Saturday, August 20, 2011
Healing The Wounds of War
Last weekend, I met eleven men.
They were on a retreat with the Wounded Warrior Project out of Jacksonville. The project was established to assist veterans wounded in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq adjust to coming home and transitioning into civilian life.
After dodging bombs and bullets on a battlefield for months on end, the body learns to respond with adrenaline in a constant mode of fight or flight. These are the unseen wounds of war and are all tied into the mental scars from seeing death and destruction up close and personal. And there are the visible scars: lost limbs, massive burn marks, and the remaining signs of an incision made to remove debris and stitch-up the gashes in the flesh.
What the body absorbs affects the mind and the soul of the person. This is the truth that all massage therapists know. And this is why I went to meet these eleven men.
The setting was the calm and quiet environment of Camp Weed, the church camp for the Episcopal Diocese of Florida. Me and the other massage therapist were assigned to rooms that had a view of what looked like a prairie of grass.
I only had a half-hour to work with each guy, a definite challenge for me as I usually like to spend some time talking with clients before we head to the table. So, the intake time was shortened to a smile and a handshake, and a brief exchange to find out what part of their body bothered them the most.
One man, who I will call Ted, had a cheerful personality. He smiled big and was looking forward to the idea of a massage. I asked Ted where he'd most like for me to work.
"My shoulders. They're always tight, or at least that's what I got told last time. They just stay tight."
"So, you carry the world on your shoulders."
"Yeah, I was a grunt, so I guess that's true."
He really did carry the world, and the war, on his shoulders. They were rock hard like a couple of boulders keeping his head in place. I had to encourage him to let his head fall back into my hands.
"I promise, I won't let you lose your head," I said with a smile. He chuckled and slowly let go.
I was only half-joking. As bouncy and happy as this soldier was, his body still spoke of the need to stay ready for action. In war, he wasn't allow to lose his head. And in massage, I assured him, his head was safe in my hands.
Gradually, I felt the connective tissue at his occipital ridge melt into my fingers and the muscles in his neck relaxed. His body could trust he was really safe.
As I looked into the faces of the men like Ted, I saw their youthfulness. Their outward appearances, tattooed and tough looking, gradually softened with the lengthening and stretching of their muscles. As their faces relaxed, I was struck by how young some of them were. Some of them looked like teenagers with facial hair. In the moments between appointments, I couldn't help but reflect on the war and the men and women we send into combat. Most of them were born when I was in high school. And so many of them have not survived. More than 6,000 servicemembers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ones I was seeing today bore tattoos of the Fallen Soldier to remind them of the ones who had died on the battlefield.
Some of the men who had never had a massage before smiled sweetly at the end of their sessions. One young man, I'll call him Tom, was so quiet and he looked at the massage table as if I were going to be doing a mad scientist routine with him. Picking up on his angst, I took time to let him know exactly what I would be doing and why. I asked him to take off his shoes and his cap, and start by lying on his back. Nothing more got exchanged between us but the change in his body was again evident in his face and his shoulders. This very reticent recipient of massage flashed a shy grin. He shook my hand not once, but twice, thanking me and thanking me again.
A few wanted to know if I was connected with the Episcopal Church, the ones running the retreat for the warriors.
"Yes, I am."
It was one time I can say for sure that I felt the Church was doing something right. And I was happy to be using my gifts to contribute to the healing of these wounded men.