Mindful living

Mindful living

Iraq veterans turn to Zen for peace after war

By Joe Piasecki 08/31/2006

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The war is not over for Hollywood resident Eric Stinzo. After coming home from Iraq, the former Marine became one of thousands of new veterans who carry crippling psychological wounds related to their participation in ultra-violence. Worst of all, even those of us who would call men like Stinzo heroes aren’t making their lives any easier.

“I’m having to deal with the reality that I saw a lot of bad things. I’m having a tough time dealing with the civilian casualties,” says Stinzo, 31.

“I feel like Americans, although they seem to be informed by the news, it’s not a reality to them. I feel like most of these people in America feel like it’s watching a movie, and when the movie ends, you leave and you’re back at your normal life,” he adds. “I don’t want to tell people I’m an Iraq veteran, because immediately I’m bombarded with questions, especially the question of having to kill somebody. I think that that is such an offensive thing. It’s very frustrating, and it makes me very angry inside.”

Matthew Howard, a 25-year-old from Boston who recently served with a Marines tank battalion, also finds it difficult to relate to those back home. Like Stinzo, he is suffering from symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, which is commonly known as PTSD and affects as many as one in six Iraq War vets, according to a recent Defense Department study. In February, the Journal of the American Medical Association found an even more startling statistic — that 35 percent of Iraq veterans have already sought mental health services.

“You know, on TV, how you see the flashbacks and the nightmares? That is actually very real and it has happened. Mine is more like general sadness. My heart breaks every time I turn on the news. My eyes just water up,” says Howard.

In an attempt to deal with the scars war has left on their lives, these veterans and more than a dozen others attended a retreat on Aug. 19 and 20 at the Zen Center of Los Angeles led by Claude AnShin Thomas, a Vietnam veteran who was awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross yet found Zen Buddhist practices the only way to adjust to life after war.

After leaving Vietnam in 1967, Thomas suffered from debilitating PTSD symptoms that caused him to abuse alcohol and drugs and eventually leave his wife and son. In the late 1980s, he pursued Zen teachings after attending a retreat with famed monk Thich Nhat Hanh, and in 1995 he became a Zen monk.

As he recounts in his book, “At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace,” PTSD had wracked Thomas with memories of exploding bombs and dead children, leaving him alienated from society and uncomfortable with himself. In fact, he says now, combat veterans are forever changed by the horrors of war.

Only through confronting trauma, as he teaches through meditation and other disciplined spiritual practices, can they recover any sense of normalcy.

“There is no going back. It’s like Alice in Wonderland stepping through the looking glass. We’re forever affected. We have to learn to adjust to our life. In the process of waking up to how we’ve been affected, the consequences of that are absolutely phenomenal,” he says.

“What I understand is healing is impossible without going through that suffering,” he adds. “What I’m attempting to do is create a safe space where that information will start to become accessible to them.”

Jeff Key, a 40-year-old Marine living in Hollywood who recently attended his second retreat with Thomas, said he was initially a skeptic but found Zen techniques of calm, deliberate action very helpful in working through the pain.

“I had some reservations that it was going to be proselytizing for Buddhism, but it’s not about that,” says Key, who helped organize the Zen Center retreat as head of the Mehadi Foundation, which he created to help vets with PTSD and related issues. “It’s about meditation and mindful living. Even our meals are done with a measure of reverence. We chew each bite and sit in silence. I eat so many meals standing over my kitchen sink, it’s embarrassing to admit.”

Zen practices, Key says, “helped me deal with feelings of anger and sadness about this war.”

For retreat participant and Vietnam veteran Bill Butler, a 61-year-old from Altadena who was drafted into the Army in 1969, the challenges faced by those returning from Iraq parallel his own experience.

“Those things are always with me,” he says of the memories of war. “I don’t have dysfunctional flashbacks, but they come up at odd times.”

Butler, a retired manager with the LA County Office of Emergency Management, says the most troubling experiences, which he found he shared with one recent vet, are encounters with the civilian population. Whether searching villages in the jungle or raiding homes in the desert, “We were going in with all of our power and intimidating and using force to disrupt the daily lives of people in their homes. He and I shared a certain sense of guilt over that kind of mission.”

Dealing with feelings of guilt is a major part of healing, says Thomas. He also teaches that those back home whose lifestyles promote conflict are more responsible than soldiers for allowing war to happen.

“The more we have, the less somebody else has, which creates suffering, which feeds that cycle of war, violence — and just because I listen to National Public Radio and ‘Democracy Now!’ doesn’t mean I’m really doing anything to change the circumstances of war. If I want the world to be different, I have to live differently,” Thomas says.

“It doesn’t matter how many X-ray screenings we go through, how many pat-downs we do, how many shoes we take off,” he continues. “All that stuff is not going to make us safe. All you have to do is look at prisons. War is not an isolated incident; violence doesn’t explode out of nothing. The roots of war are not external to us; they are in us,” he continues.

For some who return from Iraq, part of the difficulty in relating to those back home is their support for a conflict they seem not to fully understand.

“That’s where a lot of my anger, resentment and bitterness came from. With coming back home, I felt so much anger toward these people, whether it was justified or not. So I just chose to move,” says Howard, who now lives in Canada because of American support for the war and the Bush administration.

For his part, Thomas sees himself not as a leader but as a facilitator of methods that allow people to engage their own experience. “It’s important for us to engage the dark areas of our past and see how those contribute to who we are now,” Butler says he learned during his retreat experience.

Another type of immersion- or exposure-style therapy, meanwhile, is being embraced by government officials for treatment of PTSD. The Office of Naval Resources has funded researchers at USC’s Institute of Creative Technology to develop virtual reality programs that can be used to help victims of PTSD confront the sights, sounds, and even smells of their traumatic experiences. Two such treatment facilities were installed last month at Camp Pendleton and the Naval Medical Hospital in San Diego, according to Skip Rizzo, a psychologist with the institute.

During a session, a therapist slowly introduces a patient to a virtual reality situation. One program starts by placing a PTSD victim behind the wheel of a Humvee on a desert road and allows the therapist to add smoke, the smell of burning rubber and the sounds of artillery fire and helicopters flying above.

By recreating a stress situation in the patient’s mind, “eventually they habituate, or the fear extinguishes. They’re in that environment and nothing bad happens. The emotional response becomes less and less anxiety-provoking,” says Rizzo.

Thomas likens that idea somewhat to his own trauma-recovery practices. “When I talk about healing, I talk about learning to live in a different relationship with how we’ve been affected,” says Thomas. Nonetheless, he expresses an innate distrust for government programs and intentions. Governments, after all, run the mechanisms of war.

Ultimately, coming to grips with trauma is about self-empowerment: turning a handicap into an asset.

“One of Claude’s big things is that your story needs to be told. I have a new sense of purpose to go home to my family and tell them exactly what I’ve seen,” says Howard. “They need to hear exactly what happened, and I’m ready to do that after this weekend.”

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