This is the ninth interview in an ongoing series called “At Attention, At Peace”; a conversation among teachers, students, and officials about the role of Yoga and meditation in addressing PTSD in the military. Click here to read others. To subscribe to this series, email ‘subscribe’ to [email protected] to stay updated on new interviews.
Reeves Petroff spent a total of 22 years in the military, both in active duty and with the Montana National Guard and Army Reserve.
After serving active duty in Iraq as a man in his 50s, he struggled to find peace when he returned home. In an effort to heal from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress, Reeves rediscovered yoga.
In this interview, he offers a beautiful account of the strength and flexibility his practice has given him, how his military experience has made appearances on his spiritual path, and his plans to share this therapeutic process with fellow veterans, through his program “Landing Zone Yoga.”
Lilly: In the Bhagavad Gita, when facing war, Arjun is asking, “Do I go forward or do I not?” How does this question of right action apply, if at all, to your spiritual practice?
Reeves: I guess you could call it walking a tiger’s path. A tiger can walk any path and know that he’s the biggest, baddest son of a bitch in the valley but he doesn’t kill everything he sees. You walk with grace, with strength, you also walk with weakness. You know when to step away and when to use violence for self-protection, or the protection of others; you also know when to be soft and compassionate.
Lilly: And on what side of that path did you find yourself on when you came home from Iraq?
Reeves: I guess I was a bad tiger. I felt very angry and just a lot of physical things because I was deployed at a fairly late stage in my life. I felt angry with myself and angry with the world.
I was recruited to serve as an infantryman in Iraq, even though I was 52. When I got over there, there was no real job for me to do—they just needed a warm body. One of the weirdest things that I got tasked for, because I was older: to be the driver for the prime minister of Iraq for two days. It was Ibrahim Al Jaafri and they wanted an old guy to drive him so I was their man. I remember sitting in a vehicle with the prime minister and ten other Iraqi bodyguards who were armed to the teeth. I remember thinking ‘I’m the target. Any second I could be shot in the back of the head.’
Lilly: Did you realize at the time the toll that these kinds of things were taking on you?
Reeves: No, all I knew was that I felt bad all the time; I was under a helicopter flyway so I wasn’t getting any sleep. We’d constantly get hit with mortars and rockets. I have a picture of me cowering under a dining room table that someone took from across the room.
Things like that take a toll on your nerves and also just some of the idiocy that was going on: pure waste. Wasted equipment. Wasted resources.
Lilly: When you first came back home, were you hoping to just pick your life back up and get on with a new mission?
Lilly: Can you give one example of a moment you struggled with when you first came home?
The spiritual path is a lot like walking the tiger’s path. You walk with grace, with strength, you also walk with weakness. You know when to step away and when to use violence for self-protection, or the protection of others; also knowing when to soft and compassionate.
It all really came to a head in 2009, I was drinking a lot and having anxiety attacks: waking up from weird dreams, in the middle of the night, out of breath. Luckily I had gone to the VA office as soon as I got back from my deployment in 2006 and checked into the system. I don’t know why I did that, but I’m glad I did because that made things go a lot quicker for me.
It was about nine months ago that I re-discovered Yoga and it’s just made a huge difference. It resets my mind, so, if I think things are really bad, or I get depressed I go to a yoga class, or cop a few poses and I feel a lot better. But I also like the spiritual philosophy of yoga. I like the eight limb approach. I like the yamas and the niyamas. They’re just good ways to live.
In the military, you are used to being with a squad or a platoon so it’s almost like a built-in camaraderie. My yoga class is my squad.
Lilly: How would you describe your experience of PTSD to someone who’s never had it before?
Reeves: In my case, it feels like there’s another person inside me. It’s like: here’s the PTSD side of myself and here was the old side of myself, before deployment. It was the evil side over here that was kind of feeding fire and becoming stronger and stronger as I drank.
Luckily, I’ve managed to quit drinking, I think for good now. And now that that side over here is starting to come into the other side, that spiritual side, it’s coming more in focus but that doesn’t mean that this fuzzy side isn’t still over there. It’s behind doors that have got to stay shut.
