Away From Misery

A program fusing yoga and meditation helps veterans deal with a variety of pain and stress

Richard Vandemark was talking about the young veteran he'd agreed to meet with, a 21-year-old who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq and had, by his own account, shot so many people that he "could stack them up in your living room and fill it."

The young man told Vandemark about an altercation with a South Tucson gang member who stuck a gun to his head. "Go ahead," the young vet told his assailant. "Put me out of my misery. And you'll be miserable the rest of your life in jail."

Vandemark, a former Marine whose own stories are no less chilling, shakes his head at the toll that these wars, like so many before them, is taking on young men and women. Rather than shrug it off, he's doing something about it, by joining forces with a longtime friend and naturopathic physician, Dr. Teri Davis, to start an eight-week program called the Mindful Veterans Project.

The project is part-yoga, part-meditation. At its core is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a program to help people deal with issues ranging from chronic pain to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The brainchild of Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, MBSR emphasizes present-moment awareness and breathing techniques to reduce stress and help people make better lifestyle choices.

Davis offers the classes through her Tucson-based Purple Mountain Institute, a nonprofit she started in 2001 when she and her spouse began taking at-risk kids and other special-needs groups on hiking and camping trips. Davis said the work was fulfilling, but she wanted to do more to fuse her medical background with a special population. But which population?

"I asked for a sign," Davis recalled. "Not long after that, I found myself in an airport with one other passenger ... a veteran who hadn't been on a plane in 40 years, and (he'd) had some really traumatic plane experiences." Davis counseled him through the stress and had her sign: Open a free clinic for veterans.

Vandemark, a Marine like his father, brother and grandfather, has wrestled with his own demons since 1966. That's when he inadvertently killed two children in a mortar attack near a village.

When he returned from Vietnam in 1967, Vandemark enrolled in college, "became a hippie and smoked dope," he said. But the demons always won.

"I think about my war every day," he said. "You just can't get rid of it."

Vandemark learned to cope when he discovered meditation and, specifically, the Kabat-Zinn MBSR program. Today, he firmly opposes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but cheerfully greets active-duty personnel and vets with a "Semper Fi," his unit designation and an MBSR brochure.

Judy Cooper received one of those brochures. It's what brought the mother of a 24-year-old combat veteran to the Ada Peirce McCormick Center on the University of Arizona campus earlier this year for MBSR training.

Her son did one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, surviving a gunshot wound and the blast of an improvised explosive device. Now he lives with his mom and copes with a traumatic brain injury, PTSD, edginess and insomnia.

"Because of his sleepless nights, I was unable to sleep," Cooper said. "Because of his anxiety and him being on edge, I was on edge. I wanted to understand him better."

Cooper, an elementary school teacher and single mother, said the MBSR classes have been "phenomenal." The group-sharing and daily meditation homework "was annoying at first," she said, but she's more balanced now.

"I don't take things as personally," Cooper said.

Her biggest challenge has been to not force MBSR on her son. "I was hoping by him seeing how it helps me that it would help him also, but he's not quite open to that."

That may disappoint her, but "part of the mindfulness is acceptance and respecting where he is now and being OK with that," Cooper said. "This just happened to come into my life when I was ready for it."

Cooper's son is getting help from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a behemoth bureaucracy that's been forced to find new ways to adapt not only to the influx of veterans from two wars, but also to aging vets from previous wars whose PTSD has been triggered by the recent conflicts.

Davis said she's getting a growing number of referrals from the Southern Arizona VA Healthcare System, which she said has a "very progressive mental-health program."

The VA of today is doing much more than simply dispensing drugs to stressed vets, as evidenced by the work going on at a Mind-Body Clinic at the VA's community-based outpatient clinic in northwest Tucson.

The clinic sees patients for issues ranging from chronic pain and anxiety to PTSD, said its director, Dr. Stephen Panebianco. At the clinic, patients work with Panebianco and his team to examine lifestyle habits such as diet, exercise and sleep, as well as the physiological basis of stress and how to respond.

Panebianco was asked to start the Mind-Body Clinic last year as the VA copes with the growing number of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. MBSR is a component of what the clinic offers, he said, in addition to one-on-one sessions and newly formed mind-body skills groups.

"I like to have a menu of options for the vet to choose from," said Panebianco.

Vandemark, in his straightforward, kid-from-Jersey style, said MBSR "is the only thing that ever worked for me." That's why he'd like to see more veterans, particularly young ones returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, try it.

"It's like brain surgery for yourself," he explained. "You're taught the techniques, but you've got to do the stuff. You have to learn how to live in your skin."

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