This week, I’ve been covering resources that help veterans recover from their injuries through the use of sports and physical activity. I’ve seen video of a young veteran, shot in the neck in Ramadi and paralyzed from the neck down, who has endured almost two years of physical therapy and can now walk again, skiing down the hill at full speed next to a fellow veteran, this one a double amputee as a result of a roadside bomb. I’ve read stories of veterans, who thought they had nothing else to live for, controlling their PTSD with surfing or sled hockey, and families honoring their veterans’ memories by creating opportunities for other veterans to work their way back to physical and mental wellness. In every instance, one word kept appearing – resiliency.
Resiliency is, most likely, not the first word that people think of when referring to veterans. It is not, probably, even the word most veterans would choose when describing themselves. It is there, however, and has been throughout our military service, disguised with phrases like “gut it out” and “suck it up,” which, on its surface, means “don’t complain” but really means “dig deep for the strength to keep going, no matter how bad things are.” While resiliency was key to us being able to grind out one more mile or one more mission, despite injury, fatigue, the tragic loss of a squad member, or other stressors, it is even more critical in veterans’ success in recovery and transition, largely because the veteran is often facing his/her most difficult challenge yet and doing so without a key advantage we all had on active duty – teammates.
To discuss how the concept of resiliency through physical activity has influenced her life, here is this week’s interviewee, Semper Sarah. If you’ve been following the blog, you know that a few weeks ago I had an interviewee cancel and, unable to find a fill-in, resorted to posting a link to a VetNetHQ video of Semper Sarah. Well, I happened to e-mail her that week and she graciously responded and agreed to my request for a “real” interview. Here is the transcript from that interview – note that, since she and I share the same name, I have used her “Semper Sarah” title for clarity’s sake:
Me: You are perhaps the true definition of a “Calamity Jane.” What kinds of challenges have you faced thus far in your life?
Semper Sarah: Well, you’re right, Sarah, my background includes a fair share of challenges. Born in Japan, I’ve moved more than 30 times in my 32 years, been hit by a car, struck by lightning, broken both arms and legs, had a breast tumor removed, had a mini-stroke, deployed to Iraq twice during my military career, suffered more than a dozen concussions, sporadically battle with scoliosis, arthritis, and PTSD, and am a Military Sexual Trauma (MST) survivor.
Me: Despite all of these challenges, you are an incredibly optimistic and active person, doing everything from Gaelic football to bungee jumping to yoga. Your participation in these activities hasn’t just been for fitness purposes. In fact, you’ve stated on several occasions that yoga “saved [your] life.” What makes you say that?
Semper Sarah: Yup, all that being said about the challenges and obstacles I’ve faced, I’ve also had my share of adventures! I’ve traveled to over 40 countries, completed several local and cross country solo flights (all by the age of 22), served as an Intelligence Officer in the United States Marine Corps, performed volunteer work in the Middle East, Europe, and US, have captained and played on the CISM (aka: Military Olympics) Women’s Soccer Team for five years, am a member of the United States Australian Rules Football League (USAFL) 4x National Champion Teams of the Denver Bulldogs, and in 2012 played for the USA Freedom (the US National Team for USAFL). Every day of my life I do at least one of the following: play soccer, Gaelic Football, Aussie Footy, hike, run, mountain bike, swim, meditate, or do yoga. That last one – yoga – is the real lifesaver because it provides a moving meditation to me. As much as I love the team sports and those [sic] social cohesion has been key to my healthy recovery in a larger sense, the yoga is what helps me keep my sanity, encourage functionality, and tap into something deeper within me that keeps me engaged with my life purpose.
Me: In your book, Just Roll With It!, you talk about refusing to have a “victim mentality” and instead adopting a “victor mindset.” For some veterans who may be struggling from PTSD, Military Sexual Trauma (MST), or physical ailments and injuries, how can participation in sports and physical activity help them achieve that mindset?
Semper Sarah: Well, regardless of our personality types, we are inherently social beings as humans. When we face PTS, we tend to isolate ourselves, only exacerbating our condition. Studies confirm what I’ve experienced – even when I feel like crap, if I get outside, get moving, and/or spend some time with friends, I feel better. Period. Finding the right balance of those three elements along with maintaining personal time to recharge is up to each person to find the joy in that journey.
Me: Can you remember when you decided to choose a “victor” over a “victim” mindset in your own life?
Semper Sarah: Yes, because I definitely didn’t feel that power of choice for probably a couple years or more after [the rape] happened. Granted, I was ensconced in an institution (the Marine Corps) that paralyzed my ability to choose most things, but I began to see beyond it eventually. I’ve had a series of epiphanies when dealing with the PTSD from the rape, but the most poignant one came when I was in Iraq the second time and one morning I realized that yoga was saving my life. The days I got on the mat, I could actually breathe. Even if it was only for a few minutes at a time, because the rest of the time I literally felt suffocated. I was also blessed with a few very important and perfectly, God-placed people in my life at that time, too, (two Navy doctors and a best friend) which no doubt was key to my survival as well.
Me: You’ve created several venues that are designed to help attendees make a similar kind of choice in their own lives. If a veteran wanted to attend one of your Just Roll With It™ Wellness Bootcamps or Yoga & Adventure Retreats, what could they expect?
Semper Sarah: They could expect to have fun, first and foremost! J Then, they can expect to get a generous discount – for our JRWI™ Bootcamps, vets and dependents pay half price, for our retreats they get $150 off. Also, whether at the one-day Bootcamp seminar or on the week long retreat, they will meet amazing people (not just us teachers leading the seminar but their fellow students 😉 ), to do yoga and also learn how to take that yoga home with them and apply it in a way that mitigates stress and builds resiliency. They’ll also learn how to move more efficiently, how to eat more effectively, and what exactly is happening to them on a physical and mental level when too much stress or trauma accumulates within them. With humor, movement, and education, we empower people to live an engaged, healthy lifestyle.
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