A Veteran’s Story of Letting Go and Finding A Fresh Start

I had the opportunity to tell A Veteran’s Story on a National Conference Call with VA Medical Center Directors and Chiefs of Staff.  This portion of the call was sponsored by the VA Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation.  Here’s the text of the call:

Laura Krejci, Associate Director, Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation:   Today we have a poignant story to share that illustrates how we can support Veterans in their journey to recovery through a personalized, whole health approach.   The Washington DC VA Medical Center is one of our Patient Centered Care Centers of Innovation and one of the VA’s three War Related Injury and Illness Study Centers is located there. Their leaders have worked together to develop a whole health approach to care which includes the creation of an Integrative Health and Wellness Program. To support patients with an interest, providers refer patients to the Integrative Health and Wellness Program where they receive an assessment and an orientation to both clinical Integrative Health approaches as well as self-care strategies that they can take advantage of to enhance their health and well-being.

Alaine Duncan is on the call with us today to share a story of one Veteran who has experienced healing in his life through the support of Alaine and his team and his own commitment to overcoming the impact of his service.

Alaine is a charter member of the DC WRIISC Integrative Health & Wellness Program and she is an acupuncture clinician, researcher and educator. She has served on research teams evaluating acupuncture for the treatment of chronic headaches after traumatic brain injuries; for PTSD‐related insomnia; for compassion fatigue in military caregivers; for Gulf War Veterans Illness; and for PTSD.

Alaine Duncan: As Laura said, at the DC VA’s Integrative Health & Wellness Program, we’re working on a whole-person approach to care for Veterans. One popular service is acupuncture.

One Veteran we served, we’ll call him “Scott”, was referred by a VA provider who thought acupuncture might support his health and wellbeing.   We acupuncturists strive to treat the whole person – their mind, body and spirit, and Scott’s story illustrates this principle well.

Scott grew up wanting to be an Army man. He played Army as a boy and couldn’t wait to grow up for the real thing. Finally, his turn came in the Marines during the battle of Faluja. Scott had a unique position. As a Marine Corps Historian, he interviewed every Marine who served in Faluja. He came home in 2006. He came in to see me in 2011. His summation, then 5 years after coming home, “It was a priesthood” and, “I’d never do it again”.

He spent those first years back mentally tormented, drunk, isolated and sleepless. His 13-year marriage was at risk and he was barely functioning in any domain of his life.

After he had been in acupuncture treatment with me for 6 months or so – the big, heavy, red rucksack that was the metaphor in his mind’s eye for all those stories he heard and carried home from Iraq, had transformed to a much smaller, though still red, cloth grocery bag. It was with him all the time and he didn’t expect it to ever leave him. He used it as a place to put the anxiety or flashbacks that sometimes showed up in a crowd or on the highway. It’s bulky, he would say “But I can carry it. I can manage it.”

That December he was in the sword ceremony at a friends wedding. He put his uniform on for the first time in 3 years. He knew two things – he is well decorated, his contributions had been well acknowledged — all the medals and decorations on his uniform were impressive. He worked hard and went through a lot to get them – and “they are not me anymore”.

I ask him, “Which was harder, earning the medal that you are the proudest of receiving– or all the work you’ve done since you got home to truly get home?  He sat for long time, very thoughtfully, and finally said . . . “Definitely the work since I got home”.

Then I ask, “If you had a medal for this healing journey, what suit of clothes would it belong on?” He looks at me very thoughtfully, and quietly says, “It would be a small lapel pin on my blazer.” We sit together, silently, for a long time.

I break the silence, asking, “I wonder — do you need to find a jeweler who can make it for you?” “I am one. I just designed it.” He says

I knew he was going to “make it” when he told me he’d quit drinking and that after 5 years of nightly nightmares, he was able to fall asleep without being afraid of what might come in the night. He told me, “I want to be with people. Two years ago, I couldn’t manage people – they were a pain in the neck. I didn’t know how to relate to them. Now I want to be a part of things. I even want to have kids now, I want to be a Dad – I think I could be a good one. It’s been a journey to joy – I’m getting there now.”

He had started having dreams about Iraq that weren’t nightmares. He’s not in uniform, there is no battle and there is no “charge” to the dream.

He came back for a “tune up” in 2013. He had packed all the records from his time in Fallujah – the largest collection of unclassified documents in the Marine Corps relative to Fallujah. They are ready to go up to his attic. He could put them away.

In the metaphors of Chinese Medicine, Scott’s lung and colon meridians were back functioning for him. He was able to take a fresh breath of life, know his value and the value of his contributions —and he could let go of what was no longer useful or helpful. He had found a new beginning for his life.

Alaine Duncan, M.Ac., L.Ac., Dipl.Ac. Washington DC VAMC War Related Illness & Injury Study Center

Ms. Duncan received her Acupuncture Master’s Degree from the Maryland University of Integrative Health in 1990. She has a rich appreciation for acupuncture’s interface with the neurophysiology of traumatic stress, and a heart‐felt concern for Military Families. With the support of the DC VAMC Integrative Health & Wellness Program, she is teaching her integration of Chinese Medicine and the neurobiology of traumatic stress, Restoration & Balance: Chinese Medicine’s Gift to Survivors of Trauma at the DC VAMC.

Alaine DuncanA Veteran’s Story of Letting Go and Finding A Fresh Start

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