do our duties. Maybe you are being mindful in a different way, but it is still mindfulness. I have no desire to meet my fellow vets out at a bar. It is the place and quality of being held and cared for that makes these days very appealing and healing.”
- Paige Jenkins, U.S. Navy
Facilitated by Dyan Ferguson, a former US Army officer, Honoring the Path of the Warrior is a program that assists post 9/11 and Persian Gulf veterans in making a positive transition from military to civilian life. We provide a pathway of meditation and mindfulness that welcomes, honors, and integrates their service and leadership.
Their programs combine nature and engaging physical activities; meditation, Sensory Awareness and mindfulness practices. The intent is to provide Veterans with connection, community and tools that support them in using their strengths and experiences to find a meaningful and productive path in civilian life.