Lilly: You said something about having demons inside of you and this gate. And alcohol let the demons out. How do you feel after a really good yoga practice?
Reeves: The natural high. I feel really light and airy. It’s just like a sense of oneness and connection with the group that feels wonderful.
So here you are, out into combat, in a war zone, being shelled by mortars, your life is being threatened and then you come back home and you are expected to start your life all over again. Back to the civilian world, just like war never happened.
Lilly: What is the relationship like now, between your military experience and your practice of yoga? What balance or common ground have you discovered?
Reeves: You know, I guess I like to think it was my spiritual self that’s been underneath all my military experience and just waiting to come up. I think actually, and this is going to sound really weird, I’ve been letting the spiritual side of me to step up by allowing the military side to step aside. I’ve realized that the experience of going to war, and being in a war zone, and being scared and seeing bad things happen, believe it or not, were essential for spiritual growth. I think now the military side is saying, ‘You know, you’ve learned the lesson here. I’m stepping aside. You on that spiritual side, you’ve got to come up.’
Lilly : And what’s the lesson that you feel you’ve learned in these experiences?
Reeves: Compassion. I think compassion and we’re all connected. Whatever small thing that you do to one person, or one village, or one town makes a huge impact on tens and hundreds of others. That in turn does something to a spiritual fabric that we have woven around our world.Lilly: And what has yoga given you?Reeves: Yoga has had a grounding effect on me. It has taught me how to take something intense and release it. I think that’s the whole thing with traumatic injuries, psychological injuries, you get jazzed up and hold on to things that have happened to you that you never learn how to release. And that’s why I think yoga is really good for PTSD and associated / trauma-related psychological disorders: you learn how to get into a pose and you learn not to really bust your ass in the pose, but then you have to release.
Also, yoga has given me the stillness of mind so that I’m not so impatient. It allows me to process things a little more and to think a little more before I act. Also, I got a couple of great yoga teachers and one of them says ‘soften before you act.’ You know, like softening the chest before you do a child’s pose or something. And you can use that for every day: soften before you act.
Lilly: How did you come up with the idea for LZ Yoga?
Reeves: I had been doing yoga for maybe two months. Just ruminating on my mat and the instructor took her two mats and turned them at 90 degrees, so that it formed a cross. The image that came to my head was, ‘That’s an LZ—landing zone.”A landing zone is usually used for helicopters. Helicopters bring in food, water, ammo, take out the wounded, they bring in fresh troops, it’s a recovery and resupply zone. To actually get a chopper, you pop smoke and then you raise your hands like a standing mountain pose to get the helicopter’s attention. Then I started thinking ‘LZ Yoga’ and saw the image of a yoga mat like that with a vet in the mountain pose, bringing in the relief. That’s where you get rescued: the LZ.
Lilly: What would you hope to offer vets, in your yoga class?
Reeves: I hear this all the time in yoga practice: you take what serves you, and leave the rest. I would hope to offer that to other vets, you can listen to all my weird spiritual stuff, take what you need out of it, and leave the rest.
Yoga has given me the stillness of mind so that I’m not so impatient. It allows me to process things a little more and to think a little more before I act.
You’re given so much time to think when you get home. You’re not active and when you throw alcohol or drugs into it, it makes it worse. You don’t have a mission anymore. Your mission is done but you probably weren’t properly discharged from the old mission. So even though you’re home, your old mission is still going on. People need someone to say, finally, “It’s done. The mission’s over, Sergeant.” Your new mission is now go home and stay sane.
I think if the military would take a whole different attitude on this yoga thing and start integrating it into units before they deploy, make it part of their physical training, the resilience factors on their soldiers would be awesome. I’m open to that too if the military made yoga their first point of contact, I’d be there to help out.
Lilly: What might be a simple message about yoga that you can pass along to another veteran?
Reeves: Stay the course. My mom was English—she had a stiff upper lip—I can hear her saying, “Stay the course.” So I guess I would say, ‘Don’t waver, man. Keep with it.’ You learned discipline from the military, so why slack off? Stay the course with yoga.
Even though you’re home, your old mission is still going on. People need someone to say, finally, “It’s done. The mission’s over, Sergeant.” Your new mission is now go home and stay sane.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta