In the early summer of 2013, I deployed to Afghanistan and worked for an Engineer Battalion as their Army Physician Assistant (PA). My job was to take care of the construction engineers and, alongside my team, I mostly attended to injuries they sustained on the job. However, one fateful day in June, there was an “insider attack” where one of our an Afghan counterparts attacked U.S. forces. Six Americans were shot that day as they walked out of a dining facility.
The casualties from the attack were evacuated to our location where my team and I provided immediate medical support. Within minutes, the Forward Surgical Team (FST) was full of doctors, PAs, nurses, and medics who sprang into action, ready to attend to our fellow service members.
I watched as the first two wounded service members were rolled in. They were actively receiving CPR, which is never a good sign ( it usually means the chance of survival is minimal). I remember looking out and noticing the third casualty had long dark hair. I initially thought it was either a Special Forces soldier or civilian contractor who grew his hair out beyond regulations. When the stretcher approached the hallway, I realized it was a female soldier. The flight surgeon informed the Brigade Surgeon she was deceased. The Brigade Surgeon looked at me and directed me to check her for signs of life; I remember feeling her carotid artery but finding no pulse.
In that moment, I had no idea how this female soldier was going to change the direction of my life.
There were three other casualties to tend to that day, all of whom sustained gunshot wounds to their limbs. Once the situation stabilized, one of the wounded lieutenants asked us to call his mom for him. I told the lieutenant it would be best for his mom to hear his voice, regardless if he was on morphine. He called and started to cry as he told his mom he had been shot.
As both a soldier and a mother, I related to this moment on many levels.
I wasn’t able to really think about what happened that day until I was back in my tent late that evening. When I did, I reflected on that fact that the female soldier killed in action could have been me. She was an officer, a female, and was doing support work, just like me. I always knew there was a chance it could happen to me. But as an Army PA, the majority of all combat- related injuries and deaths I witnessed were from soldiers out looking for the bad guys — not the those walking out of a meeting or leaving a dining facility inside a “friendly” operating base.
As the days and weeks went on, I could not stop thinking about the woman whose death I confirmed. Her name was LTC Jaimie Leonard, and the day she died, June 8th, 2013, changed my life forever. While still in Afghanistan, I spent quiet moments googling her name until her obituary came up. I eventually learned she was a 1997 West Point graduate and spent over 16 years as Military Intelligence Officer and that she was buried at West Point.
At the time she was killed, I still had four more months left in Afghanistan. Everyone was on high alert for other insider attacks. I kept replaying images in my mind, particularly of LTC Leonard lying on the gurney with her long hair. I had a hard time sleeping and experienced a lot of stress. I began to realize I might not be the type of person who can compartmentalize traumatic events like other health care providers. Insomnia and anxiety became a real issue for me. I practiced yoga prior to my deployment, but really only for physical fitness. During those final months of my deployment, I turned to yoga and meditation to calm my nervous system and find a sense of peace in the midst of a not-so-peaceful place. I downloaded meditation practices and yoga classes and did them on my own. This is what carried me through the rest of the deployment until I was safely home with my husband and two young children.
Because of my experiences in Afghanistan, my approach to military medicine and to my career as an Army PA shifted. Up to that point, I planned on becoming an Ortho PA. But after that deployment, I decided to turn my attention toward prevention, and what I could do to bring mind-body therapies into military communities. Upon my return to the states, I had the opportunity to go back to school. I earned my 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Certification and also attended a Warriors at Ease (WAE) training.
In addition, I recently earned my doctorate in Public Health from the University of Hawaii, where my research and dissertation focused on how yoga can reduce symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Post-9/11 veterans. The research I conducted as well as the six weekly veteran yoga classes I taught during my time on Oahu incorporated the guidelines from the WAE trauma-sensitive training. I look forward to having my research published so I can further share what I’ve learned about the powerful impact yoga can have on service members and veterans.
The gift of my traumatic experiences in Afghanistan was a new focus and purpose, and it all came full circle one day when I was talking to Susan Alden, a fellow Army veteran and the Executive Director of WAE. Though Susan and I had been collaborating with one another for some time, we never really shared deeply personal stories with one another. Then, one day, while preparing for an event where “the fallen” would be mentioned and honored, Susan started telling me about how her sister- in-arms, a West Point classmate and Army Crew teammate, had been killed in Afghanistan in 2013. It happened during a time when her husband, also a West Point classmate, was deployed there. In fact, he had witnessed their mutual friend’s dignified transfer out of the country, and soon thereafter Susan traveled back to West Point to see their classmate ultimately laid to rest. My heart began to race, and I asked for more details… where and when was the soldier killed, and this person’s name.
The soldier she was speaking of was indeed LTC Jaimie Leonard, whose lifeless body I encountered, whose image I replayed in my mind countless times, and whose obituary I searched for many times over. There was a surreal pause in our conversation when we realized the profound connection we had with one another.
In that moment, our connection was forged and we became even more determined to bring yoga and meditation to military installations and veteran communities. I am forever grateful for my experiences. Had it not been for the trauma I personally experienced in Afghanistan and my connection to LTC Leonard, I may have never pursued this healing path. I am a healthy and whole person because of yoga and meditation and empowered to bring this work to other warriors. I am grateful for Warriors at Ease. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of our service members, veterans, military families, and Gold Star Survivors.
Pictured above: Robin Cushing (left) and Susan Alden (right) with WWII Veteran, Eugenia Woodward, at the Oahu Women’s Veteran Conference in 2016.
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