WASHINGTON — Memorial Day weekend hadn’t officially begun, but Arlington National Cemetery was already revving up in Virginia. Packed open-air tour buses rumbled by, leaf-blowers buzzed, and crossing guards called to packs of middle-school students in matching shirts to move or stop.
Paying purposeful attention to the sounds was one small, unconventional group.
“Notice what you’re hearing. Take in your location, from the symbols to the souls behind these monuments,” Ben King, yoga teacher and Iraq War veteran, told a semicircle of 10 men and women with their eyes closed, standing on the plaza of the huge granite Women in Military Service for America Memorial just outside Arlington’s gate Friday morning. “This is real! It’s happening right now! You’re standing in a posture at Arlington thinking of service members who died in Iraq and Afghanistan! You are saluting them with your hearts, your minds and your actions.”
Like all yoga classes, the one King led was meant to bring focus and healing to participants. His ultimate target, however, is a much bigger, more complex one: American veterans.
King came home to Richmond, Va., in 2007 with a Purple Heart and, he says, a wrecked body and mind. After meditation and yoga finally brought him sleep and the ability “to move forward in a sustainable way,” the 32-year-old Army reservist founded Armor Down, a group aimed at promoting access to alternative healing programs for veterans coming home from the longest stretch of war in U.S. history.
On Friday and Saturday, Armor Down led more than a dozen groups to create “Mindful Memorial Day,” a series of classes and talks and an art installation meant to boost veterans’ programs from meditation and yoga to art and music therapy. Most veterans don’t have access to such programs, which are otherwise spreading fast in the culture generally. They are meant to increase “mindfulness,” a broad term for training one’s mind to observe at some distance and accept thoughts, rather than ignore or be overwhelmed by them.
The group in attendance was small — several veterans, veterans’ advocates and practitioners of alternative medicine — but the conversation around veteran mental and emotional health is expanding.
In 2008, Gen. George Casey, then the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, created and promoted a new program meant to increase emotional, social and spiritual “resiliency.” The program trains leaders in such techniques as deliberate breathing and positive thinking and urges them to share those tools with soldiers.
Symbolic nods to the mindfulness culture are also spreading, with many bases creating small meditation gardens, for example.
But the growing popularity of practices such as yoga and meditation is pushing some to demand much more from the military. They want more options for the one-third of veterans who say their mental and emotional health is worse than when they were deployed.
Bills pending in the U.S. House and Senate aim to expand research funding for alternative and holistic treatment for soldiers and veterans and to take such programs that do exist to rural and poor areas. Among their patrons is Tara Brach, one of the country’s best-known meditation teachers, who runs packed weekly classes on Wednesdays in Bethesda.
Kristina Kaufmann, executive director of Code of Support, which connects veterans with services, was at the Women’s Memorial this weekend. She said a preventive program focused on building “resiliency” isn’t the same as engaging the crisis faced by many veterans.
“I think we have a generation of people who are pretty resilient. But you have to recognize there has been trauma before we get into the ‘toughen you up’ thing,” she said. “We want to widen the aperture [of programs]. There’s not one silver bullet.”
King and others say there is an inherent tension between a military culture built around toughness and mindfulness practices, which usually require focusing on trauma in order to better cope with it.
“All the ‘no pain, no gain’ I was taught in order to prepare for war became a curse. I felt I’d reached this pinnacle of modern masculinity, and people thought it was so cool. But little did they know in my blackest moments, I wasn’t tough, I wasn’t honorable, I’d fall apart, sobbing, punching holes in the wall,” said King, whose truck was hit by a makeshift bomb in December 2006.
Steve Zappalla, a longtime-Army-combat-arms-officer-turned-meditation-teacher presenting at the Women’s Memorial on Saturday, said it was hard for him as a soldier to immediately understand what to do with ideas such as compassion, kindness and “the L word.” Now 54, he is pursuing his doctorate in counseling.
“It’s difficult for military people who are trained to kill and destroy and harm things, to blow things up, how do you transition to see that whole spiritual peace? It’s a very delicate subject. How do you bring spirituality to professions that do harm?”
A yoga class gave King his first night’s sleep, and then a meditation class — offered through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — exposed him to the idea that he could have some control over his thoughts instead of allowing his thoughts and emotions to control him.
The Army program — called Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness — doesn’t use the words “mindfulness” or “meditation.” While they are investing in studying such techniques, they are unproven in a military context, said Lt. Col. Sharon McBride, the program’s executive officer. But there is a lot of “overlap” between the Army program and the practice of mindfulness, she said, and the Army’s top leaders are behind the general concepts.
“The Army is going through a culture change. We are trying to reinforce the importance of psychological health,” McBride said. “This isn’t some boutique program. This is Army-wide.”
King thinks all of society could improve by focusing on the suffering and loss of veterans, and by becoming more thankful.
“On Memorial Day, I see advertisements for sales, half-priced sandwiches, movies, the start of summer. I think it’s a missed opportunity for us as a nation,” he said. “It’s through shared suffering that we can come together.”
On Friday morning, the semicircle of his class was organized to look at the round pool of the memorial. A black yoga mat stretched out in front of it. At the head of the mat was a “battlefield cross” — the upturned rifle (he used a wooden model) stuck in boots with a helmet atop it that is often placed in the ground to mark a soldier who has fallen.
The yoga mat was empty.