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|Subject: NYT: For Women Who Saw Combat, a Place to Find Inner Peace Mon Jun 30, 2014 9:15 am|| |
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For Women Who Saw Combat, a Place to Find Inner Piece
JAMESBURG, Calif. — As Melannie Lovercheck was packing last Saturday for her week away from home, she reached into a closet, knelt beneath her Navy lieutenant’s uniform on its hanger and grabbed a pair of black Crocs. The choice seemed logical enough. Where she was going, she would need some kind of waterproof footwear to get from her cabin to the shower room.
The next day, at a retreat for female military veterans at the Tassajara Zen Buddhist monastery here in Northern California, she put on those Crocs for the first time since Afghanistan. As she walked down a gravel path toward the retreat’s opening discussion, the memories started to flood her mind. The crunching sound, the feel of earth, the hollow knock of a bird’s bill against a tree trunk — they all made her think of Bagram Air Base coming under fire.
Instead of feeling calm or secure on a crystalline afternoon amid the remote beauty of the monastery, her pulse raced. Her eyes widened in scrutiny. She scanned the landscape of sandstone and sycamore for any abrupt movement, any sign of danger. Then she looked up at a tree, its leaves gently stirring, and caught herself.
“The sensation of being back there and being on high alert,” said Ms. Lovercheck, 34, a project manager who retired from the military in 2012. “It took me a few moments to realize I was here for a Zen retreat, to heal, to try to find my center of balance.
“There’s a lot of things I’m afraid of,” she continued. “That I might expose my fears. And that I might have to surrender to something greater than the sense of control I’ve maintained. Now I’m fearfully approaching the light.”
On this particular Sunday afternoon, the light emanated from a meeting room in an outbuilding at the monastery, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Its wooden floors gleamed. Black cushions lined the perimeter. Along one wall was a small altar with a statue of Buddha, a stick of incense and a small bowl of flower petals.
Two graying women — Chris Fortin, a Zen priest, and Lee Klinger Lesser, a Zen adherent who teaches a related discipline called sensory awareness — sat cross-legged beside the altar. Together they had founded and developed this program for veterans, and despite the Buddhist teachings of pacifism, they had titled it “Honoring the Path of the Warrior.” This annual retreat was the fourth one specifically for women.
Ms. Lovercheck joined 19 other veterans in the room. Some, already familiar with Zen practice, easily folded their limbs. Others awkwardly scrunched into position. Three were accompanied by service dogs. One kept on her sunglasses and baseball cap.
Over the next few hours, as the women introduced themselves, the air filled with biography and diagnosis. Army, Navy, National Guard, Coast Guard. Afghanistan, Iraq, Desert Storm. Depression, attempted suicide, sexual assault, PTSD. And also, as the women went on, a need to believe that the sacrifice had been worth it.
“I never wanted to take this country’s freedom for granted,” said Ms. Lovercheck, who had immigrated from the Philippines at age 7. “I wanted to know that I could make a difference. Even though I was opposed to this war, I’m a patriot.”
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This band of sisters could hardly have had two less likely guides. Ms. Lesser, 63, had performed street theater opposing the Vietnam War. Ms. Fortin, 64, was the daughter of a World War II veteran who, in her recollection, had suffused the household with silent rage. To the end of his life, he slept with his Army knife at his bedside.
Though both women had protested the Iraq war, its soldiers were peers of their own children. So, in 2008, they decided to offer a workshop for war veterans at the San Francisco Zen Center. Perhaps instruction in meditation and mindfulness could provide some relief, some solace.
Only two people showed up to that first session. Still, Ms. Fortin and Ms. Lesser persevered, holding three more sessions and passing the word through veterans’ advocacy groups. Attendance gradually increased, and the name of the program emerged. For when the two leaders asked the veterans what was most important to them, two words repeatedly came up: warrior and honor.
In 2009, Ms. Lesser met an Army veteran from the Persian Gulf war, Vanessa Meade. So strong was their instant bond that Ms. Lesser believed they surely had been friends in a previous incarnation. In this life, Ms. Meade helped Ms. Lesser grasp that while female veterans shared with male veterans the impact of combat, of taking life and of seeing life taken, many of the women had also been traumatized by sexual violence by the men who were supposed to be their comrades.
Starting in 2011, Ms. Lesser and Ms. Fortin led groups of female veterans to Tassajara. At the end of 13 miles of serpentine dirt road, on the far side of a 5,000-foot ridge, beyond the reach of cellphone and Wi-Fi signals, Tassajara afforded the physical isolation in which the leaders could teach meditation, reflection, attention to one’s very breathing. And with only women present for the discussions, the retreats provided a sanctuary for candor.
“These tools are for ‘How do you face suffering and how do you find joy?’ ” Ms. Lesser said. Added Ms. Fortin, “Our paradigm is to welcome people back to their own humanity.”
The recent six-day workshop included everything from unwinding in the Tassajara hot springs to making necklaces to engaging in the meditation known as zazen. Most of all, it involved women telling their truths.
At one point on the second afternoon of the retreat, Ms. Meade sat with an upturned military helmet in her lap and told the group that it had belonged to an Iraqi soldier, one of the prisoners of war she had guarded as a military police officer. She had brought it home as a conqueror’s booty, then had stuck it in a crawl space for years as her thoughts about war changed.
As she spoke, Ms. Meade reached into the helmet, which contained several snapshots. She displayed and explained each one. Her wearing camouflage, brandishing an M-16, smiling. A line of P.O.W.s in the desert. A helicopter full of them, bound for a prison camp in Kuwait.
“I was pretty much walking around in my own armored personnel carrier,” she said, referring to her mental state over the years. “And maybe some of you can relate to that.”
Another veteran, Ardrina Hoxey, tiptoed across the bare floor to sit beside Ms. Meade, to be her ballast.
“I’m not proud of a lot of the things that got done and how I treated people,” Ms. Meade said. “And I have to sit with that. I look at that 19-year-old person I was. I’m not that same person. But I still carry that with me.”
After Ms. Meade finished, the two leaders and the other 19 veterans each offered some words in response.
Ms. Lovercheck had been sitting in one corner of the room, almost hidden from sight. This was her first retreat. There was so much she had not revealed, could not yet bring herself to reveal. She poked her head out, turned her stricken face to Ms. Meade, and simply said, “You’re a model to follow.”