Meditation brings peace to war vets

Transcendental meditation has its detractors, but many veterans say it helps them with post-war stress.

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Fernando Franco, who served in both Bosnia and Iraq, uses meditation techniques to control stress.

Photo: CARLOS GONZALEZ, Star Tribune

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Like many veterans, Fernando A. Franco had trouble sleeping through the night.

A major in the Minnesota National Guard, he was deployed twice between 2003 and 2007, once to Bosnia and once to Iraq, with barely six months' break in between. The place where he was stationed near Balad, Iraq, was nicknamed "Mortaritaville" because "we were attacked every day," he said.

After Franco got back home to St. Paul, he was hard-wired to wake up at 3 every morning, the same hour that in Mortaritaville he and his fellow soldiers would start hearing the shells aimed their way and brace for battle. Once he woke up, he'd stay up, living in a state of perpetual exhaustion.

"It really affected not only my work, but my relationship with my wife and kids," he said. Then he heard about TM.

Transcendental meditation, or TM for short, is hailed by its devotees as good for just about anything that ails you. Skeptics call it everything from a bunch of hooey to a brainwashing cult, but those who do it daily claim they feel calmer, have more energy and feel healthier, both mentally and physically, than they used to. It's not a religion, they say, just a practice that reduces anxiety and improves well-being.

Now the U.S. military -- not known for embracing the mystical -- has taken note. The Department of Veterans Affairs has invested $5 million in a dozen trial programs studying TM's effects on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including one at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System.

The VA hopes to recruit 30 vets for the trial beginning in about a month, said spokesman Ralph Huessner, noting that it should not be confused with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a different meditation program already offered.

'A part of the universe'

Franco, 49, works in human resources for Target Corp. No matter how busy he gets, he always takes 20 minutes twice a day, at about the same time every day, to meditate, using the discipline he learned as a soldier to strictly maintain his schedule.

"The only way to get the full benefit is to do it morning and afternoon, no matter what," he said, "even if you have to do it standing up in a bathroom stall."

TM practitioners call the state they go into one of "restful alertness." Transcendence is achieved, they say, by repeating a mantra and emptying the mind. So how does it feel?

"There is a moment when you go into a void, an emptiness, and you feel a part of the universe," Franco said. "It's like in the movie 'Avatar' when the creature says they are a part of everything. That's how I would explain it."

He first heard about TM for veterans through Operation Warrior Wellness, an initiative launched last year by the foundation run by film director and TM advocate David Lynch.

"I'm Roman Catholic, but I'm very open-minded about Eastern philosophies," Franco said.

In October, he attended training classes at the TM center in St. Paul. Six months later, he usually sleeps through the night and has passed his enthusiasm for TM along to his 15-year-old son.

"When you come back from war, where you've learned to shut down your emotions, you have to relearn how to be with your family," he said. "It helps you not only to reconnect with yourself, but other people. I've also noticed I'm able to concentrate better."

Some critics of the TM movement have accused it of being a religion, of amassing wealth for its leaders, and of brainwashing. Franco, who learned TM through a scholarship from Operation Warrior Wellness, said he's seen none of that.

"I have never felt coerced into making this a religious path, and have encountered people of all faiths  who do it," he said. "I have never been asked to make a donation."

Although Franco said he does not have PTSD, he thinks meditation could help veterans who do.

"It's different for everyone, and you still might need counseling and pills, but TM is one of the best tools for stress out there," he said.

The draw of Oprah's blessing

Long, white and stately, the local Peace Palace -- which is what the international TM network calls its specially constructed education centers -- sits just off a freeway frontage road on the eastern edge of St. Paul. Next door to an insurance office and a hop and a skip from Culver's, the Maharishi Invincibility Center is hard to miss, an Eastern architectural presence in Midwestern suburbia.

At a recent open house, center director Billie Jean Billman led visitors on a tour. Since Oprah aired a special extolling the virtues of TM in April, Billman said, there has been a spike in interest. The center recently doubled its instructors from two to four.

"TM is not a panacea for everything, but it's a non-pharmacological process that wakes up the body and the brain," Billman said.

Full tuition at the TM center  is $1,500; spouses are then $750 and children under 18 $375 if they learn as a family. The center also gives full scholarships to veterans, at-risk youth and  the homeless.

Two veterans who recently started TM, Sarah Ditto and Pat Watson, were also on hand to describe the benefits they've experienced.

"I was amazed at how completely calm I felt," said Watson, 54. "It's like pancake batter spreading across a griddle, slowly turning golden brown. You really are resting but awake. After I meditate, people ask me what I've been doing."

"I was really energized after the first time I did it," said Ditto, 25, who works with disabled veterans at the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living in St. Paul. "I went home and did a bunch of yard work. It's helped me to focus better, too."

Ditto likes to visit the center to do her meditating because its minimally decorated rooms are ideal for it. But, she says, she sometimes encounters a problem.

"I meditate facing Culver's, and instead of my mantra I start saying in my head, Chocolate custard. Chocolate custard. Chocolate custard."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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