Vets Need Help In Healing

Posted: March 8, 2013

Iraq war veteran Trevor Banks, pictured in the photo held by his brother, Malcolm, beside his mother, Felicia, could not overcome the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered and as a result took his own life. (Photo by DN-R File)
I was saddened to read about the death of Trevor Banks, a Harrisonburg man who served his country in Iraq (“Invisble Wounds,” Feb. 2). He could not overcome the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered and as a result took his own life. I know DN-R readers join me in extending heartfelt sympathy to his family. What is so terrible about his death is not that he died overseas but that he died here at home, unable to put his wartime experiences to rest.

The fate of our veterans is our national shame, because there are too many young soldiers like Mr. Banks. According to a recent Reuters article “the most extensive study yet by the U.S. government on suicide among military veterans shows more veterans are killing themselves than previously thought, with 22 deaths a day — or one every 65 minutes, on average.” The number of suicide deaths in the U.S. military surged to a record 349 last year — more than the 295 Americans who died fighting in Afghanistan in 2012. Many concerned mental health counselors have worked hard to reach out to veterans. But sometimes the psychic wounds are too much, and veterans who have served with courage under brutal circumstances find themselves unable to benefit from the assistance offered. The biggest danger for our military may be the re-entry at home. What can we do to address this situation?

Vietnam veterans are the soldiers who forced us to take PTSD seriously. Karl Marlantes, a much-decorated Marine from the Vietnam War wrote “What It Is Like To Go To War.” He argues that if we are to heal our veterans, we must address mind and body. Being in combat is not simply a matter of bodily action, he writes, nor is it simply something you do with your mind. Your whole mind and body is engaged, imprinted, and forever changed by the experience. In his words, “you’ve got to engage the bodies of these young fighters before you can engage their spirits. Engaging the physical is the only way to break through.”

The talk-therapy of counseling may be insufficient, no matter how good the intentions of clinicians and no matter how much effort veterans put into the process. In “Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal,” Belleruth Naparstek makes a crucial point about treating PTSD. If a deeply traumatized person is prompted only to talk about the trauma without calling upon other mental and physical capabilities, the symptoms can get worse. Talking can initiate a “tailspin of flashbacks, nightmares and overwhelming anxiety.” So, if talking things out isn’t always the answer, what other kind of interventions can we offer?

Our bodies carry all of our mental and spiritual struggles with us and for us. So let’s address body and spirit together. Realizing that the usual regimen of talk, drug and behavioral therapy isn’t working for veterans with PTSD, experts are considering alternative methods. One of these is a meditative practice called mindfulness that shows great promise for facilitating remarkable physical and mental healing. Mindfulness not only reduces anxiety, it also made its practitioners smarter! Mark Andrews of Charlottesville has a nonprofit organization called Therapeutic Adventures. This offers a variety of experiences — hiking, skiing, camping, fly fishing – that engage mind and body simultaneously, encouraging clients to think through and with their bodies. He offers groups for veterans and his organization can be reached at TAonline.org. I’m part of a nonprofit called Breaking Free, and we offer equine assisted learning and psychotherapy for healing purposes.

We know from our veterans that it makes a difference, and you can visit our website, breakingfreesaddledoctor.com to see their testimony. But most of all, you can join your community in supporting and encouraging a wider range of healing services for our veterans, and perhaps get involved in assisting and delivering these services. If you are going to thank a veteran, do so with your actions, not just words.

A.J. Morey is president of Breaking Free Advisory Board. She lives in Harrisonburg.


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