Third Place Writing – Features


War-torn veterans, their dreams, and a yoga instructor

By Faiz Siddiqui

Francis Walker sits silent and stone-faced in a drafty gymnasium. He straightens his back in his chair, reins in his trembling hands and glances toward the door — like he’s plotting an escape.

Then, as if left with no other choice, he begins to close drooping, bloodshot eyes — his brow furrowed and tense.

“You wanna know what wiped the smile off my face?”

* * *

May 1969

Francis Walker, a combat engineer three days into his tour, holds his breath as a sea of rocket, rifle and mortar fire soars past him. The Viet Cong have staged a midday ambush near Dau Tieng, his base, and now body parts and pools of blood are seeping into the moist soil.

Nearby, a young comrade clutches the smoldering barrel of a .50-caliber machine gun with his bare hands.

Adrenaline still pumping, Walker — a member of the Army’s 25th infantry division — watches as the skin begins to melt off a fellow soldier’s hands.

On better days, the combat engineer pushes a Caterpillar D7 dozer, as part of a team that builds fire support bases on the rough terrain of an unfamiliar jungle — an adrenaline rush, the soldiers say. Like skydiving without a parachute.

And that adrenaline still hasn’t left him. It’s why he says he still doesn’t feel safe. Not in a sold-out Memorial Stadium. Not around family.

Not anywhere.

One time, “I saw a fellow soldier that was looking me in the face saying ‘Help me!’ and I couldn’t.”

Forty-three years later, every night when he closes his eyes in hopes of getting a few hours’ rest, he sees it all over again. And again. And again.

* * *

“It’s not gonna work! It’s not gonna work!”

A 5-foot 3-inch, 103-pound sprite of a woman ambles past 64-year-old Francis Walker. He’s helpless, lying down in a sideways-facing pose, kind of tangled up in a knot.

“We’ll make it work!” she yells down at him.

She’s been teaching yoga since the days of the Eisenhower Administration, but this might be Liz Merey’s toughest class yet. For this group of PTSD-diagnosed Vietnam veterans who flock to the dusty, opaque gymnasium at the Lincoln VA every Wednesday at 3 o’clock, it’s a rare chance — to breathe.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a complex illness that robs people of their sense of safety. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates it affects 30 percent of Vietnam veterans and up to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

Dr. Terry North, director of PTSD services across the Nebraska and Iowa health care systems, says it was a medical anomaly as recently as 20 years ago — “No one really knew much of what to do with it,” she says — but now, doctors are constantly testing out new and innovative methods of treatment.

Most of the time, alternative treatments like yoga allow the vets to relax.

Right now, though, Walker seems to be having trouble. With only three or four weeks of program experience under his belt, he’s got a diminutive 78-year-old yoga instructor hovering over him, barking orders, shouting at him to extend his jittery hands across his outstretched thighs — this after he just spent a minute rocking back and forth on his spine, knees clenched tightly to his chest.

Earlier they were all hunched over, butts in the air, hands and feet to the floor a body’s length apart in downward-facing dog, the sound of creaking backs audible.

Merey, always on her feet as a former restaurant manger, knows it’s not easy — all the “war-affected bodies” she’s dealing with. The exact opposite of hers. But the physical difficulty of Yoga 101 is the least important part to her.

Early on, when Walker refuses to lie on his back with his arms outstretched and chest fully exposed, she doesn’t mind.

“They’re wonderful students,” the one-time dancer says of a pack of Vietnam Vets engaged in a series of exercises that an untrained eye might not readily discern as yoga.

* * *

Years ago, she danced alongside Elvis in “Loving You.”

“There’s one place where just he and I are on the screen,” she says, eyes aglow.

Her only regret was never asking The King for an autograph. Those things sold for something like $1,200 when she was in the ninth grade. Imagine what they’d go for now.

In Hollywood, like everyone else, she found herself totally comfortable exaggerating her qualifications — and her proportions. She added two inches to her height and claimed she weighed the same as in high school.

It was around then — nearly 60 years ago — that she also began practicing yoga in the clinic of Vishnu Devananda, who established one of the first yoga training programs in the West. More than half a century later, as an instructor at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Omaha and Lincoln, she still possesses the grace and fluidity of a prima ballerina.

In an auditorium where a bunch of jittery, hardened men go to calm themselves once a week, Liz Merey stands as a living testament to the fact that a simple exercise in breathing can take a person a long way. She is the most flexible person in the room — by far. Look at her. Arms stretched toward the ceiling, knees bent 45 degrees, explaining to a former soldier how to hold the same pose.

But she says the vets can be just like her if they can just — “ahhhh” — breathe, let the cool air fill their hot, dry mouths as they begin to unravel. Inhale deeply, exhale slowly.

“At some point in time,” Merey says, “the body and mind get separated. Through yoga, you’re extending the mind to move past those memories. It goes away as you push it away.”

