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Mindful : February 2015
help alleviate some of the sy mptoms of post-trau- matic stress disorder (PTSD), which has grown to epidemic proportions among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Each week, roughly 1,000 vetera ns receive new diag noses of PTSD, according to recent estimates from the Depa rtment of Vetera ns Affairs. Classic sy mptoms include depression, anxiety, irritability, and pa nic. The disorder is also a f requently cited factor in the alarming and increasing rate of suicides among US troops and veterans. Some 8,030 veterans committed suicide in 2010, the VA has reported— averag ing out to 22 each day, and more in just one year than the total estimated number of US military deaths since the beginning of the Iraq and Afghani- stan wars. Even so, however useful mindfulness may be as a tool for relief of psychic suffering, it’s the rare former militar y member who is eager to sit still. “Most vets like adventure,” says Lee Klinger Lesser, HPW’s tan, silver-haired cofounder and executive director, one of the two women leading the trip. “And the power of the river is immediate. You have to show up.” It’s early July, and the banks of the Tuolumne are patched with charred remnants of buckeye, oak, and pine trees burned in last year’s devastating fire. The water is shallower than in past years, in the wake of a record-setting drought, although periodic releases from upstrea m reser voirs keep it flowing. Wearing bright orange plastic helmets and life vests, the vets stand out against the brown and gray of burnt grass a nd granite boulders. They listen for orders, poised to react, as if they were once again in training or combat. “ BACK, now, BACK!” shout the guides, a nd the rafters furiously back-paddle to clear a jagged rock known as the Rooster Tail. Whitewater rafting is considered an “extreme sport.” The professional guides make it safer, but the dangers are real—par- ticula rly if pa rticipa nts aren’t paying close attention. Rafters can get thrown into the waves and sucked into the eddies that swirl around rocks, which the guides call being “worked in the hole.” Many of the vets haven’t met each other before this week. Nor at first do they seem to have much in common. Five women and 13 men, they range in age from late 20s to ea rly 50s. One is a university pro- fessor; another owns a small mechanics company. → On facing page: Matt Huffman (left) and Zeb Virgil (right) gear up for four days whitewater rafting on the Tuolumne River with their fellow veterans. Given their military background, most of the rafters are accustomed to ruggedness, risk, and danger. They also love to work in teams. Eighteen US militar y veterans plunge their paddles into foaming waves. “Get DOWN!” comes the next command. The vets tilt forward. Several of them scream. Four gray rubber rafts pitch over the eight-foot drop at Clavey Falls. The veterans and their support staff of six guides and two mindfulness instructors are traveling 18 miles on a three-day journey through a wild, deep river canyon west of Yosemite National Park. They’re here thanks to a San Francisco-based program, Honoring the Path of the Warrior, which provides an unusual, highly skillful mix of free-of- cha rge, adrenaline-junkie fun with secular training in mindful breathing, accepta nce, and compassion. This is HPW’s sixth whitewater trip. It has also sponsored rock-climbing a nd hiking events, so fa r ser ving more than 400 veterans. Several recent clinical studies suggest that tra ining in mindful- ness—nonjudgmental, accepting awareness—ca n “Forward! Forward!! FORWARD!!!” shout the river guides. 42 mindful February 2015 veterans