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Veterans With PTSD Helped by Yoga, Meditation, Horses

November 7, 2016Posted by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe

This Veteran’s Day, it’s important to remember that no matter what political climate we’re in, our returning military will always be our nation’s heroes, and that it’s important to take good care of them—beyond treating some of their challenges with pharmaceuticals and talk therapy.

With nearly one million post-9/11 combat veterans across America battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), we’re shining the spotlight on one nonprofit that’s recognizing the importance of holistic healing, helping veterans reprocess what they experienced in combat and make meaningful connections as they return to civilian life. 

Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Warrior PATHH (Progressive and Alternative Training for Healing Heroes) uses meditation, yoga, archery, horses, and other alternative methods to help vets learn to live in the moment and transform their struggle into strength. 

Since 2013, about 1,000 veterans and their families have participated in individual and family retreats as part of the program developed with PTSD researcher Dr. Richard Tedeschi.

One of them is Kevin Sakaki, 45, who returned to the United States as a civilian in 2013 after 10 years in the Marines and another 6 working as a contractor in the Middle East.

His infantry unit, the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines, also known as “The Magnificent Bastards,” took a major hit in 2004 when they lost 33 soldiers in four days in a battle against Iraqi insurgents in RamadiAs time passed back home, he began to slowly lose his comrades to suicide.

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Sakaki’s experience is not uncommon: a study released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found that an average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day, with an estimated 700,000 post-9/11 combat veterans are living with PTSD.

Motivated by the need to act, he began reconnecting with veterans from his unit who were struggling. From there, he went on to work for the Virginia Department of Veterans Services, handling day-to-day case management, heading up a support group and helping veterans navigate reentry, the courts and mental health services. 

While there is a growing awareness for the numerous types of support, logistically, physically, and mentally that veterans need after returning home, there are still many who slip through the cracks, or who are failed by the system of medication and therapy alone.

Through his work, Sakaki became acquainted with and referred six veterans to Warrior PATHH at Boulder Crest Retreat and began to refer his friends.

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“They came back and were doing amazingly well,” Sakaki recalled. “Within the support group, they had a huge impact.”

Sakaki, on the other hand, wasn’t.

“One night I came in, I was frustrated and dealing with my own issues, and they told me ‘You’re being a hypocrite.’”

Sakaki later told his wife that the men in his group wanted him to go through the PTSD program himself, which, after they complete the seven-day holistic retreat, also includes 18 months of ongoing support provided through methods such as video conferencing.

Warrior PATHH helped Sakaki “repurpose” what he had learned in the military, and figure out the difference between responding to versus reacting what life throws at you.

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Today, his twice-daily Transcendental Meditation practice helps him calm the internal “noise” he experiences from his traumatic brain injury.

“Before, when he had to have a conversation or stay on a task, it was like being in a room with 100 different television screens on different channels with the volume turned up,” said Sakaki, who now works as a senior guide at Warrior PATHH. “When I would try to have a conversation, I would have to hyper-focus on that one TV, and find that one TV among the other ones. When I started to practice meditation, that’s the first time all the screens went out.”

While there has been a growing awareness nationwide about the positive impact that therapy and companion dogs can have on veterans, the positive effect of “horse therapy” is not to be discounted.

Connecting with these animals helps veterans become aware of their space: when you step into the arena with a horse for the first time, you’re good if you’re grounded, but if you’re not centered, you’re not going to be able to lead a horse.

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Ken Falke, a Navy combat-disabled veteran who founded Boulder Crest Retreat and the accompanying foundation, said that if you account for families affected by a veteran’s PTSD, more than 2 million people in the U.S. feel the effects of a soldier’s trauma.

“The Department of Defense, whether they admit it or not, love it when you’re big, strong, fit and deployable,” Falke said. “The Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) takes care of you when you’re retired. When you’re unfit for duty, done with your deployment or on your way out, it’s a no man’s land. The people who don’t go to the VA seem to be the people we get.”

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Falke said the reason Warrior PATHH works is because the idyllic setting is not in a clinic; it’s comprised of a strong staff of combat veterans and quality therapists that can make meaningful connections. There’s also the accountability that comes with an 18-month program.

“This group of men and women can change America. We want to get them through the training program, to help them understand that life has challenges and give them regulation practices to moderate their emotions so they can get on with life,” Falke said. “Their military training made them superhuman, and to twist that around and help them become a great member of society, that’s something I don’t think any other program in the nation is working on.”

Army reservist Michael King, 36, has deployed to Kuwait and Iraq and worked in Iraq as a contractor.

After seventeen years of service, he approached Warrior PATHH with some hesitation, thinking that he was getting into some “crazy hippie stuff.” Two years later, he continues to use the methods he learned there in his daily life—or as close as he can to every day, especially meditation.

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“The practice is 20 minutes, two times a day, mantra-based,” King said. “Once you do it enough, it spills over. You identify the stressors, and then you can go back into yourself, back into feeling. When you become more proficient, you can heal yourself.

King said he has worked in meditation into his routine, and even his young daughter knows that “daddy needs his quiet time.”

“Eighteen months later, it’s so easy to let the small things go and live in the moment,” King said. “We’re learning to live in the moment, and that’s a beautiful gift.”

The organization is working to open another retreat center in Arizona early next year, and plans are in the works for other retreat centers in veteran-dense areas.

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