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Mindful : February 2015
Forty-some years ago, Lesser, the HPW director, joined street protests against the Vietnam War. Back then, she says, she found it easy to vilify Americans who fought there, categorizing them as “a separate species” a nd judging their behavior “in the ridic- ulous hubris of thinking I’d never do such things.” Today, however, as a mother of young adults who under other circumsta nces might have wound up in Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s much easier for her to imagine and empathize with what the vets have endured. “The truth is I lose my temper with my kids, a nd if someone I loved were shot in front of me, I don’t know what I’d do—a nd I have a mindfulness practice of 40 yea rs,” she says. Fortin, HPW’s cofounder, recalls how the idea of working with returning vets seemed at first both “impossible, because we had no connection with or understanding of milita ry culture...and impera- tive—because whether I ag reed with the war or not, young men and women the same age as my son were being put in harm’s way in a war that felt like part of our collective karma. I couldn’t turn away.” Only later, says Fortin, did she come to appreci- ate the connection with her own family history. She believes her father, a World War II combat veteran who earned a Bronze Star, suffered from PTSD, although he never spoke of his experiences. The cultura l divide has t wo sides, to be sure. National Guard Major Cheryl Wachenheim, who teaches agribusiness at North Dakota State Uni- versity, was so worried that the fare on the river would be vegetarian (it wasn’t) that she ate 18 link sausages for breakfast at her hotel on the morning before joining the trip. After ner vously driving on highways alongside Priuses with Obama bumper stickers, Wachenheim was relieved to meet other vets—some arriving in trucks and jeeps—who, as she describes it, became a safe haven from her fearful stereotype of California. After a couple hours on the river, just past a Class IV rapids called Gray’s Grindstone, Noah Nash, a guide from the All-Outdoors rafting company leading the trip, offers Danny Martinez a turn at the helm of the “oar raft,” where the helmsman is responsible for most of the navigation. Mar tinez moves to the back of the boat. He looks briefly alarmed as Nash hands over the heavy oars, with one nea rly slipping from his g rip. But he’s muscular and learns quickly, a nd is soon confidently steering the boat through small waves. The vets on the other boats watch and cheer him on. Martinez’s sad face is transformed by a grin. The Toolbox Matt Huffman, whose burly right arm is tattooed with a bracelet of skulls a nd the motto, “GOD HATES A COWARD,” is leading a meditation exer- cise. It’s Wednesday morning, the second day on the river. The group is camped out on the shore for the day, awa iting the next scheduled release of water that will once again ma ke the Tuolumne navigable. “ Picture you’re sitting on the boat,” Huffman instructs his fellow rafters, as they sit in a circle of camp chairs under pine trees. “There’s smooth water, and then there are the rapids. Notice the thoughts that come, but don’t grab onto them. Think of each thought like a stick floating down the river. Just obser ve it. There’s that stick! There it goes! Keep breathing.... See if you can increase the end of the exhale.” Huffman, 39, grew up in Clear Lake, California. His mother died of a heroin overdose after spending most of his childhood in prison. Beginning at age 17, Huffman spent three years in the infantry. He began to drink heavily while stationed at Fort Ord and Fort Irwin in California. Returning home, he started using methamphetamine, at first as a way to hold more liquor, and then, as he describes it, as a way “to celebrate, to mourn, a nd to live.” He got high smoking meth every day for five yea rs straight, beginning in 2005, he says, although he adds, with a soft chuckle, “I wasn’t your typical meth addict.” True, he lost his home, driver ’s license, and fiancée, and stole from friends to support his habit. Yet, as he explains: “I always took ca re to hydrate, a nd I brushed my teeth, so I only lost four of them.” That core of resilience may help explain how Huffman managed to go straight after hitting a low in 2010. Arrested for stealing a car, he wound up in county jail, where, after fighting and telling off the guards, he was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks. Flashbacks—reliving traumas, with physical symptoms including a racing hear t or sweating Nightmares Frightening thoughts Aversion to places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience Emotional numbness Guilt, depression, and worry A loss of interest in activities that were enjoyable in the past Difficulty remembering the dangerous event Some Symptoms of PTSD These are the primary symptoms of post- traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health: For more research and resources on veterans and mindfulness, go to mindful.org/ veterans. 46 mindful February 2015 veterans