Veterans find peace and community through mindfulness
Nathan and Lesley Keith met on a military base in Kuwait, in 2006. They’re both Navy veterans, and together they served for a cumulative 27 years. In many ways, they’re well-adjusted, regular people. And on the surface they lead regular lives. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that the Keiths are in the middle of a serious struggle. It started in 2006, just after they came back from Kuwait.
“So I think we both came back not as patient with other people,” says Lesley. “Because we came from such a traumatic place, from such a tense environment.”
Neither Lesley nor Nathan saw combat, but in Kuwait, they felt what was happening in Iraq. Lesley screened soldiers for PTSD, and plucked shrapnel from the wounded. Her husband worked as a customs and border patrol guard and some of the convoy drivers he befriended disappeared. Initially, to cope, they drank a lot. Like on a cruise they took a few months after they got. In one week, they spent $2,000.
“I think we were both stressed out,” says Lesley. “I don’t know if you’d call it PTSD, per se...We just drank for that comfort and to help us calm down because you are so hypervigilant when you come back to the States. It takes a long time to be able to settle down and just be able to relax.”
Right now, the Keiths are not officially diagnosed as having PTSD. But they both suffer from anxiety, and Lesley came back sick from Kuwait. She couldn't sleep well or remember simple things, like whether she's eaten or taken a shower. Eventually, she was diagnosed with a parathyroid disorder, possibly caused by her time overseas.
The Keiths left the Navy in 2010 and Nathan, especially, really missed it. They both found help at the VA, but still felt isolated and depressed. Then a VA counselor suggested they try something...different, a Zen meditation retreat just for veterans.
A day of calm
Inside a large yurt, a meditation teacher speaks to a group of 25 veterans, including the Keiths. They’re at Green Gulch Farm, a retreat center in Marin, right off Highway 1. It’s quiet here. Peaceful.
The teacher is Lee Lesser, executive director of Honoring the Path of the Warrior, or HPW. It’s the nonprofit program that organized this gathering.
The veterans introduce themselves. They’re all post-Vietnam era vets. Some have been coming to HPW for years. Others like the Keiths are here for the first time. Despite an initial reluctance, Nathan Keith opens right up. He chokes up as he talks to the group about losing friends to war, and how he felt abandoned by the military once he came back from being overseas.
After the introductions, Lesser passes around fist-sized sandbags and tells the veterans to also grab a meditation cushion. When she rings a bell, she tells them to pair up and toss the objects back and forth as fast as they can, like the game Hot Potato.
Lesser isn’t a vet herself, but when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, she was reminded of the Vietnam war, and how hard it was for soldiers when they came home. She wanted to help.
“Somehow it just pulled at me,” says Lesser. “I wanted to do something. And what I felt like I could offer is the practice of sensory awareness, which is the practice I’ve relied on since I was 19 years old.”
As they throw the cushions and sandbags, the vets are laughing and having fun. But this is also a lesson in sensory awareness: the practice of noticing sensations in the body and paying attention to the breath.
A new strategy gains followers
After lunch, they walk down the hill to a garden, and stop occasionally to listen. They then gather around a tree where HPW co-founder Chris Fortin points to chamomile growing in the grass. She suggests to the veterans that they might lay down. Chamomile, she says, has calming properties.
These kinds of calming exercises are helping for people with PTSD, or for troops who come home anxious and hyper-vigilant, says Jeff Stadler, a therapist who works on the Menlo Park campus of the Palo Alto VA Medical Center. He says incorporating mindfulness into treatment is starting to become more common.
“I suspect in the future we are going to see a lot more of it and its going to become maybe a much more integrated part and more readily offered type of approach than it is right now,” Stadler says.
He says HPW’s approach is unique in that it combines meditation with community and nature. “They create a very safe environment and they make it one in which people feel comfortable to be open with others and to be able to express some of the things that are challenges for them.”
Back in the yurt, the veterans have been asked to draw something that gives them strength. Nathan Keith has drawn an infinity symbol. For him, it symbolizes hope, that he can go anywhere or do anything. “We forget that,” he says.
Leslie Keith is also feeling more hopeful after the retreat. She feels validated and like people on the retreat understood her. She says that’s really she wants, to be understood, and to feel like people have empathy for her.
A few weeks after the retreat, the Keiths are thinking about the kinds of changes they want to make in their lives. At this point, it’s nothing too ambitious. Clean the house. Get out into nature. Go for walks. They also want to attend another HPW event. This time, Nathan says he won’t resist.