The Last Battle: Some soldiers turn to alternative treatments for emotional and physical toll
The Fayetteville Observer
Lt. Col. Jim Brisson breathes slowly, his eyes closed as he stands barefoot on a blue mat.
"Things that are in the past are in the past," the instructor tells the 15 people at Embrace Yoga Studio in downtown Fayetteville. "Things we may worry about are in the future. We're going to let that go."
Brisson, an Army chaplain, doesn't think of the hundred or so funerals he has been part of the past decade, all brave soldiers who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. He doesn't dwell on the broken back that left him unable to bend over and touch his toes.
He lets go.
Brisson is part of a growing trend of soldiers and veterans who are trying alternative ways to deal with the emotional and physical toll of combat.
The Army and the Department of Veteran Affairs are more open than ever to different treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, spending millions of dollars on research. An Army guide for treating PTSD, released in April, recommends treatments such as "hypnosis, art therapy, yoga, acupuncture (and) massage" in conjunction with traditional medication or therapy. A New York senator is pushing for the VA to add therapy dogs for PTSD patients to a list of covered benefits.
The alternative treatment trend can be seen around Fort Bragg, where yoga, acupuncture and energy healing are among therapies being tried by soldiers and veterans.
The goal of the treatments is often to alleviate symptoms that commonly coincide with PTSD: sleeplessness, pain and an inability to turn off the warrior switch and relax.
But an Institute of Medicine panel report released in July says the VA and the Pentagon have little evidence tracking which treatments work, and at what cost. Every field has its anecdotal stories of success, but the outcomes of treatments haven't been tracked to see which ones work most often.
Brisson, the Army chaplain, never cried when 10 Green Berets died on one day in the opening months of the war in Afghanistan. The Special Forces chaplain shed no tears the day it happened, none at the memorial.
At home on his two-week leave, Brisson was having a beer at a pizza parlor when his daughter asked him about honor. Something took his mind back to Afghanistan. He could feel the wind in his face, the sand hitting his cheeks.
And he began to cry. For 25 minutes, he couldn't stop.
That was the first sign something may be wrong, he said, but he never went to see a counselor. He knew it would most likely lead to a life popping pills that would leave his mind cloudy and mask his emotions.
"I don't want to be controlled by something," he said. "I want to live."
Yoga, he said, helps him deal with his mental issues before they become a burden.
Since starting yoga and rehab, Brisson says his mind and body are working better. Despite his back problems, he went skiing this spring.
But is Brisson's outcome the rule or the exception? Does yoga work better than acupuncture? Do either work better than cognitive therapy?
Terri Tanielian, a mental health researcher at the RAND Corp. who co-wrote an award-winning study of PTSD and other invisible war wounds, said the VA and Pentagon must answer those questions. Her study found that high-quality treatment of PTSD would pay for itself in two years with the reduction in costs to society related to the disorder. But the government needs better research to define which of the treatments it allows should be considered high-quality.
"We need to do more as a system to make sure providers are using high-quality approaches," Tanielian said. "I think there's still significant room for improvement in holding providers accountable."
Katherine Huynh, who owns the downtown yoga business, has been invited to hold classes with soldiers during morning PT and with their spouses during Family Readiness Group meetings.
Jennifer Williams quit her well-paying civil service job two years ago to start her acupuncture business, sharing a room with another acupuncturist. By last spring, she had a month-long waiting list for new customers.
Today, in her new Wood Element Acupuncture offices on Ramsey Street, she treats about 40 soldiers or veterans every month, close to half of her patients. They've usually already tried pain pills and other more traditional western pain relief: Acupuncture is rarely their first choice.
Most come because of physical pain, and many of them are battling mental problems, Williams said. Some are referred by the Fayetteville VA. Williams said she nearly always reduces the pain her patients report.
The acupuncture helps treat PTSD and other stress, too, she said.
"The approach with acupuncture is to calm down the nervous system, kind of calm down the emotions. Bring people to a mental state where they can let that (emotional healing) process happen."
Doctors at Fort Bragg are studying whether PTSD therapy can be improved by a virtual reality simulator that helps soldiers recreate traumatic war memories through desert scenes, a floor that rumbles during on-screen explosions and a scent generator that fills the room with smells such as rotting flesh or gunpowder. The idea for the face-your-fears treatment, known as exposure therapy, has proved effective to treat PTSD, but doctors hope adding the virtual reality environment will further improve its results.
Another type of treatment, energy healing that requires the patient and therapist to repeatedly tap themselves on the face and body, is available in Sanford. Sue Hannibal says her method, called the Emotional Freedom Technique, cures PTSD. Soldiers she has treated praise the therapy. Hannibal, can point to dozens of studies she says scientifically prove her technique works. But she hasn't convinced the Department of Defense or Veterans Affairs that there's evidence her therapy should be part of the mainstream treatment recommendations for PTSD.