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Friday, December 19, 2014

Dr. Pegs Prescription

Free mindfulness retreat being offered to student veterans

I have a soft spot in my heart for veterans, and it isn’t just because they call me “ma’am.” There are many reasons, but one might be because it is thanks to the resilience of a military man that I even exist today.

My great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. In the course of a battle, he took a bullet to the head. Along with the other wounded, he was hauled back from the front lines and laid in the dirt for disposition. As my grandmother told it, medics and officers walked up and down the line of bandaged and bloody men, making impossibly difficult decisions.

Injuries were numerous and resources were limited. They had to determine which men were likely to recover with treatment, and which were too grievously injured to survive. In other words, they decided who to transport to the field hospital and who to leave in place, most likely to die.

The story goes that when they came to my great-great-grandfather they looked him over, sizing up his wounds, and then the officer said to the medic, “Well, I wouldn’t give much for that man’s head.” My ancestor cracked open his one un-bandaged eye, raised his bloody head and said, “Sir, it’s not for sale.” They laughed, put him on a stretcher and sent him to the hospital tent. He was patched up and sent home, where he went on to procreate and so on and so on and here I am. Way to be tough, great-great-grandpa!

There are about 22 million veterans of the armed services living in the U.S. today. These folks are spread out all over the country. California, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania each have over a million veterans. The other states have fewer. New Mexico is home to 175,000 ex-military men and women. That is almost 9% of our population, meaning one in eleven New Mexicans has spent time in military service.

Let me bring this even closer to home. Right here at UNM we have over a thousand veterans attending school. CNM has close to the same. That means if you are reading this, chances are high that either you are a veteran or you have veterans in your classes.

Our student veterans are as diverse in many ways as the rest of the student body, but they also share common experiences.

Experiences, in some cases, that they don’t want to talk about, at least not with civilians.

This is understandable, and a pattern with veterans historically. It is as difficult for a civilian to truly understand military life as it is for a man to understand giving birth, or for a young person to comprehend living in an old body.

Everyone wants to connect with others like themselves, yet it can be hard for veterans to find each other once they leave the intensive community of the military, where the unit is your family and you hold your buddy’s life above your own.

UNM does a much better job than many universities with providing services to veterans and helping them make the difficult transition from military to campus life. One unique opportunity is coming up this month.

UNM Student Health and Counseling, in partnership with Vallecitos Mountain Ranch and UNM Veterans Resource Center, is offering a 3-day retreat for students who are veterans. This weekend getaway is free, thanks to generous private donors, and there are still open spots available. Read on.

From Sept. 20-23 a group of students and staff will gather at the beautiful and remote Vallecitos Mountain Ranch, a nonprofit wilderness learning and retreat center.

The weekend will balance small group discussions, where veterans can hear and support each other, while soaking up nature and training in mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” These are the words of Jonathan Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the technique of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Practically speaking, mindfulness uses meditation that focuses on the body, usually the breath, to bring peace to the mind. 

If this sounds like New-Age fluff to you, consider this: The military is already using mindfulness to train their personnel.

The Army has been doing it since 2010, and the Marine Corps have started it this year. Why? Because it works. As military leaders expand their focus to include mental fitness as well as physical fitness, they look for methods that are effective to train better and healthier soldiers. Mindfulness is one of those methods.

People trained in mindfulness experience less stress. It works for soldiers, for veterans, for anyone.

Grove Burnett, founder of Vallecitos Mountain Ranch, is a nationally renowned mindfulness teacher, whose trainings and retreats have changed many lives. He too has a soft spot for veterans, as his own brother fought in Vietnam. Burnett will be donating his time and expertise to our student veterans.

Other retreat staff include Stephanie McIver, PhD, Head of Counseling Services at SHAC and former Military Family Life Consultant, Ray Mitchell, licensed counselor at SHAC, Fred Griesbacher, a licensed counselor and Vietnam veteran, and myself, staff physician at SHAC, mindfulness meditator and great-great-granddaughter of a strong-minded soldier.

Student veterans who would like to participate in this unique opportunity should call 277-7965 or email pspencer@unm.edu.

Dr. Peggy Spencer is a physician at Student Health and Counseling. She is also co-author of the book “50 Ways to Leave Your 40s.” Email your questions directly to her at pspencer@unm.edu. All questions will be considered, and all questioners will remain anonymous.