Inspired by one of the last surviving, decorated World War II fighter pilots, filmmaker David Lynch is teaming up with friends to launch "Operation Warrior Wellness," a meditation-based program to help veterans overcome stress-related disorders.
At the upcoming benefit Change Begins Within, Lynch will be joined by Clint Eastwood, Russell Simmons, Mehmet Oz, Russell Brand, Katy Perry, Donna Karan and others in support of a project to provide Transcendental Meditation instruction to 10,000 veterans and their families. The event will be December 13 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Thirty-five percent of U.S. soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 are said to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). David Lynch Foundation spokesman Robert Roth: "We believe Operation Warrior Wellness has great potential for treating PTSD by affecting the neurophysiology that underlies the disorder, eliminating rather than masking its symptoms."
The nonprofit program is being guided by a team of psychiatrists, PTSD researchers and medical school faculty across the country.
How Operation Warrior Wellness Began
Jerry Yellin of Hillside, New Jersey enlisted in the Army Air Corps on his eighteenth birthday -- February 15, 1942. He was trained to fly and then assigned to the 78th Fighter Squadron, which arrived at Iwo Jima on March 7, 1945. After landing his P-51 fighter plane on the island's dirt runway, Yellin saw mounds and mounds of Japanese bodies being pushed into mass graves, and hundreds of Marines awaiting identification and burial.
Yellin flew 19 long-range missions over Japan. He flew with eleven other young pilots who were killed in combat and five who were killed in training, all of them his friends.
He returned to New Jersey in December 1945, was given a physical and handed his discharge papers.
"I was unable to find any contentment or reason to succeed, and felt no connection to family or friends. The Army Air Corps had trained me to fly combat missions, but there was no training on how to fit into society when the war was over."
In those days, the anxiety, disconnect and depression commonly experienced by veterans was dismissed as "battle fatigue" or loosely labeled "shell shock." "Every soldier who's been in combat lives with his memories and suffers silently," says Yellin. "That condition is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder."
Yellin's unspoken agitation lasted decades -- until he discovered meditation.
"After a few weeks of twice-daily practice, my attitude began to change. It was the beginning of a metamorphosis. The anger and restlessness began to dissipate. A calmness I'd never known became apparent -- not only to me but my family as well."
Yellin felt that Transcendental Meditation saved his life. Enlisting the help of other meditating veterans, including an Army surgeon who served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and a retired Marine with 28 years of service, Yellin joined forces with the David Lynch Foundation to create Operation Warrior Wellness.
"We are in crisis mode"
Although PTSD is associated mostly with combat-frayed veterans, experts say that any high-stress experience or trauma can trigger the disorder. Ten percent of Americans will experience PTSD in their lifetime -- and women are twice more susceptible than men.
According to researchers, people with PTSD exhibit over-arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (exaggerated flight or flight response). Symptoms include anxiety, hyper-vigilance, heightened startle response, nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, anger and withdrawal.
The Veterans Administration says half of all veterans with PTSD have never sought help; of those who do, half receive inadequate treatment. Everyday in the U.S., 18 veterans commit suicide -- and more die from stress-driven, high-risk behavior such as overdose or drunk driving. We are losing more veterans to trauma-related causes than we are losing soldiers in battle.
"Drugs are costly and don't provide a cure," says Yellin. "Mental health professionals provide excellent care but it depends on complete cooperation from the patient and takes a long, long time. Sufferers of PTSD, and their loved ones, do not have that time. America does not have that time. We are in crisis mode."
Overcoming PTSD: Is meditation the answer?
Norman Rosenthal, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University is enthusiastic about using Transcendental Meditation to treat PTSD: "There are many studies showing that TM sooths overactive fight or flight responses. TM is a logical treatment for this condition."
In a study published in Journal of Counseling and Development, veterans suffering from PTSD who practiced the TM technique showed significant reductions in depression, anxiety and family problems after four months, in contrast to veterans randomly assigned psychotherapy.
"Transcendental Meditation isn't introspection or reliving the past," says Roth. "You transcend thinking and enjoy deep, coherent rest, which helps heal the physiological seat of stress. Neuroscientists say that TM restores communication among different areas of the brain -- reconnecting the parts that were stunned by trauma."
Former president of the Psychiatric Association of Virginia, psychiatrist James Krag: "Research shows that Transcendental Meditation not only reduces symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, it directly affects the neurobiological aspects of PTSD, resulting in more balanced serotonin and norepinephrine, regulation of the sympathetic nervous system and more coherent, integrated brain function."
Change Begins Within
At a historic benefit concert in 2009, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Jerry Seinfeld and others launched the Foundation's "Change Begins Within" outreach to teach meditation to at-risk youth. This year's benefit brings together celebrities, research scientists and philanthropists to support Operation Warrior Wellness.
Clint Eastwood is a supporter of veterans and longtime meditator. Russell Brand says meditation put a distance between himself and addiction. Russell Simmons sponsors Transcendental Meditation programs for the homeless and inner-city kids.
Yellin, now 86, is excited about the celebrity support, but somber about the cause: "Can we expect our veterans to return from the horrors of war and integrate into a normal life without something deep and meaningful to hold onto? This is a tool to help them help themselves, not for just a month or two but forever."
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