"The True Cost of Our Wars," my last column for this publication, presented the staggering numbers of service members who will need mental health care. If the Veterans Administration is already overwhelmed, how will these veterans recover from their trauma?
Our society needs to step up to the plate to make available the expertise and wisdom we have amongst us to help these women and men. An example of such a resource is the community of practitioners of transcendental meditation, which has enabled many veterans to heal from their invisible wounds.
One such veteran is Jerry Yellin, a veteran of World War II. I would like to present his story, which much more eloquently than I could describes how transcendental meditation provided the relief from his trauma and the recovery of his spirit.
"I am writing this as an 87-year-old veteran of World War II, who became a fighter pilot at the age of 19 in August 1943. After graduation from Luke Field, with 10 hours in a P-40, I was sent overseas and joined the 78th Fighter Squadron at Haleiwa on Oahu, Hawaii. Though I could fly, I was in no way prepared for combat.
"It was an exhilarating time. I was part of a team, becoming more proficient, more daring, more confident and cockier with every flight. Any fears I might have had disappeared while I mastered every maneuver my airplane and I could perform. I became a fighter pilot ready to fight my enemy, the Japanese.
"In time we flew P-47's, then P-51's. I became an element leader and trained other pilots, who became permanent members of our squadron. On March 7, 1945 we flew from Saipan to a small island just 650 miles from Japan: Iwo Jima. Sixty-seven thousand American Marines and 23,000 Japanese defenders faced off on 8 square miles of black sand and swirling dirt. The Japanese were protecting a piece of their homeland and the Americans were fighting for a base for fighter planes and a landing area for damaged B-29's.
"As we taxied to our squadron area I saw mounds and mounds of dead Japanese being pushed into mass graves. The smell of death lingered on my flight suit. The sights and sounds and smell of battle remain fresh in my mind today, 66 years later. Twenty-eight thousand soldiers were killed on that small island -- 21,000 Japanese and 7,000 American Marines.
"Then on April 7, we flew our P-51 Mustangs on an 8-our mission to escort B-29's as they bombed Tokyo. I watched from 21,000 feet as little fires became bigger fires and square miles of the city burned. Not once did I think there were people on the ground. This was what we were trained to do, what we did eagerly. It was exhilarating to be flying in combat and doing my job. I was 21 years old and fulfilling my mission as an American fighting for his country. Every time I flew, I became my airplane. It was an experience I loved and never forgot.
"Sixteen of the men I flew with were killed. I never cried or even felt sad at their memorial services. Our last mission was on August 14, 1945, the day the war ended. It was over, and I came home. No airplane, no mission, no buddies. The highs of war became the lows of my life. I thought about my friends who didn't come back. I didn't have any goals. I needed something to do that would take me away from myself. I found an addiction that gave me some satisfaction -- golf, addictive golf, six hours a day, 3-4 days a week, 12 months a year.
"Even though I had a loving, caring wife and four sons, I couldn't hold a job. We moved a lot. My wife suffered terribly, and I never thought there was anything wrong with me. I was told I had battle fatigue, shell shock; forget it, the war is over. I couldn't forget it.
"Then in 1975 I learned Transcendental Meditation, and my life changed dramatically. In just a few months I became comfortable with myself, more settled, more responsible, more successful as a person and a wage earner. Our lives changed, all for the better.
"I was just one of 16 million Americans who served in World War II. Today, more than 2 million Americans who have served or are still serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many, like me, come home confused, unsettled. They have been or will be diagnosed with PTS.
"The numbers are staggering, hundreds of thousands of young people looking for something to help them return to civilian life and lead a normal life. The help they now receive is extremely expensive: Antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs cost $300 to $1,000 a month, some $15 billion dollars a year for the next 50-60 years. Many wait to hear about their claims to receive care. The VA hasn't enough psychologists.
"We can do better.
"Last year a young veteran friend of mine, a veteran of the Bosnia war, committed suicide. I knew him and his family. He was a normal guy when he went to war, married, two children, a good job, and a future. In Bosnia, on patrol, he spotted a sniper, got a bead on him and froze, just for an instance -- enough time for the sniper to shoot and kill his best friend, his buddy, who was standing next to him. Then he shot and killed the sniper.
"When he returned home he started to drink, did drugs, dealt drugs. Divorced 10 years after he came home, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
"Many people think transcendental meditation is a religion, a philosophy or a cult. They are wrong. Meditating is not about what you think. It is about how the brain functions. What you think and believe is not affected by how you think when you do TM. All of us have the ability to sit quietly for 20 minutes a day, twice a day, repeating a word, a mantra that has no meaning and allows our brain to settle into a deeper level of consciousness, our bodies into a quiet rest that relieves stress. And our veterans are stressed out.
To that end we have started Operation Warrior Wellness, a division of the David Lynch Foundation. On Dec. 3, 2011, we will be having a fundraising event at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, featuring Ellen DeGeneres, Russell Brand, Russell Simmons and David Lynch, all whom use TM in their lives. The funds raised will be used to teach transcendental meditation to veterans and their families and deserving young people. With the help of our fellow citizens, we can teach TM to thousands of veterans and help them to help themselves return to a normal life.
"Please visit the web site to learn more: www.operationwarriorwellness.org."