Memorial Day weekend hadn’t officially begun, but Arlington National Cemetery was already revving up. Packed open-air tour buses rumbled by, leaf-blowers buzzed, crossing guards called to packs of middle-schoolers 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 semi-circle of 10 men and women with their eyes closed, standing on the plaza of the huge granite Women’s Memorial just outside Arlington’s gate on Friday morning. “This is real! It’s happening right now! You’re standing in a posture at Arlington thinking of servicemembers 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 Friday morning 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 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 now have access to such programs, which are 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.
Although the group in attendance was small — several veterans, veterans’ advocates and practitioners of alternative medicine — the conversation around veteran mental and emotional health is expanding.
In 2008 then-Chief of Staff of the United States Army Gen. George W. Casey created and promoted a new program meant to increase emotional, social and spiritual “resiliency”. The program trains leaders in techniques like 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 like yoga and meditation in the general culture 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 left.
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 preventative 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 military imagery and culture built around toughness and enduring pain 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 homemade bomb in December 2006.
A yoga class gave him 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 in such techniques, they are unproven in a military context, said Lt. Col. Sharon McBride, the program’s executive officer.
“There has been this culture of suck it up, drive on. The Army is going through a culture change. We are trying to reinforce the importance of psychological health,” McBride said.
However, she said, there is a lot of “overlap” between the Army program and the practice of mindfulness. The Army’s top leaders are behind the general concepts. “This isn’t some boutique program..this is Army-wide.”
But it’s not easy to neatly separate things like resiliency and spiritual health.
Steve Zappalla, a longtime-Army-combat-arms-officer-turned-meditation-teacher presenting at the Womens Memorial Saturday, said it was hard for him as a soldier to immediately understand what to do with ideas like compassion, kindness and “the l word.” Now 54, he is pursuing his PhD 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 piece? It’s a very delicate subject — How do you bring spirituality to professions that do harm? How do you deal with all that mess?”
King thinks all of society could improve by focusing on the suffering and loss of veterans, and become 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 semi-circle of his class was organized to look at the circular 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 wood 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.
Post staff writer Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.