Even PTSD. Sometimes.

While Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — the traditional PTSD treatment — remains the standard nationwide, the Lincoln and Omaha VA departments are among the first to employ yoga as a supplement.

The idea came about when North and Dr. Jocelyn Ritchie contacted Dr. Dan Libby, a psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Yale, and found he’d been experimenting with yoga classes for PTSD patients at a Connecticut VA. Ritchie then reached out to Merey, her friend, and the two sat down and designed an instructional plan mirroring Libby’s.

Ritchie participates in the classes as a novice and serves to assist vets in the event of a flare-up. For now, North maintains, the program that began two years ago will complement the psychological treatment, which sees soldiers overcome their trauma by opening up about the intrusive thoughts, memories, disturbing images and flashbacks they’ve held in for so long.

At the Polytrauma Support Clinic on a recent afternoon, two Vietnam vets and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom lie facing their yoga mats. The instructor acts as their conscience.

“Think of hundreds of little fists inside your legs and arms,” Merey says. “… And they’re slowly opening out, giving your body permission to relax … opening those fists and letting go.”

She continues, “Walk around like you’re the CEO inside your body.

“I lovingly relax my heart, relax my stomach, relax my lungs. I am the master of my body. My mind tells my body what to do.”

For 15 minutes starting now, they’ll lie on their backs, “thanking their hearts,” as Merey would say. And if they’re lucky, they won’t get a single glimpse of the ceiling as their spines unravel on spongy blue yoga mats.

“I lovingly relax my body.”

* * *

Don Hughes’ morning couldn’t have gone much worse.

The former Army buck sergeant says for a moment earlier in the day, he thought he might be regressing with “this whole healing process.”

Although his service in Vietnam between 1968 and 1969 still has him coping with a broken back, he says he’s never been able to stop working on the farm.

And now, on a morning 43 years later, when his Bobcat began spitting hydraulic fluid back at him, leaving red stains all over his clothing, Hughes began to feel the mounting stress.

It almost destroyed his whole day, and he’s had some bad ones. Once, he emerged as the lone survivor of a central Vietnam helicopter crash. Frankly, if it weren’t for Liz Merey and her class, he’d have had nothing to look forward to that day.

Now, he can just lie on his back and relax. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

There’s just something about this woman — all of the vets inside the dark, drafty gym say so.

* * *

The yoga is over for today, so the Vietnam vets gather at a wooden table, the silence broken only by the humming of the overhead vent pushing air into the gymnasium.

Walker, lean and medium-height and clad in a white T-shirt and black jeans, sits in the middle.

He knows he won’t go home and drink tonight. The drinking stopped a while ago. Plus, he feels a little too mellow right now.

“I’m under stress,” he says. “I live under stress, but this relaxes me.”

Now, maybe, he’ll just go to his car, sit and listen to music. He’ll close his eyes and feel the waves.

Hughes figures he’ll go home to Ceresco and listen to the farm. The wind gently rustling the grass. Tractors and combines cutting, threshing.

And maybe Ron Ruff, a retired first lieutenant and captain in the Army, will “stop feeling like an old person” for a short while.

“People need to know that the people coming here new are not crazy, blurry-eyed veterans that are going to go out and kill everybody,” Ruff says.

Walker knows the feeling.

“Man, I look at myself, really, I had problems. I had my fair share of being afraid in certain places, the bad dreams, not wanting to talk about it, the drinking.”

It used to be five beers a day — not an excessive amount, but a consistent pattern, trying to blunt the darkness of the jungle.

Now, here he is, sitting among new friends, recalling the memories that have haunted him for the past 43 years.

“I feel safe around this man,” he says, pointing to Hughes. “Them that are in our PTSD class. I feel safe, but when I walk out of here, I might be a different person.”

Here’s Walker, who still can’t go to church because of the blood, the death — mostly the death — about to answer a simple, haunting question.

What wiped the smile off his face?

Now, the whole room knows.

“It is very hard to talk,” he says. “I can’t talk to family about it. I just sit around and talk to them about it.

“Other than that, I keep my mouth shut.”

And now, he’s starting to think he said too much.

“If you’ll excuse me now, I have to depart.”

* * *

Outside, he sits alone in his white ‘97 Isuzu Rodeo. The parking lot of the Lincoln VA is mostly empty on this cloudless autumn afternoon. A light breeze drags fallen leaves gently across the pavement.

Francis Walker rolls down both windows, flicks on the stereo knob and takes his hands off the steering wheel. He might sit there 2 1/2 hours listening to the oldies and smooth R&B pouring out of the speakers.

On this serene Wednesday, he lets his seat down a little and relaxes his trembling hands. After a while, his drooping, bloodshot eyes begin to close. He begins to feel the waves.

And then — more than four decades removed from the jungle — he begins to breathe, deeply and slowly.

In and out, in and out, in and…