Holistic Veterans search for alternative path to healing
With a warm smile and a full brown beard, U.S. Navy veteran Paul Damon looks perfectly healthy in body and spirit, and comes across as the kind of guy who always has been. Despite appearing well on the surface, though, Damon—a yogi, activist, and even a 2007 Grammy contender—has faced the inner demons that so many veterans are burdened with.
“When I got out, I had a hard time adjusting,” Damon says. “Memory loss is a huge deal. You stay irate all the time. It’s hard to remember where your car is or how to get home. There’s a lot of stuff that starts wearing on you.”
The 36-year-old is now one of the founding members of Holistic Veterans, a nonprofit based in Santa Cruz. The group is dedicated to helping veterans heal and assimilate back into civilian life through yoga, meditation, servitude and holistic teachings.
This Veterans Day, the nonprofit is throwing its first ever Community Healing Project. At the Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Santa Cruz, Holistic Veterans will host free yoga and meditation, alternating every half hour, featuring 18 local and Bay Area practitioners in yoga, reiki, massage, acupuncture, nutrition, herbal medicine, and more, from 5 to 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11.
“It’s a celebration of community,” explains 40-year-old Holistic Veterans co-founder James Keeley, a veteran himself. “It’s all about approaching healing from mind, body and spirit and not discounting these ancient medical applications.”
The Community Healing Project will also feature live music and painting, as well as an auction of donated prizes—gift certificates, gym memberships, yoga classes, and the like. At 6 p.m. there will be a dinner provided by New Leaf Community Markets; all proceeds from it and the auction will go toward Holistic Veterans’ first project.
“We want to take 12 veterans—six males, six females—into Costa Rica to the HOME Farm,” Damon says. “It has a triple-cascade 226-foot waterfall at the base of the property, and it’s one of the cleanest water sources in the country.”
Located in the Diamante Valley, on the outskirts of San Salvador, the Heaven On Mother Earth, or HOME Farm, is an art and yoga community offering various cleanses, exercises and adventure tours. “We’re all in agreement that pharmaceuticals and [the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA)] aren’t the only options,” Damon declares.
After almost a decade and a half of war in Afghanistan, most Americans have become familiar with the phrase, “Freedom isn’t Free,” but some of the real costs, people are coming to realize, are frightening.
Every day, 22 U.S. veterans take their own lives—almost one every hour, according to a 2013 report from the DVA. Damon says those numbers are not even complete, as many states don’t share their data.
“The numbers are probably higher,” Damon says. “I say it all the time, ‘In any other case this would be an epidemic and there would be a serious investigation into it.’”
This struggle is a conflict our men and women who have served face too often. It’s one that Damon himself almost lost three years ago.
“I chose to take my life in Costa Rica,” he says. “So I bought a plane ticket.”
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Paul Damon Alford joined the U.S. Navy in 1997 at the age of 18. Like many of his peers, he sought a life of adventure and the opportunity to serve his country. He was stationed in the same battle group as the USS Cole when it was bombed by al-Qaida off the coast of Yemen in 2000, killing 17 people.
After four years of service, Damon was honorably discharged and thought he could return to civilian life. Six months later, he began playing music to deal with the things he had seen, telling his story wherever he went. While his anti-war message didn’t make him too many friends in Texas, he was entered as a contender for the 2007 Grammy Awards for “Best Rock Song” and “Best Rock Album,” although he was never nominated. “The letter’s still at my mom’s house,” he says with a laugh.
As he was trained to do, Damon reached out to the DVA when he was highly depressed, and was instantly placed on the powerful antidepressant Trazodone. “But one of the main side effects is suicide!” he exclaims. “How can someone say, ‘I’m depressed,’ and be handed something that might cause death?”
Damon continued following his doctor’s orders, eventually adding more and more pharmaceuticals to his regimen. This was during the years the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force announced prescription medicines were involved in almost a third of all veteran and active-duty suicides.
“I stayed locked up on a few medicines for a while and it caused me to lose my bowel control at any given moment,” he says. “It happened to me on stage three times, and that was it. I decided to unplug.”
That’s what brought him to Costa Rica.
While making final arrangements in the Central American country and searching for the pistol that would end his life, Damon went through an unbelievable change. Damon had yellow slime dripping from his pores, he says, and locals started telling him, “You kind of stink.”
It was the beginning of a holistic transformation.
The village community embraced Damon and told him he had clearly been poisoned by something, and that his body was trying to cleanse itself. They taught him about the natural healing properties of plants and the importance of mindfulness through yoga. After just 40 days, Damon’s Costa Rican friends noticed a drastic difference in him, both physically and mentally.
Damon says he wasn’t able to start winning the internal battle for his emotional health until he found eastern medicine and more mindful approaches to well-being. “After a decade of fighting it with pharmaceuticals, I bounced back very quickly,” he says. “The suicidal thoughts started to fade really fast.”
Damon will work to keep the principles he learned in Costa Rica alive through Holistic Veterans. By his side are Keeley and Damon’s partner, Tigre Soleil, a veteran whom he met in Costa Rica. At the time, Soleil was on her own search for healing as a victim of sexual assault during her time in the military—an epidemic that affects one in three women who serve.
Now, with more attention on the issue of veteran suicide, a new federal law is looking to curb the numbers.
In February, President Barack Obama signed H.R. 203, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which passed the Senate unanimously. The act, named after a Purple Heart-decorated Marine who struggled in civilian life with traumas he faced in the Middle East before committing suicide in 2011, calls for independent reviews of the DVA and the Department of Defense programs meant to prevent suicide among vets and create community outreach programs for those in need. It also establishes a program to repay psychiatry students’ school debt if they choose to work in the DVA after graduation.
It isn’t the only issue facing the nation’s heroes this Veterans Day. Every year, the holiday also shines a light on the plight of veterans who are homeless, and in Santa Cruz County there has been a push to end the problem. A year ago, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and all four local city councils took action to house all vets by the end of 2015. With three months left, there are still 193 homeless vets in the county. This Veterans Day, Nov. 11, the county will make an announcement on this topic at a separate event, also at the Vets Hall, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
In addition to the upcoming Community Healing Project and pilot program, Holistic Veterans is in the works to send veterans to a 149-acre property in Belize, where they would help build compressed, earthrock homes. Through it all, Damon utilizes the skills and qualities instilled in him from the military.
“The property owner has asked us to go down and build these homes,” Damon maintains. “And once again it boils down to servitude, this time to our fellow humans.”
The Community Healing Project is from 5-10 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11 at the Santa Cruz County Vets Hall. The free event is open to the public. The recommended donation for the dinner is $10.
SPIRITED WAY U.S. Navy veteran Paul Damon at the Homeless Garden Project’s land on the Westside. Damon is a founding member of the nonprofit Holistic Veterans. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER