Armoring Down with Mindfulness: An Interview with Iraq Veteran Ben King.

Via on Jun 1, 2012

                                                                  Ben King, 2012

This is part three in the weekly series, “At Attention, At Peace,”which shares interviews with veterans, yoga teachers and military officials as they discuss the uses of yoga and meditation in recovery from post traumatic stress disorder. Click here to read parts OneTwo, Four, Five and Six.  To subscribe to this series, email ‘Subscribe’ to lilly.bird.bechtel@gmail to read a new interview each week.

Ben King, who served in Iraq from April 2006 to April 2007, is currently a personal trainer and maintains a blog called Armor Down, where he writes about successfully transitioning the tools of military training to a mindful lifestyle. In the past year, Ben commenced an IRest practice through the Washington Veteran’s Hospital, in response to his symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In this interview, he talks about the intensity of war, what surprised him most when he came home and the challenges of active duty compared to the challenge of meditating in a chair.

Interview with Ben King, April 3rd 2012

Lilly- Could you relay a moment when you returned from Iraq and your experience wasn’t quite what you thought it might be?

Ben- When I came back, I felt very empowered, emboldened, confident. I was secure that I was truly a man, and that I could handle anything that life could throw at me. Then, things started to change. It didn’t happen all at once. The first thing I noticed was my sleep patterns changing. I had never had a serious problem, but I started to have real difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and sitting still. And in the beginning, I just thought, “All right this is just another problem I’ve got to take care of.” But it really started to wear me down and made other things in my life more difficult. It surprised me that I was breaking under the weight of whatever was going on in my head. So there was the physical exhaustion and then this mental frustration, where I expected myself to be able to handle this stuff, I was a soldier, I made it through Iraq, ‘I can do this’ I thought.

Lilly- You wrote in your blog about being in rhythm, the cadence of the march, and then compared that rhythm to feeling out of balance once you returned home. What are some examples of rhythm in the military, and how do those compare to the rhythm found in your mindfulness practice?

When I came back, I felt very empowered, emboldened, confident. I was secure that I was truly a man, and that I could handle anything that life could throw at me.

Ben- Being in sync in Iraq was coming out of a meeting, having a Colonel come out of nowhere up to you saying “We need you on a mission today. When can you be ready?” Me saying, “Twenty minutes, Sir!” Him saying, “Good.” Going back to the room, telling the team, “Alright! We need to be ready in twenty minutes!” And having everybody ready to go in twenty minutes without any kind of a hassle. It was just this smooth transition into whatever was coming next, no hesitation, no doubt, just O.K., boom, done. Mindfulness meditation is the same thing, except the transition and the smoothness, the pieces of that rhythm come in the form of breath. 

When I find a rhythm, whether I’m practicing mindfulness or moving meditation or working out, it’s that I’ve found a smooth flow from one thing to the next without any real hesitation. So in that moment you’re fine, but you recognize that your thoughts are also fine. So you’re just open. Ready. Trusting. Solid.

Lilly- Would you say there’s power in meditation?

Ben- Power has a connotation that I would say would be misconstrued,  so I wouldn’t use that. I would say security. Or, soundness. Contentment.                                                                                      

Lilly- What were some of the hardest things, on a daily basis, about being in Iraq?

Ben- The hardest time was three missions a day in hot, hot weather, with no break times. Those were hard days. Hard moments, filled with fear.

If you let yourself fixate on it, you could be paralyzed by nothing, because everything could potentially be something that could kill you, whether it be a sniper in that window you could never see, or a roadside bomb in that piece of the concrete that you’d never notice, or that car you pass, that looks like every other car you’ve passed a thousand times before–but maybe that’s the one with the roadside bomb of the same make that killed the guys yesterday.

So, those are the distinct, short-term moments with difficult, long-term effects.

Lilly- Did you have techniques that helped you handle that fear and anxiety?

Ben- Downrange, it was seeing the guys around me holding it together and me saying, “Well, hell. If they can do it, I can do it.”

Lilly- What do you mean by “downrange?”

When I find a rhythm, whether I’m practicing mindfulness or moving meditation or working out, it’s that I’ve found a smooth flow from one thing to the next without any real hesitation. So you’re just open. Ready. Trusting. Solid. 

Ben- “Downrange” is just a military term for when you’re in the field or in a combat zone.

Lilly- So, knowing that you were part of a group was helpful for you?

Ben- Yes. And, also, just typical masculine norms in that in a military group, you’re trusted based on your ability to be part of that group, which is very typical masculine behavior, where you’ve got to be tough and you can’t portray that weakness in the field.

Lilly- What are some of the positive things about being part of such a tight knit community?

Ben- Well, the neat thing about it is you don’t have to worry about a lot of the things you have to worry about here, so a lot of the stresses that maybe tie up a community or make things choppy at home, aren’t necessarily present. There, of course, are rough patches that you’ve gotta adjust and go through, but, after you’ve experienced some crazy shit together, or spent a whole night in the same spot, wondering what’s going to happen, that shared suffering bonds you. Because you’re around death and it’s kind of ever-present, a lot of things that make a stink at home don’t make a stink downrange. It’s a freedom.

Lilly- Would you say that that unity of purpose helped keep the priorities clear?

Ben- Yes.

Lilly- And how did you feel about your purpose once you had transitioned home?

Ben- I was perplexed by my response to coming back to a civilian lifestyle. I was curious about it, frustrated, but ultimately curious, because it just seemed contrary to what I should be able to handle.

If I had had a better idea about relying on my training, and kind of associated my military training with my civilian lifestyle, I think things might’ve been a little bit different.It wasn’t that I was abandoned. I was still interacting with my unit on the reserve on a monthly basis.

The type of things taxing me were different. I knew how to apply my training to the type of things that were taxing me in Iraq. I just didn’t know how to apply my training to the things that were taxing me in the states.

Lilly- What were some of the challenges you faced when you transitioned back?

Ben- When I came home there was this lack of intensity that was ever-present in Iraq. What that means, is that in Iraq, every moment you had to yourself was extra special, and every moment outside the wire was just a little more dangerous. Every laugh was a little bit louder, clearer, and crisper, and every cigarette tasted a little bit better. And then, when I came home, it wasn’t the same.

The type of things taxing me were different. I knew how to apply my training to the type of things that were taxing me in Iraq. I just didn’t know how to apply my training to the things that were taxing me in the states.

So there was this adjustment period, this lack of intensity, that I replaced with, you know, having a good time. I bought a motorcycle, I liked being by the rapids… I found ways to give moments a little more “oomph.” I didn’t really know how else to do it.

This is something that I don’t think about that much, but at the time, being around so much stuff was also very challenging. Consumerism. Going into malls, or boutiques, or areas of decadence and just being like “Gosh. I can’t believe people pay so much attention to this stuff.” Maybe it was a little bit of disgust (laughs). I was without a compass.

Lilly- What were some of the things you noticed about America when you came home?

Ben- The very first thing that stuck out for me was the green. In Iraq, most things are brown. The very first thing I saw when I got to Fayetteville was the evergreens. Just those trees, and that green. That beautiful, beautiful green.

The next thing I noticed was the amount of side-effects of prescription drug medications on commercials. I remember being blown away by the number of things that people would find acceptable! I remember it was the commercial for Restless Leg Syndrome that really stuck out in my mind, because I just couldn’t imagine someone taking a pill that could cause you to bleed from your eyes

Lilly- There’s a line in your blog where you write about inhaling and exhaling- you refer to it as a resource that we all have. And then you say, “in essence, we are one.” How do you understand this idea of connectedness in relationship to war?

       When I came home there was this lack of intensity that was ever-present in Iraq. 

Ben- Part of the statement “we are one” means that we can all make this same thing a practice that can be useful.  So, no matter who you are or where you’re from, you can understand how you breathe.

So, you could learn it, and you could become a master of it for yourself, and you could explain it and anybody could do that, because breathing is essential, and it’s the underlying source of human life.

Without it, you die. Right away. It’s the fastest thing that will kill you. We all are attached to that. In regards to war, they talk about “othering” in anthropology, the idea that there is this “other,” and it was kind of like that in Iraq, too. They were the “other,” the “bad guys,” and I didn’t speak their language, or understand their culture, but fundamentally, we were the same and the most fundamental of our similarities is breath. We all have it.

   Part of the statement “we are one” means that we can all make this same thing a practice that can be useful.  So, no matter who you are or where you’re from, you can understand your breath.

Lilly- Can you give an example of where breath was helpful to you, in a moment of difficulty, craziness, or stress. How did it serve you?

Ben- Breath gives me space to respond and not react. The worst part about falling off the edge for me was this lack of control and my powerlessness to do anything about it. I felt weak. As I started to recognize my ability to place space in between this onslaught of negativity, fear, and rage, I gained a sense of empowerment. It’s the same kind of thing as “shoot, move, and communicate.”

You use rounds, when you fire your weapon, you use rounds not only to take out the enemy, but also to make space to maneuver. It’s part of military training to use your tools to create opportunities for yourself to achieve your objective. Breathing is not entirely different than different types of marksmanship. I remember one time getting close to the edge with my wife. We were having a fight, and I was getting close to the edge. It wasn’t the kind of altercation that would surprise you, just your typical married couple disagreement, but disagreements kind of mess me up.

So as I got better at breathing, I could tell before I would fall off. I could catch myself. I remember the first time I did, it was as though all of this stuff that was rushing at me just kind of shifted direction.

Lilly- Did you literally stop what you were doing?

                                  Breath gives me space to respond and not react.

Ben- Yeah. I still remember where I was standing in the living room. I just caught myself.

When I stopped responding and I stopped feeding it, all of the stuff that she was screaming and yelling and the whole situation, it just de-escalated. It was like I just pulled the plug.

Lilly- What’s the difference for you, between looking outside of yourself for direction, versus looking within?

Ben- I think it’s the same thing. It’s just looking at it from two different angles. When you’re dealing with external circumstances you’ve gotta manage what’s going on, you’ve gotta manage your response to it, and you’ve gotta adjust. It’s the same thing in yoga. Or the same thing in seated meditation. Say you’re sitting there, and your hip starts to really hurt. You’ve got to say to yourself, “Alright. Do I need to move? What do I do here? How do I manage?

Lilly- You hear all the time that being present is the ultimate goal of any mindfulness practice. What do you think is the ultimate goal?

So as I got better at breathing, I could tell before I would fall off. I could catch myself. I remember the first time I did, it was as though all of this stuff that was rushing at me just kind of shifted direction.

Ben- Present is a word that is less accurate than, say, a word like open, maybe empty.

I figured that after I joined the military I’d be this badass dude who came home with a purple heart, I had faith in that. But, that proved to be inaccurate, because little things, like the renovation of my bathroom, took me out.

So, now, it’s not necessarily that I’m always present, it’s that I have faith that I’ll be able to handle whatever comes my way. I have that faith again. I believe in my training again.

Lilly- What does strength look like in your current life, versus what that looked like during your time in the military?

Ben- Well, “strong” in the military and after the military was this idea of force, and having the ability to generate more force, have more power and experience than anybody else. To have more social standing, you know, “I’m the man.” That’s what it looked like before. Now, it doesn’t have the force component. Instead of the force of an explosion, it’s the power of a consistent stream.

Before strength was the ability to go on a huge march uphill wearing a hundred thousand pounds. Now, it’s the ability to take a stroll and be totally content.

Lilly- What would you think would be ideal, in terms of the military helping that transition from one kind of strength to another?

Ben- When soldiers come back, they have to armor down. They have to take their equipment, they have to give it back to the armer. They have to armor off of the humvees and the tanks. They have to unload. They have to shine their boots, clean their weapons, put away stuff. You’ve got to do the same thing with the body.

You’ve got to armor down the neck and shoulders from carrying all of the body armor just the same way you’ve got to armor down the humvee. You’ve got to clean up the ranges. You’ve got to go through pushing and pulling ranges, without all of the force, effort, and weight. You’ve got to practice moving with ease.

                            Before strength was the ability to go on a huge march uphill wearing a hundred thousand pounds. Now, it’s the ability to take a stroll and be totally content.

 

Photo 1: Ben currently

Photo 2: Ben in Basic training

Photo 3: Ben in Iraq

 

*Yoga Organizations Serving Veterans

*Adaptive Sports Foundation: an organization bringing sports to disabled youth and is the recent founder of the Warriors in Motion program which works to provide veterans with a basic knowledge and practice of wellness. http://www.adaptivesportsfoundation.org

*Yoga for Vets: Yoga for vets maintains a list of studios, gyms and teachers that offer at least four free classes to war or conflict veterans that served, or are currently serving, in the United States Military. http://www.yogaforvets.org/

*Warriors At Ease: Trains yoga and meditation teachers to teach in military settings. http://warriorsatease.com/

*Wounded Warrior Project: An organization that seeks to raise public awareness, assist injured service members and provide programs to meet the needs of men and women returning home. http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/mission.aspx

*Healing Combat Trauma: Provides resources for and about healing combat trauma with a focus on providing medical, psychological and legal care for veterans and their families. http://www.healingcombattrauma.com/

*There and Back Again: Provides reintegration support services to veterans of all conflicts. http://thereandback-again.org/

*The Veterans Yoga Project: Brings together information and resources for anyone interested in the use of Yoga as a therapeutic practice for Veterans. http://www.veteransyogaproject.org/

*Connected Warriors: works to maintain and establish nationwide free yoga classes for service members, veterans, and their families. http://theconnectedwarriors.org/locations.html or info@connectedwarriors.org

*Yoga for Vets NYC- Offers Bi-weekly Yoga classes to Veterans at the Integral Yoga Institute http://yogaforvetsnyc.org/

*Yoga Basics: Provides free online support and information for those seeking to establish or maintain a yoga practice. http://www.yogabasics.com/

*Yogadownload.com: Offers online customized yoga classes for anyone seeking to establish or maintain a yoga practice. http://www.yogadownload.com/

*Yogis Anonymous: Provides both online and in person classes in a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere. http://yogisanonymous.com/

*War Retreat: Yoga & wellness events, resources, and articles for those who go through wars, conflicts and disasters. Formerly The War Photographers’ Retreat.

*Vets 4 Vets: A non-partisan organization dedicated to helping Iraq and Afghanistan- era veterans to heal from the psychological injuries of war through the use of peer support.

*Semper Fedelis Health and Wellness: Provides Integrative health and wellness solutions to our nation’s wounded, ill and injured warriors, active duty and reserve military, veterans, first responders, families and caregivers. http://www.semperfidelishealthandwellness.org/

Yoga Teachers Serving Veterans

*James Fox, Founder of the Prison Yoga Project and co author of Finding Peace: A Yoga Guide for Veterans. http://prisonyoga.com/

*David Emerson: Head of the Yoga Program at the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA and co-author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body. http://www.traumacenter.org/clients/yoga_svcs.php

*Beryl Bender Birch: Director and founder of The Hard and the Soft Yoga Institute, co-founder of The Give Back Yoga Foundation and co-author of Finding Peace: A Yoga Guide for Veterans http://berylbenderbirch.com/

* Patty Townsend, director of Yoga Center Amherst, developer of embodyoga teacher training programs and co-creator of the CD: Deep Relaxation with Yoga Nidra, donated as part of the Give the Gift of Yoga to Vets Campaign: http://www.yogacenteramherst.com/teacher_patty.html

