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Why veterans are practicing mindfulness and meditation

Last year, Pete Serrano experienced a day that would change his life. A 67-year-old retired grocery store manager of Glendora, Calif., Serrano served in combat in Vietnam from 1969-70 and has long suffered from bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder.

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On that life-changing day, someone gave a presentation on how mindfulness can help veterans navigate PTSD and other challenges at the combat therapy group he attends at the East Los Angeles Vet Center. Intrigued, Serrano decided to try it. “I just want to have an easier life and a calmer day,” Serrano said. “If mindfulness will help me in that, well, then that’s what I’ll do.” For the past year, he’s traveled fifty miles twice a month to attend a mindfulness class. He soon began practicing mindfulness at home, for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. After a year, Serrano says he’s now sleeping much better and has a much easier time keeping his anger in check. “Instead of throwing a plate or getting mad [while] at the dinner table, I just try to be more mindful of having my meal, and just trying to sit there with my family and enjoy myself, instead of getting upset about small things,” Serrano said.

Active duty service members face a litany of challenges—many of which remain when they finish their service. In fact, for many, that’s when a whole new set of challenges get heaped on their shoulders: PTSD, re-integrating into civilian life, and feelings of alienation. Veterans, for example, are much more likely to experience PTSD and depression than people who have never served. The most recent report issued by the Veterans Administration showed an average of 20 veterans commit suicide per day—truly crisis proportions. Many veterans turn to mindfulness and meditation to help them confront these issues and find relief. “It can be incredibly effective,” said Gail Soffer, of the Mindful Warrior Project, a nonprofit organization that teaches mindfulness to veterans. Soffer is also the person who gave the presentation that kickstarted Serrano’s mindfulness practice. Herself a daughter of a veteran, Soffer was appalled when she first learned of the veteran suicide rate. With forty years’ worth of mindfulness teaching experience, she thought she could give veterans a tool to deal with their challenges; three years ago, she launched the Mindful Warrior Project. Soffer encourages veterans to pay attention—observing thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment or control. [Editor’s Note: To try this for yourself, give Headspace a shot.] Over time, she explained, practitioners can make more grounded decisions rather than knee-jerk reactions. Soffer’s not wrong; mindfulness, according to a 2012 study, can help people deal with suicidal thoughts. A 2016 study showed that mindfulness helped a group of veterans successfully manage negative thoughts and sensations connected to PTSD.

Through brain scans, the 2016 study also showed that mindfulness seemed to enhance connections between regions of the brain involved in shifting and fixing attention, helping veterans steer away from painful thought cycles. Ricky DeVoe*, a veteran who saw combat in Vietnam in 1968 and fought in the Tet Offensive, has been practicing mindfulness for about a year and raves about how it has improved his life and given him a sense of feeling safe and secure. “They’ll think that you’re going to go postal or something,” DeVoe said, speaking about the stigma and stereotypes that surround PTSD. Mindfulness has taught him to observe sensations, acknowledge them, and put them aside. “And it works,” he said. “It’s powerful.” It’s even helped DeVoe deal with nightmares of the jungle that have haunted him for years. “I don’t like the jungle because I was in ‘Nam,” he said. “Now I envision not only a jungle, but that there’s a golf course on the other side of that jungle, and it makes it a little more pleasant.” PTSD, he said, can worsen with age. After returning from war, veterans often busy themselves by working, marrying, and having families. But, upon retiring, they have more time to stew or spend time at a veterans’ center where, by telling stories, memories can come flooding back.

American veterans aren’t the only veterans to seek out breath-based techniques to help them cope. Michael Shamai, 30, of Tel Aviv, was serving as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force when he took up insight meditation while managing his way through a tough time. “I was kind of discovering that, maybe it’s a tough word, but I was feeling a bit trapped in the army,” Shamai said. The draft is mandatory in Israel and, as an 18-year-old, Shamai had signed a contract to serve as a pilot, a very prestigious position, until he was 30. That’s considerably longer than most Israeli males, who customarily serve three years. At 26, Shamai was feeling down that he still had a long way to go to finish his contract. “I didn’t really feel like I was fulfilling myself and I didn’t really love what I was doing,” he said. He was drawn toward meditation on the advice of his brother-in-law and after reading, “Out of the Blue,” a memoir written by Dror Aloni, a neighbor Shamai had known for years, who had been living with cancer since the age of ten. “I remember ... reading about his meditation sessions, and thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is something I have to do,’” Shamai said. Shamai attended a meditation session in Tel Aviv and soon began doing weekly meditation sessions on his own that, he says, helped him see his life more clearly. “It helped me kind of look at my own behavior patterns and understand myself,” he said. Now a film student, Shamai decided to leave the army a few years before his contract was up. Shamai continues his practice through weekend and week-long meditation retreats.The most noticeable benefits he’s experienced through meditation have been “to be with yourself with no stress, and be calm with yourself, not feeling the urge to control everything.”

*Name changed.

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