The article below was written by Mark Newman and published in the Ottumwa Courier in southeast Iowa on July 30, 2012.
FAIRFIELD, IOWA Military police sergeants, civilian police officers and SWAT team members are all supposed to be tough. Luke Jensen was all three, so when the stress of combat began eating away at him, he felt so ashamed, he wanted to die.
Meditation helped correct that desire — and he believes it could help other soldiers and veterans.
Jensen was asked by Operation Warrior Wellness to speak about his experiences with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during a presentation Saturday on PTSD, the military and the advantages of Transcendental Meditation.
“The medical [tents] in Afghanistan were for 10th Mountain Division soldiers who’d been wounded in combat,” said the Nevada, Iowa man.
How could he possibly walk into that tent and tell a medic that he was sad?
He told the Fairfield audience that his base was hit their first night there. Gunshots, explosions and outgoing fire were nearly constant. And the things he saw around him were worse than he felt he could handle.
He couldn’t sleep, he was having panic attacks and in addition to worrying about himself, the staff sergeant had his men to lead.
“I thought I was tough,” he said.
But in a combat zone, his world was out of control. When sent to investigate a report of a little Afghani girl struck by a U.S. vehicle, he found the child dead near the road.
The upset family came to claim her. Jensen contacted the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division then kept people from walking onto the death scene. He had no translator. The locals were getting angrier and more numerous, not understanding why this armed foreigner would want to keep the girl’s body from her family.
Later, someone — Jensen never found out who — ran over and killed a nearby U.S. serviceman.
His nerves couldn’t handle any more. As soon as he was able, he decided to take his sidearm and shoot himself dead. When health personnel he’d sought out heard about his attempt, he was evacuated — which made him feel as though he’d failed in his duty.
At least he could move on with his life. So why did he keep thinking the most logical step would be to take his own life — even when back in the U.S.? He still couldn’t sleep. He still had panic attacks. And he felt a deep sense of shame — especially because while on a U.S. base receiving medical care, he saw the other soldiers who had “real” injuries.
Dr. Fred Travis, a psychologist in Fairfield, said PTSD produces an injury as real as any wound. Travis is the director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management.
CAT scans of patients suffering from PTSD, he said, provide evidence that the brains of sufferers are different from those without PTSD. The effect is physical.
But Jensen didn’t know his brain was short circuited. He was taking medication for depression and anxiety, back in Iowa working in law enforcement. He still wanted to die.
When his police supervisors heard he was suicidal, they began proceedings to terminate him.
“Jerry Yellin saved my life,” Jensen said. Yellin was a World War II fighter pilot who went undiagnosed with PTSD for 30 years. Transcendental Meditation was what helped him find relaxation and peace. When he heard about the young soldier, he called him.
Yellin got support from the David Lynch Foundation in order to provide a sort of “scholarship” for Staff Sgt. Jensen and his wife to learn TM.
Jensen thought it’d be worth a try. He had recently made a suicide threat, loaded gun to his head in front of his wife and five-year-old daughter.
The trip to Fairfield was worth it, he said. He learned to find quiet in his mind, which allowed him to relax peacefully for the first time in a long time, he said.
Dr. Travis said what appears to be happening with PTSD is that in a combat zone, the mind naturally must be super vigilant. One needs to be able to see every danger, lock that sound or sight into the memory — and avoid it.
With PTSD, every similar noise or sight becomes a life-or-death situation. Memories of danger are “locked” into the brain. Worse, parts of the mind are set so that while the “problem-seeing” part of the brain is stuck in the on position, the “problem-solving” part of the brain is off. Desperation develops when all you see are problems — problems with no solution.
By meditating, TM practitioners are trained to go around that damaged part of the brain, Yellin said.
Travis said CAT scans show that, too. There is more blood flow to the frontal lobes and the portion of the brain that is generally considered to be “in charge.”
In a video about their situation, Jensen’s wife said TM saved her husband’s life. Yellin wants more soldiers to have that opportunity, and is working with the David Lynch Foundation as co-chair of Operation Warrior Wellness.
Like other parts of the body, the brain responds to exercise, becoming more resilient.
“If your frontal lobes are more developed, we believe you will be better able to deal with stressful situations,” said Travis.
Presenters said practitioners of meditation are also better able to separate the quiet of inner peace from traumatic situations in the outside world. The military is starting to take notice, as is the Veterans Administration.
Chris Busch, director of programs for the David Lynch Foundation, said the VA has commissioned two large studies to see if TM really shows results.
TM is not a replacement for traditional medicine, he said. It can be, however, one of the options doctors offer mental health patients on their way to recovery.
Yellin said Saturday’s event was the start to an effort to provide scholarships every veteran who needs TM.
For more information, visit www.operationwarriorwellness.org.
You can watch a Luke Jensen talking with NBC Channel 13 News in Des Moines Iowa about his experience with PTSD and the TM technique by clicking on the video below:
You can also read the Des Moines Register’s feature story about Luke Jensen’s battle with PTSD by clicking here.