*Rod Stryker, Para Yoga: Founder of Para Yoga, author of the Four Desires, and co-creator of the CD: Deep Relaxation with Yoga Nidra, donated as part of the Give the Gift of Yoga to Vets Campaign: http://www.parayoga.com/

*Suzanne Manafort: serves as a board member of the Give Back Yoga Foundation, co-founder of the Veterans Yoga Project, co-leads trainings for teachers interested in working with veterans and is the creator of the CD: Breathe In, Breathe Out: Quick and Easy Breathing Practices to Help Balance the Nervous System, donated as part of the Give the Gift of Yoga Campaign. http://www.newingtonyogacenter.com/staff/SuzM.htm

Judy Weaver: Co-founder Director of Education of Connected Warriors, a program based in South Florida that co-ordinates veterans and provides free yoga classes.  As well as offering classes that blend the Ashtanga, Anusara, Iyengar and Yin tradition, Judy is currently designing and launching a 200 hour free teacher training program for veterans.

*Daniel Hickman, Nosara Yoga: Creator of For VetsYoga, an introductory yoga dvd for veterans, featuring interviews with vets who have found yoga to be essential for their healing process .https://www.nosarayoga.com/faculty-bios/daniel-e-hickman

*Robin Carnes, Walter Reed Army Medical Center: The yoga and iRest yoga nidra meditation instructor for a multi-disciplinary PTSD treatment program and the CEO of Warriors at Ease. http://yoganidranow.com/

*Karen Soltes, LCSW. Washington DC Veterans Hospital, War Related Illnesses and Injuries Study Center (WRIISC). iREst Yoga Nidra Teacher for several groups of Veterans with a range of challenges, including PTSD, Substance Abuse, and traumatic Brain Injury. Creator of the CD “iREst Yoga Nidra: Easing Into Stillness”

*Dr. Daniel J. Libby- 

a licensed clinical psychologist who conducts clinical research and psychotherapy with Veterans suffering from PTSD and other trauma-related psychiatric disorders in the Connecticut VA Healthcare System. He conducts several weekly mindful yoga therapy groups for Veterans suffering from PTSD and chronic pain as well as co-teaches the Embodyoga teacher trainings with Suzane Manafort. http://veteransyogaproject.org/about-us/

*Sue Lynch- Executive Director of There and Back Again,- Sue began her yoga practice in 2001 in her efforts to manage symptoms of PTSD. Based on her personal experience, Sue is passionate about offering a comprehensive approach to healing to her fellow veterans now, not 10 years from now, so that they too can find relief. Sue works with the Veterans Administration, Vet Centers, Yellow Ribbon Program, Warrior Transition Program and Department of Veteran Services to educate and train staff and veterans on techniques to facilitate self-care.

*Denise Dallas White- works with connected warriors http://www.theconnectedwarriors.org/ to offer free yog clases to all military service persons,veterans &their family members in 11 locations in Florida, and maintins a blog on pininterest about veterans health and PTS http://pinterest.com/ddland/yoga-breath-us-veterans/

 

About Lilly Bechtel

Lilly Bechtel, founder of Body Song Yoga, is a certified Kripalu and Trauma-Sensitive Yoga instructor, freelance journalist and poet. Her work has been published in "Field Notes", "USA Today", "The Brooklyn Rail" "The Huffington Post" and "The Faster Times". Ms. Bechtel is currently working on a book about the role of yoga in the military in addressing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Follow Lilly's work and writing through Body Song Yoga on Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram, or email her at bodysongyoga@gmail.com

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11 Responses to “Armoring Down with Mindfulness: An Interview with Iraq Veteran Ben King.”

  1. MamasteNJ says:

    Just intro'd on FB to: Yoga, Health & Wellness & Spirituality

  2. Mary V says:

    Thank you ! Very wonderful ~

  3. Kay Leigh Ferguson says:

    i think armor down is a good concept for more than our warriors.

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