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HOST INTRO: Each day, 22 U-S veterans kill themselves – that’s according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Suicides have increased so much that last year, more active-duty troops killed themselves than troops who died in combat in Afghanistan. Alexandra Hall found some vets are turning to meditation to help.
Alexandra Hall: The Omega Center in Rhinebeck is known for offering spiritual retreats.
Hall: This weekend’s retreat is different: It’s called “The Real Cost of War.” And early on Saturday morning about 50 veterans make their way to the the Main Hall for morning meditation.
The men and women take off their shoes.
[TAKING OFF SHOES AMBI]
Hall: They enter the large room and sit in chairs or on cushions on the floor.
Hall: The sound of the bell means the meditation has begun. Many of the veterans are old enough to have served in Vietnam, but some are young. For most, this is their first time meditating. Many close their eyes- and other than the occasional cough, the room is quiet for twenty minutes.
Hall: The bell reminds veterans to return to the present moment and begin walking meditation.
[PEOPLE GETTING UP AMBI]
Hall: The group walks slowly around the open room. The idea is to inhale and exhale with every step.
One large man remains sitting on a cushion. Alongside him lies a prosthetic leg. Elliot James served in Iraq. He lost his right leg below the knee in 2005 when an American tank accidentally crashed into him as he was guiding it around a barrier. He says when he got back, he was hyper-vigilant- a common symptom of PTSD.
ELLIOT JAMES: Every morning I woke up I’m reaching for a broom in the room, just anything to be the weapon that I had to reach for every day for seven months.
Hall: He self-medicated so that he wouldn’t have to face what he went through. He eventually tried to kill himself, but woke up in a hospital that offered treatment for PTSD. He’s been practicing meditation ever since.
JAMES: Meditation and mindful breathing helps me sit still with this stuff. To allow that time to pass and to not just feel like I have to react to this feeling.
Hall: Rather than numb him, meditation allows James to be consciously aware of of his symptoms. With veteran suicides at an all time high, mindfulness meditation is being used to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress. The U.S. Office of Veterans Affairs is studying how mindfulness, in addition to traditional therapies, such as medication and psychotherapy, is helping veterans after they come home from war.
CLAUDE ANSHIN THOMAS: I have guys come here taking twenty-seven different kinds of medications.
Hall: Claude Anshin Thomas is leading the retreat. He’s not your typical buddhist monk. He’s a Vietnam vet himself – something that helps him relate to these vets in a way that others can’t.
THOMAS: With this group of people there are certain expressions of character that I identify with immediately.
Hall: Thomas was a door gunner in the Vietnam war. Door gunners were responsible for shooting out the open side of a helicopter with a machine gun. Thomas and his crew used to make bets about who could kill the most people. He says several hundred Vietnamese died because of his actions and it’s left lasting scars.
THOMAS: The real cost of war is that it never goes away.
[TRANSITION ROOM AMBI]
Hall: In the main hall after breakfast, the men and women are more lively as they settle for a group session with Thomas. It’s informal.
Hall: Hands pop up.
THOMAS: In the way back, right here. Yeah go ahead.
Hall: A large older bald man with a deep, southern drawl asks Thomas how to apologize.
MAN: I lost my temper at our senior club meeting. I cussed this guy out. I wanted to take him out and beat the crap out of him and then my wife said I should apologize and I got mad at her.
MAN: I still feel ashamed, how do you handle situations like that? I don’t want to apologize.
THOMAS: Well, whether I want to or not, I do.
Hall: The point of mindfulness is not to be attach to, nor reject, what you think and feel. So Thomas tells veterans to allow flashbacks, anxiety, and depression to happen.
THOMAS: Anger rises – just be present with the anger.
Hall: He tells the group to be aware and observe your symptoms – all of them – without judgment, and then, just let them be.
THOMAS: Rather than punch them, I ought to bow to them. That takes some skill and practice. First we start with not punching.
Hall: Of the veterans who kill themselves, the majority are 50 years and older. Looking around the room, it’s these men and women who returned from war over thirty years ago who are most at risk. Elliot James – The Iraq war veteran who lost his leg – knows this. He says he’s learning mindfulness now so that that doesn’t happen to him.
JAMES: The more that I sweep stuff under the rug, the more it grows, the worse it gets and then I’ll be dealing with it maybe at 40 or 50 and who knows what I’ll do to somebody or myself by then.
James says he hopes meditation will be a way younger veterans like him to get help before it’s too late.
Alexandra Hall, Columbia Radio News.