BOSTON — It was three months into the first deployment of the Army Reserves to Saudi Arabia and the troops were still acclimating when a Scud attack came and changed one enlisted soldier’s life forever.
Maj. Sue Lynch was 20 at the time the Scud, a tactical ballistic missile, hit her compound during the Gulf War. When the missile hit she couldn’t move, frozen in the shock of the event.
“I shut down, I went completely numb,” Lynch said.
In the event of a Scud attack, soldiers are ordered to get into chemical suits for protection, but Lynch was unable to move. A fellow soldier was able to get Lynch to safety but the attack left Lynch scarred.
“You start to make jokes about it, you watch them from the rooftops like the 4th of July fireworks,” she said. “But when you come home it’s not so funny.”
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Lynch suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for nearly a decade, during which she sought psychotherapy and other conventional forms of therapy. Despite efforts to bury the memory of the attack, she still suffered from insomnia and flashbacks.
It wasn’t until Lynch found a yoga mat that she was able to overcome her symptoms.
“There was a connection through the breaths and movement, I was able to manage the symptoms,” she said.
Today Lynch is executive director and founder of There and Back Again in Charlestown, Mass., a wellness reintegration program for combat veterans suffering from PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). The program helps veterans overcome their symptoms through yoga.
“It’s empowering veterans to take charge in their reintegration … As soldiers we’re told what to do and that someone superior always knows better,” Lynch said. “With alternative practices you know what to do and you know better.”
Many of the veterans who attend sessions at There and Back Again served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Lynch says that more men than women attend the sessions and she serves primarily Marines and Army 11-B’s, or infantry.
Lynch, who is now a trial defense attorney for the Army Reserve’s 3rd LSO (Legal Support Organization), was an enlisted soldier in a JAG unit for 14 years. She says her experience as an enlisted soldier gives her a unique bond with many of the veterans that come for yoga.
Lynch said that with PTSD she felt like she was “just existing.” She tries to get the veterans to understand that what they experience in when deployed is a “normal phenomenon” but when they come home they need to re-focus their mission on self care.
“They can get to a point when they know what coping skills will help them ‘navigate life after war’ without excessive use of medication.”
Since 2001 over 2 million U.S. troops have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly one third of them have been formally diagnosed with PTSD and 300,000 suffer from major depression, according to a study by the Rand Corporation.
What these numbers don’t represent is the alarming amount of veterans who do not report their symptoms. Lynch said there is a stigma in the military attached to admitting psychological problems and that harassment is a big problem for those who do.
“I didn’t want to own up to it because I knew it would impact my career progression in the Army,” she said.
Lynch has never formally reported that she had PTSD but has been a strong advocate for seeking help through the Yellow Ribbon Program. Lynch briefs reservists before and post deployment on the effects of war and how to transition back into civilian life.
Studies have shown deployments to be particularly difficult on reservists and Lynch believes it is because they do not have the same level of training as active duty since they are not retuning to a post. There is also a lack of support for returning combat soldiers.
“We don’t have the same support because we don’t go home to a post,” she said. “In my civilian life no one in my circle is military … people are interested but they don’t understand.”
Dr. Erin Finley, author of “Fields of Combat: Understanding PTSD among Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan,” has interviewed dozens of soldiers returning from the Middle East, some with PTSD and others without.
“We cannot paint all veterans with a broad brush,” she said. “Everybody’s experience is unique, you have folks who really struggle, [and] you have folks who really make it look very easy.”
Dr. Finley also said that because there are so many unique experiences it’s hard to develop a universal therapy for reintegration.
“There is a period of readjustment, it takes a while to feel like home is normal again because normal has been very different for a long time.”
In her post-deployment briefings, Lynch tries to get troops to realize that what they are experiencing is in fact normal and that they need to take out what she refers to as the “I’m not crazy factor.”
“There’s no need for veterans to try to navigate on your own … alternative therapy can give you peace of mind now.”