BYON 6/16/16 AT 4:24 PM
Midtown Manhattan in the early summer isn’t the ideal place to meditate.
In addition to the symphony of city sounds—the whirring of an air conditioning unit, staccato bursts of taxi horns and sirens—the primal groans of several-beers-deep soccer fans following the Euro 2016 competition weave in and out of our brains as we try to find some inner peace.
The man leading several dozen New Yorkers on a meditation tour is Tom Voss, an Iraq War veteran who was 19 years old when he was deployed to Mosul in 2004. He is also one of the subjects of Almost Sunrise, a documentary that follows him and fellow veteran Anthony Anderson on a five-month walk from Milwaukee to Los Angeles. After their experiences in Iraq, both men suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and they decided to walk after feeling they had exhausted all other treatment options. Anderson, for example, stopped taking prescribed antidepressants after they made him “as loopy as loopy can be.”
“It’s pretty clear that when someone says, ‘I’m going to drop what I’m doing and walk to California from Wisconsin,’ he’s dealing with something,” Emmet Cullen, who served alongside Voss in Iraq, says in the film.
Almost Sunrise explores the idea of moral injury, defined by the Veterans Affairs (VA) Department’s National Center for PTSD as “an act of serious transgression that leads to serious inner conflict because the experience is at odds with core ethical and moral beliefs.” That act could be “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Moral injury, and the inner anguish it creates, differs from PTSD, which is triggered by a terrifying event.
As Voss and Anderson—heavily bearded and with rucksacks strapped to their backs—walk through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico, they are forced to confront themselves and what they did (or didn’t do) while in Iraq. After five months and 2,700 miles on the road, they arrive in California. Anderson, it seemed, had healed, while Voss had not: He says the walk “wasn’t the end of the healing process by any means.”
The suicide rate among veterans in the U.S. is considered by many to be a national shame. A VA reportfrom 2012 found that 22 veterans commit suicide every day, and that their risk of suicide is greatest within three years after leaving the service. Meanwhile, about 300,000 service members suffer from PTSD or severe depression.
Before Voss embarked on the walk, he was experiencing nightmares and anxiety attacks associated with PTSD, and he would avoid large crowds and even July 4 celebrations—because of the fireworks. The VA prescribed him anti-depressants and Ambien, and Voss says he would often drink himself to sleep.
“It got to the point where I wanted to take my own life because I couldn’t stand myself, I couldn’t stand thinking about all these horrific things on a daily basis and all these moral dilemmas were slowly eating away at me,” he tells Newsweek. “I was completely losing the will to live.”
After the walk, Voss attended a Power Breath meditation workshop run by Project Welcome Home Troops in Aspen, Colorado. The course, which has been attended by 1,300 troops since 2006, teaches breathing techniques and meditation to help veterans decrease their levels of anxiety, insomnia, anger and depression, and to release deeply embedded trauma. Leslye Moore, national director of Project Welcome Home Troops, says the workshop aid people who have been “trained to shut down their emotions” in order to make themselves effective soldiers.
“It’s helping to shift their perception. The shame, the guilt, the remorse—whatever they’re feeling as a result of moral injury,” says Moore. “They’re able to reframe what they did or what they experienced and begin to experience forgiveness for themselves, for the military, even for God.” The workshops also allow veterans to develop a sense of community that may have been lost during their time away. “Nobody can relate to them and they can’t relate to other people. They’re missing that camaraderie,” says Moore.
The VA, says Moore, “is seeing that not everything works for everything individual.” Treatments involving drugs and therapy alone have differing efficacy rates and can be expensive: Between 2004 and 2009, the VA spent $1.4 billion on patients with PTSD, according to a 2012 government report. In the first year of VA treatment, the cost of treating patients with PTSD was $8,300 per person, nearly four times higher than someone without PTSD. For many veterans, including Voss and Andersen, alternative therapies are the only option.
“If we’re talking about the issue of moral injury, medication isn’t going to help that,” says Moore. “That’s an injury to the soul, and what’s going to help that is mind-body-soul, connection to community and helping process that experience and finding a way to reframe it so they can reenter their life.”
Research by Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison published in 2014 shows that breathing-based meditation—specifically Sudarshan Kriya yoga, which is used by Project Welcome Home Troops and was chosen for its effectiveness at reducing PTSD symptoms among tsunami survivors, according to the study—reduced PTSD symptoms in U.S. veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA says complementary and alternative medicine such as meditation, acupuncture and yoga is most commonly used to help veterans manage stress and improve “general wellness,” and can be used to treat PTSD, depression, back pain and other ailments. However, a challenge remains in “sorting through popular claims about the effectiveness of therapies that have not been rigorously tested in formal research,” the VA says.
Voss now teaches veterans breathing techniques and meditation. He also believes that service members could benefit from using breath work and meditation while on overseas deployment.
“When you come back from a mission you can do these breathing techniques within a half hour to help manage the stress and bring a lot of mental clarity,” he says. “When they get back from deployment, these breathing techniques are beneficial to help decompress from the overall experience.”
The meditation workshop in New York was held after the final screening of Almost Sunrise at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. It’s the second time the filmmakers have included meditation as an “immersive experience” at a festival; last month, the film played at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride, Colorado, and actors Aaron Paul and Sophia Bush were among those who attend the breathing session.
“One of my hopes of the film is that it will demystify meditation for the general public. This is not something that is strange, weird, Eastern,” says Michael Collins, the film’s director. “These are really effective, powerful techniques for everybody.”
Survivors of non-combat PTSD can also benefit from meditation and breathing techniques, says Moore. In addition, rape survivors and people recovering from traumatic injuries have attended a civilian version of the Power Breath workshop, and, when there are enough women, there is a course just for female veterans. For Voss, using breathing techniques to help heal his moral trauma was life-changing, resulting in “a tremendous shift, a complete shift.”
“I never thought I’d be this relaxed or happy,” says Voss. “I never thought this was possible.”
Almost Sunrise will show on the PBS documentary service POV in spring 2017. For veterans in crisis and those concerned about a veteran, help can be reached at the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. Both services have online chat options.