Submitted By Susan M. Dykes, LMT, CST, Master Herbalist

A few years ago someone referred an Iraqi veteran to me for massage and cranial sacral work. As my background includes active duty military, I welcomed the experience and looked forward to trying to help this young man in any way possible. As we began the session, a little voice inside told me to ask him what his job was with the military. His response was, “I’d rather not say.” I could accept this but that little voice wanted to push a little farther. So I opened a dialogue about the type of weapon he carried, because his body was in great shape. “Was it an M-16 or M-60 that you carried for your unit?” To my surprise, his response was that he had carried a sniper rifle and was part of a sniper team deep into the war zone.

With hands still working, I fought back my own fear in a further attempt to learn more about this young man. His spirit did not wish to be a sniper, yet he came from a long line of military and police force personalities. He only wanted to be with his family, learn to love his wife and children again, yet he fought so hard to get rid of the voices in his own head that drove him to bounty hunting each year. While I worked on different areas of the body, he continued to talk about his experiences, and after looking into the eyes of the enemy for three days he could know all about that person’s history and family. This was both a rewarding experience for me and for him. He even said after the first session that it was the best he had ever had. Yet, in my spirit, I knew that I had only broken the surface of the situation. I left this session feeling amiss about just how to help him further with his “demons” (for lack of a better word), and vowed that I needed to study further just where in the body we hold such memories and traumas.

If you were confronted with the same situation again, how might you handle things differently?

Response from Susan M. Dykes, LMT, CST, Master Herbalist

If I were confronted with this situation again I would listen more to my own spirit than to my own fear that I had to have all of the answers for this young man. I would continue to work hands-on with him, but in the years following this first session, well, I hope that I too have learned some of the things that I could provide to him as homework for dealing with the midnight dreams and nightmares. I would be more available to him, outside of the massage session and provide an avenue where he was free to talk. This was a challenging situation that required me to look beyond the money, the hour-long sessions, and the superficial things held in the body. I often wonder where this young man is today and if he and his counselors are more aware of alternative modalities for PTSD type scenarios. I would also refer him to a more advanced clinic that specializes in PTSD so that he could restore his own dignity and know that God nor anyone else holds him in judgment for his service to his country.

Response from Institute for Integrative Healthcare Studies

Your experience with this soldier touched me, touched me deeply. Not only am I a massage therapist, but I also served in the military and am very aware of how PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) can affect a person and those around him or her.

Often, an individual enters the armed services inexperienced in the ways of the military. They must be untrained in their former behavior patterns and retrained to be able to accept orders that may be paradoxical to their own beliefs and ideals. Most of us do not grow up learning to kill other human beings or survive in hostile surroundings. Many of those who end up deployed are very young, forced to see and experience things most people can’t even imagine. In recent years soldiers are deployed to war zones many times over their time served in military service. This is something that has not been regularly imposed on these men and women in earlier conflicts.

It can be both a blessing and a curse to be the massage therapist as well as a fellow veteran. Both in my private practice and working for a multi-therapist office I had similar experiences. The intimacy of bodywork can often transcend just the physical healing of massage. It can also result in a deeper empathy between therapist and client, sometimes even resulting in flashbacks, anxiety attacks and more for either or both individuals.

While we, as therapists, want to remain professional and somewhat detached in order to better serve our clients, such connections can sometimes result in the crossing of boundaries and transference/counter-transference issues.

With regard to working with veterans, I find that veterans will often respond more openly to another veteran whether it is a bodyworker or mental healthcare provider. Healthy touch introduced through the use of bodywork is a good way for post war veterans to become better acclimated to civilian live. It puts them back in touch with their bodies and helps to reconnect the mind and body. Bodywork is often a wonderful adjunct to traditional psychotherapy with regard to overall healing.

Keep up the good work…and thank you for your service both in and out of the military!