Unmindful of veterans’ needs
In a conference room, on the second floor of the VA hospital in Jamaica Plain, Richard Jackson pushed an office chair out the door, into the hallway.
Moments later, he was back to grab another chair.
Then he started folding tables.
Richard Jackson is 70 years old, though he looks a lot younger. He is an old soldier, an Army combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and believe me when I tell you it is fairly ridiculous that someone like Jackson, who gave his country more than it could ever give him back, has to move furniture twice a week just so he and other vets can practice yoga.
Seven years ago, a woman started a yoga class at the VA in JP after seeing the traumatic stress her son had endured during his combat tour in Iraq. When she had to go to Puerto Rico for a while, the woman asked Felice Brenner if she could cover. Brenner, a former corporate headhunter who left the rat race to become a yoga instructor, was glad to fill in.
The day Brenner showed up at the hospital in JP, she found two vets waiting for her. The room was smack dab next to a smoking area. The floor was filthy.
Brenner sucked it up and soldiered on. The woman who started the class called from Puerto Rico and said she wasn’t coming back. Brenner went out and begged, borrowed, and practically stole to gather mats from other gyms. She used neckties as stretching bands.
Her friend, Noreen Brilliant, came on board and they taught the class twice a week. Brilliant taught Tuesdays. Brenner did Thursdays. They did all this, by the way, for nada, nothing, free of charge. They just wanted to help vets.
They had trouble landing a space for their class. Then they got moved around. They went a whole month without any place to hold the class. A kindly chaplain let them use the chapel, but by the time the class had grown to 15 vets, they had outgrown the space. People were bumping into each other when they did the warrior pose. Then the chapel was renovated and they got tossed out.
They eventually landed in the basement, but a few months ago Brilliant showed up to find that even that space was being used by someone else. They went up to the 10th floor. Then they got moved again.
They were about to throw in the towel. Or at least the mat. But they couldn’t bring themselves to do that because of the vets.
There was the World War II vet, in his late 80s, who started on a chair and eventually regained enough mobility to move to the floor mat.
There were Vietnam vets, confronting the post-traumatic stress they came home with 40 years ago, getting healthy, both in body and soul.
There were vets from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pushing aside macho preconceptions to grab a mat.
There were female vets who had suffered sexual trauma in the service, trying to heal.
Some of them take The Ride to class. Others take two or three buses to make it.
“I have seen it work magic,” says Richard Jackson. “People get healthier.”
Jackson couldn’t sleep on his back after he got back from Nam. It wasn’t just physical. He started yoga at the VA six years ago, and after practicing the Savasana pose, he found he could sleep on his back.
Patricia Odom, 64, an Army vet, has been with the class since the start. After she had her knees replaced, yoga improved her mobility dramatically.
Like Jackson, Odom resents the chaos and official indifference that has been permanently attached to something that costs the VA nothing and gives so much to veterans.
“They push us around like toy cars,” she said. “At one point, they had us in a closet. I’m not kidding. Then the basement. Now, we’re here, for how long we don’t know . . . I wouldn’t say they don’t care as much as they don’t understand the importance of yoga to veterans. It really helps.”
If it is a national scandal that more than 20 veterans commit suicide every day, it is a local scandal that no one at the VA in JP can step up and find a stable, dedicated space so vets can practice the sort of mindfulness that can help save them from anguish or worse.
Brenner and Brilliant have sent pleas to various bigshots in the VA. They have been ignored.
The Veterans Administration, as a whole, has been taking it on the chops for years now. There are many good people — therapists, nurses, doctors — in the system, who care deeply for vets. But at some level the biggest problem is that it is a system, a wheezing bureaucracy, in which the simplest things don’t get done.
The yoga class at the VA in JP is a classic example. How complicated is it to find an appropriate, dedicated space, where elderly veterans aren’t forced to become furniture movers twice a week?
A lot of the problems facing the VA are systemic and cultural, and they will take years to fix, if they ever are.
This can be fixed with a phone call or the click of a mouse. And, unlike so many of the problems facing the VA, it won’t cost a dime.
Felice Brenner, Noreen Brilliant, and the vets they serve aren’t asking for much. All they want for Christmas is a room to call their own.
Given their dedication, and that of the vets they serve, it’s the least that they deserve.