The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that as many as 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from some form of post traumatic stress disorder. Many have been on the front lines of combat, suffered an injury or have witnessed a comrade hurt or even killed.
Now, some veterans are finding help where you'd least expect it, inside a yoga studio. It's a movement that is gaining momentum from non-profit groups to the Veterans Administration Health System .
As a captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, it was C.J. Keller's job to protect and support others. During the Iraq war, he was a member of a unit that provided security to convoys. He spent many days alongside Army units searching for homemade bombs. The work was dangerous and stressful to say the least.
"There was a huge element of surprise when something would happen, whether it was an IED going off, an explosion, followed up by gunfire, a gunfight, an ambush, a complex attack," he said.
Keller found the stress lingered, even after returning home from his deployment.
"Anxiety, recurring thoughts that I would get fixated on, couldn't quite figure out how and why to break those patterns," he said. "I was self-medicating a lot with alcohol and abusing that, which is really common."
But when fellow Marine veteran Elijah Sacra introduced him to yoga, everything changed.
"It was potent. It was different. It was very effective for alleviating my symptoms of anxiety, and my stress and it just felt like magic," Keller said.
It was a magic he knew he wanted to share with other vets dealing with mental and physical struggles. Along with Sacra and others, Keller helped found the non-profit Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness as the organization's yoga director. He teaches a free class for veterans every Saturday night at Charm City Yoga in Towson.
"It's a little bit strange at first, but once they get on the mat, once they start to breathe, start to allow themselves to open up, then they get it," he said. "The light bulbs start going off. They start to understand how they can better manage their symptoms, how they can better manage their life overall."
Dr. Andy Santanello, clinical psychologist for the VA Maryland Health Care System said the Baltimore VA has incorporated mindfulness-based interventions like yoga and meditation into its Trauma Recovery Program.
"Mindfulness-based interventions really offer a nice, entry into treatment, a way to maybe experiment with, letting go of avoidance as a way to coping with PTSD and experiment with facing the issues and problems that can go with PTSD," he said.
Santanello said he's seen firsthand how yoga and meditation have eased PTSD symptoms in vets, and there's promising research to back it up.
"There have been a couple of studies that have come out, to date, one in particular came out, about a year ago, suggesting that mindfulness-based interventions can actually be effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD," he said.
At the Yoga for Veterans class, Marine vet Jason Baer is a regular. Baer served two combat deployments in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. Though he had an easier time than many transitioning back to civilian life, it wasn't without its challenges.
"Always having to look out, for yourself and your buddies so there was that viglilance, if you left your guard down, sometimes it was the last time, so you tried not to do that," Baer said. "You didn't want to let anyone else down."
Practicing yoga helps Baer to relax and stay physically active, despite having injured his ankles in Afghanistan. It also offers a sense of community.
"A lot of us have a different perspective on life, having gone through severe circumstances," he said. "Losing close friends and colleagues and just having the discipline as a cohort, even not of the same time, but of the same experiences. There's just a certain relatedness that we have."
Baer plans to take over as instructor for the Yoga for Veterans class, while Keller will continue to support veterans through Semper Fidelis. They're still serving, with or without a uniform.
"It's helped me in a lot of different ways," Baer said. "Relaxation, the physical fitness. Then, I may as well go ahead and offer that back."
"It's saved lives," Keller said. "I've had students say it literally saved my life. Yoga has really saved my life."
Psychologists see yoga and meditation as complements to established treatments for PTSD.
The VA uses cognitive processing therapy, which helps people understand and change the way they think about the traumatic event. Prolonged exposure therapy helps people reduce their fear of a traumatic memory. Clinical psychologist Dr. Erin Romero, also of the VA Maryland Heath System, said 80 percent of people who have completed these treatments see a significant reduction in symptoms.
"What we do know is that if you've had these
symptoms for more than a month, it's unlikely that they're going to really remit on their own," she said. "But we do know that if you come in, we can really help. We have great treatments, great therapists here to help reduce those symptoms."
These treatments typically last three to six months, but could go longer based on the individual.