Written by Daniel P. Finney for the Des Moines Register
Luke Jensen was in bad shape when Jerry Yellin reached out to him last year.
Jensen, a 32-year-old U.S. Army Reserve veteran of the Afghanistan war, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He yelled at his wife and two daughters. He stormed about his Colo home. He rarely slept. He drank until he passed out. He overdosed on his anti-anxiety medication. One dark night, in front of his youngest daughter and wife, he held a loaded gun up to his head.
“I thought about suicide on a daily basis,” Jensen said. “It was that bad.”
Also an Army veteran, Yellin contacted Jensen after reading a profile in The Des Moines Register last year detailing Jensen’s struggles.
Yellin, a New Jersey native who lives in Fairfield, told Jensen he felt the same way after his World War II service. Yellin, 88, had lived with suicidal thoughts and anhedonia — an inability to experience pleasure from usually enjoyable activities — for 30 years until he and his wife, Helene, discovered Transcendental Meditation.
“I read that story and I knew I had to get to Luke,” Yellin said. “I don’t want anyone to live with the hell I did for 30 days let alone 30 years. I believed I could help.”
The pair seek to bring their message to more veterans Saturday in Fairfield. Both will speak at “Healing the Hidden Wounds of War” at 2 p.m. at the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center. The seminar is free. Scholarships also will be awarded free of charge to veterans and their spouses to learn the technique and practice it for six months.
The event is sponsored by Operation Warrior Wellness, which promotes Transcendental Meditation to veterans struggling with their experiences in war. Operation Warrior Wellness is sponsored by filmmaker David Lynch, known for the TV series “Twin Peaks” and “The Straight Story,” a film about a man’s journey from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his estranged brother.
Transcendental Meditation is based on an Indian philosophy that trains the mind and consciousness to realize a benefit by focusing on a mantra, a meaningless word that helps bring about calm and reduce stress. The technique dates back more than 5,000 years, but it became especially popular in the U.S. during the 1960s when championed by charismatic guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Iowa and meditation have a long history. Followers established the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield in 1974, considered the world’s largest training center for the technique.
The U.S. Department of Defense does not specifically offer meditation technique, though officials are not opposed to the practice as a way to mitigate PTSD and other war-related disorders.
“When you’re talking about PTSD, it is a toolbox issue,” said Col. Greg Hapgood, spokesman for the Iowa National Guard. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution. We wouldn’t discourage veterans from informally reaching out to anything that some have found to be a positive.”
Some skeptics dismiss the technique as hokum, but Yellin and Jensen believe their meditation has alleviated years of struggles. Yellin got into the technique after his wife, Helene, saw the Maharishi on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1975. The couple lived in Florida at the time and called a local Transcendental Meditation teacher.
“After the war, I lived my life without purpose,” Jerry Yellin said. “As a fighter pilot, I had purpose. I came home. I got married. I had four sons. I was a father in presence. I was a husband in presence. But I had no purpose.”
In the years after the war, Yellin struggled to work. He held as many as 30 jobs. He worked for his wife’s father several times. His office was in a nine-story building and he often thought about jumping to his death.
“I loved my children and I loved my wife, so I didn’t,” he said. “But I thought about it a lot.”
The meditation, Yellin said, helped him process decades-old memories from the war. He flew strafing runs to support U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima, where 7,000 Marines and 21,000 Japanese soldiers died.
“The Marine mortuary was right behind our station,” Yellin recalled. “I saw hundreds upon hundreds of bodies being buried. I saw thousands of Japanese dead being pushed into mass graves.”
He carried a hatred for the Japanese people until 1988, when one of his sons married the daughter of a former Japanese Zero pilot. The meditation helped him make peace with his memories and become a better husband, father and now grandfather, he says.
Oddly, Yellin said the feeling he gets when he meditates is similar to the feeling he got when he flew fighter planes.
“It’s a warrior’s technique,” he said. “When you go to battle, you’re in the zone. I became the airplane. I can tell you how many aircraft I shot down. I can remember the aftereffects of what I did, but I can’t remember what I did to make that happen. You become one with the moment.”
The same warrior’s technique also helped Jensen make his peace. He and his wife, Abi, both practice. After returning from service, he couldn’t sleep despite a regimen of pills specifically prescribed to make him drowsy.
After his first session, Jensen slept better than he had before the war. He felt “a great weight lifted off my shoulders. It really made me a better person in every conceivable way.”
Both Jensen and Yellin acknowledge some skeptics doubt Transcendental Meditation. Some worry the practice will interfere with their religion. Yellin, however, said his meditation makes him a better Christian.
“This is not psychology,” Yellin said. “This is not religion. It’s a healing practice. If you served your country in war and you’re suffering, it’s worth a try.”
For more information on Operation Warrior Wellness, visit iowaveterans.eventbrite.com.
David J Gudenkauf· Top Commenter
Great article! Keep writing about these veterans returning back from combat zones and how difficult it is to transition into a normal lifestyle. Once you keep raising awareness, the “Investment” will be forced on politicians to continue the promises of CARE they are planning to cut from these traumatized citizens. Ask those people in that Aurora theater how long it will take to recover from the incident of that gun fight and you can get a basic understanding of a veteran leaving a normal family and spending a YEAR’s worth of those days living like that and then being expected to act “normally” like nothing happened. Then when they need help, a government tells them that they should look elsewhere because it is not in the defense funds anymore (even though they put them there in the first place).
Additional News Coverage: WHO TV 13: WARRIOR WELLNESS: Healing Hidden Wounds | Fairfield Ledger cover article by Diane Vance: Combat stress subject of public forum Saturday | Veterans speak out on post-traumatic stress, offer a proven way to heal PTSD | Story County Veteran Once Suicidal Finds Relief from PTSD with Transcendental Meditation: AmesPatch article by Jessica Miller | Healing the Hidden Wounds of War: open forum for Iowa veterans and their families affected by PTSD, sponsored by Operation Warrior Wellness | TM Blog: “TM saved my life”—Suicidal Afghanistan war veteran who suffered from PTSD
Tags: Afghanistan War, Center for Brain Consciousness and Cognition, Des Moines Register, Fairfield Arts & Convention Center, Fred Travis, Jerry Yellin, Luke Jensen, Maharishi University of Management, military, military suicides, Operation Warrior Wellness, PTS, PTSD, Story County Veteran Affairs Office, suicide, TM, Transcendental Meditation