I am not a combat veteran, but my heart belongs to our vets.
I was 14, wearing my dad’s M65 field jacket with the family name,Titus, embroidered above the pocket. It was his coat, but the dog tags and combat boots were mine (not from any real combat but from a desire to relate to the men in my family who went to war).
I was fighting the ever-expanding war in my heart, a desire to connect with a distant father whom, I believed, was so traumatized by his experience in Vietnam that I never truly got him back.
I read books on Vietnam, and combat, and the culture of that country—immersing myself in something he had experienced deeply and hoping to connect with him in some real way.
I wore his fatigues to feel closer to him, and in truth I wore them out, wearing that coat until it was so threadbare no one else could ever wear it again.
Every adolescent thinks his own experience is the most intense, dramatic and confusing of all experiences on the planet—and I was no different. As adults, we know better, but that’s our coming-of-age awakening—the time when we most need to understand where we come from and where we are headed.
My father is a good man. He is also a man I hardly know, a door shut when he was in the Vietnam War (when I was just a baby).
I come from a military family. My grandfather was a retired Lieutenant Colonel, US Army, who served in Korea and World War II. He worked for General Douglas MacArthur to repatriate Japan and continued to work another 20 plus years as a defense contractor as I was growing up. I didn’t know him well. I just didn’t understand. How could I?
So it’s no surprise that, while I have not served in the military, my heart lives with our veterans. I believe the distance between my father and myself stemmed from the trauma he experienced at war and from the PTSD that was never diagnosed.
I know this now, but it didn’t help make my journey with him any easier.
It wasn’t until I found yoga at the age of 32 that I finally unlocked the answers to questions that had been plaguing me all my life.
Unknowingly, I followed in my father’s footsteps—like him, I built a career as a forester, fighting fires and managing nature. I married, bought a house, drank more and more, and built a life of stress that was only soothed by the occasional fleeting vacation.
And then, one day, I found myself flat on my back. I was unable to move and facing a grim diagnosis from doctors who believed that surgery, medicine and a life of immobility were all that awaited me.
I refused to believe the prognosis, and so I hobbled my way into a yoga studio, and something shifted. Something profound.
I realized I had created all the stress I was living with, and that meant I could un-create it, too.
I couldn’t even bend at the waist back then, but within a few weeks of beginning to practice yoga I began to feel different. Doctors told me I may never walk again and nine months after their prediction, I was back in my career fighting fires with people 10 years my junior.
Yoga healed me. I not only had full range of motion again, but a clear mind.
The drinking stopped.
My body healed.
I stopped taking everything so darn seriously.
I was always afraid of my father, though I didn’t know why. I remember once holding his hand to cross the street in Berkeley, California. I couldn’t have been more than four or five and I was more afraid of the man standing next to me than of rush hour traffic.
There was always a tension around him, like he was afraid of truly connecting with another person. As a child, I wondered why my father hated me (though now I don’t think he did).
I yearned for his affection.The lack of it forever scarred me, and only yoga brought me to a place of love again.
Mental health conditions in veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have become an important public health problem. Up to 37% of the more than 2 million service members deployed to the Middle East are struggling with serious mental health problems, including PTSD, depression and traumatic brain injury.
Many veterans experience exactly what my father has lived with for decades, but they don’t have to carry that around with them.
Yoga can unlock the terror, horror, trauma and disappointment. Yoga helps us heal.
On this Veteran’s Day, I think of all that we know now, and all that we have available, and all I want is to bring more of it to the people who need it so that everyone can live from a place of peace and love.
Once, I found a picture of my father holding me as a newborn baby with my nose up against his nose. He was smiling and happy. My mother wasn’t in the picture. It was just the two of us.
This photo was taken before he left for Vietnam. He looked vibrant, connected and happy to be my father.
I’ve never met that man. He never came home.
One of my dearest friends and colleagues, Chris Courtney, who is a combat veteran and yoga teacher, said, “If we can heal our veterans, we heal families… if we heal families, we heal communities… when we heal communities, we heal our country… and our country is in desperate need of healing, right now.”
Had I known about yoga when I was a child, perhaps I could have changed my father’s path, and mine.
We always went to war movies together. Can you imagine that?
I wish we could’ve done yoga together instead.
I Love you, Dad.
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Assitant Editor: Laura Ashworth/Ed: Bryonie Wise