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Mindful : February 2015
Some are back in school. Two a re still employed in the armed forces. Several are out of work. They’ve served in the army, air force, navy, coast guard, and National Guard—in Iraq and Afghan- istan, most recently, but also in Bosnia, Haiti, post-Katrina New Orleans, and as part of multina- tional forces in Israel. What brings them here a nd binds them together is soon obvious. All have been suffering—mostly alone—from a range of troubles including depression, a nxiet y, night terrors, and the aftermath of sexual assault. Many of these injuries date back to long before they signed up to serve, the military often seeming a safe haven from abusive fa milies. It’s soon clea r that they also miss the camaraderie and sense of purpose they had for a time a nd have since lost, but find again each time they reunite with other vets. The two HPW instructors, Lesser and cofounder Chris Fortin, a Zen teacher and psychotherapist with a contagious high-pitched laugh, help the group work toward recovery with a daily routine that includes tra ining in mindful breathing a nd instructions on nurturing compassion for them- selves and each other. The vets, in turn, help each other, as they dare to be increasingly honest about their struggles and triumphs. The river journey reinforces everything they’re learning, meanwhile, with vivid sensory experi- ence. The vets come to appreciate, for instance, that they can’t navigate whitewater while dis- tracted by painful memories. While at first it may feel counterintuitive to lean forward into the waves, they find that, as in life, it helps them avoid getting thrown overboard. Casualties Not all military injuries are as readily visible as those sustained on the battlefield. Yet the pain they cause may be just as deep, and it ripples through families and communities. For sources and more information, go to mindful.org/veterans. Aftershocks Boarding the raft Tuesday morning, the first day on the river, Danny Martinez, 28, mumbles that he’s sorry for the way his gym shorts keep slipping down his back. “They took away the string when I was in the psych wa rd,” he explains. Martinez enlisted in the army at 19, after drop- ping out of vocationa l school. He trained as a para- chute rigger at Fort Bragg for three yea rs, and then re-enlisted, after which he was deployed to Afghan- istan. He lasted just one month there, however, before suffering a nervous breakdown. He missed home a nd dreaded getting caught in combat. This is Martinez’s second trip with HPW. His face is a mask of sorrow and he speaks only rarely, between heav y sighs. He says he has few friends and is battling drug addiction—both of which turn out to be common complaints among the rafters. Another veteran struggling with PTSD and haunt- ing memories from Iraq says that on returning home, he drank a fifth of whiskey every night to numb his pain, until the morning he awoke to find three burns on his arm that he’d made with a fire- place poker. There was a rifle lying by his side. He believes he would have killed himself had the rifle not jammed. Several of the former soldiers are still coping with feelings of betrayal by partners in arms. Three of the five women rafters speak of being sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers a nd even desig nated superiors, crimes none of them ever reported. “I wanted to be that strong, no-one-can-mess- with-me kind of girl,” says Dawn Marie, 40, who served in the navy from 1997-2004. “ But that’s when I first lost trust. Not just in other people, but in myself. That I could handle things.” 155,000 More than 155,000 US troops have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder over the past 24 years. 26,000 More than 26,000 militar y men and women were sexually assaulted in 2011, up from 19,000 the previous year. 20% Fewer than 20% of those who say they’ve been assaulted have formally repor ted the crimes. Of those cases, fewer than 10% have gone to trial, while 90% of the assault victims were eventually involuntarily discharged. 22 Ever y day, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide. 8,030 In 2010 alone, 8,030 veterans committed suicide, the VA has repor ted—more in just one year than the total estimated number of US military deaths in both Iraq and Afghanistan since those conflicts began in 2003. 44 mindful February 2015 veterans