Adam Burn – A Photo Story

Project Welcome Home Troops (PWHT) was founded 10 years ago, and is a service project of the International Association of Human Values. It offers free workshops on meditation and breathing techniques to veterans to help them heal from trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PWHT has helped 1200 veterans and is available in many states across the United States. This Photo Story is on Adam Burn, a veteran who has done the workshop twice.

Adam Burns Photo Story

“I am veteran and I’ve experienced some challenges with PTSD and trauma,” says Adam Burn, 35. Adam was in the Air Force for 3 ½ years of active duty from Feb 2001 to Sept 2004, and in the Reserve for a year after that. During that time he was stationed in Alaska, Asia, Middle East and Saudi Arabia. He now works as a Research Health Specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I didn’t think my experience in the military was horrific,” says Adam. “But it had a unique set of challenges. Military life is just kinda strenuous and unpredictable. You are 10,000 miles from home on deployment, sometimes indefinitely, and your life is not your own. And there’s other things that make it hard being in the military. It’s creates a life-long series of dominoes that get knocked over with time. It was important for me to be honest with myself, and take a look at where I’m at, if I was going to be useful to anyone.”

Adam sketches in his book. “I find a lot of veterans are frustrated by some of the ways people attempt to help,” he says, “and I found they weren’t working for me either – and I also wanted a warm space that the VA struggles to create sometimes.”

“I joined and I realized quickly that military life was totally wrong for me,” says Adam. “I just never was of the military mind but I also didn’t know what to do with my life at the time. I was too sensitive for the military. It doesn’t compliment the creative, intuitive type. However, one thing about the military and need for it is that it doesn’t matter, so it was a great teacher in that respect, because it taught me to grow up and think about more than just what I wanted.” “I learned what it means to be of service,” he says, “and what it means to think about something bigger than me. Regardless of what people think of war or violence, it taught me something about responsibility, integrity and ownership.” Here Adam sketches swirls in his book. “It just sort of comes our of the end of my pencil when I decide to trust the lead I guess,” he says. “And for some reason, that feels liberating!”

“I worked for 1 ½ years nearly without a day off for 10-12 hours a day and you don’t realize what a toll it takes,” says Adam. “When I got out, I went on to get a Bachelors degree in Psychology and Masters in Clinical Psychology. It was when I was in Grad School working on my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology – trying to treat people for PTSD– that’s when it hit me like a truck – that I had these exact same symptoms. I’d learned so much about what happens to your body when you have traumatic experiences from a text book, and then I found it happening to me. If I heard loud noises, I would dive under a desk, and I don’t even know why – there were no explosions. I didn’t even see an explosion in the military but I reacted that way anyway. The irrational distrust of other people, or freaking out when someone suddenly walks behind me was tough too.”  Adam examines the Gates of Hell sculpture at Stanford University.

Coping with Trauma and PTSD in Veterans

“One thing that’s very hard for people who’ve had trauma,” he says, “particularly early childhood trauma, is fear of letting other people help them. When you’re a veteran, sometimes you don’t  feel you need the help in your mind, it’s culturally seen as weakness but nobody can exist on their own. People think service means not taking care of their needs, but the reality is you cannot take care of the person next to you if you don’t take care of yourself. I have been out of the military for 12 years and I’m just now more fully able to embrace the effect of it all.”

“In my healing from trauma,” says Adam, “it’s been people I didn’t know, who saw the world very different from me. These are the people who’ve had the most profound impact on my life and I will always appreciate that about them and never forget it. I am grateful to have had that opportunity.”   He did the workshop for the first time in 2012 with Emma Seppala, a facilitator of the PWHT workshop, and also affiliated with the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. He did the workshop for a second time in 2014. “Emma has a very gentle presence, as do the rest of the folks at PWHT. So I found it to be an inviting place to do some hard work. She called it taking out the trash which I appreciated. You need to do that in a place where you trust who’s in the room, and I found it to be a very profound experience – a very difficult but very profound experience.”

“Sky breathing/training was a very helpful way for me to let the pressure out,” says Adam. “When you experience trauma it’s like your mind becomes a balloon, and it keeps inflating and creates this pressure and everything keeps swirling around, and all you know is that you need to let the air out. Sky gave me an avenue to do that but with that it can be very hard because you’re purging all that stuff.  I advocate for it because context matters. When you are in the military, it’s adaptive not to be emotional because if you pause and blubber, you’re gonna get shot. You need to respond and there is no room for time between stimulus and response. And then when you get out of the military, your body does not get its discharge paperwork, and 20 years later or whatever you’re still behaving in ways that are consistent with the earlier situation. You have to train your body to respond to what’s appropriate, and it’s hard because your body will respond before your mind has time to think about it, and that’s what happens in PTSD.”

Adam can now sit and sketch for hours which earlier was impossible for him before the workshop.  “After doing the workshop, initially the results were substantial,” he says “the whole jumpiness thing was gone, and I found I worried about things less. It was such an abrupt and substantial shift in my subjective experience that I was taken off guard by it all. It’s very emotionally draining and you have to be very brave to go there. I would say to anyone who is considering it – trust yourself. A lot of the apprehensions are – you are not like me and I don’t understand you, and if I’m traumatized, its more likely that I don’t trust you. What I say is trust yourself and your own physical experience of it all. Ask yourself, is this taking me towards peace or not? And if you find yourself bumping up against that soft spot, that’s when you know it’s working, so challenge yourself to see it through and you’ll hopefully be glad you did. It won’t be so raw if you give it its day. Counterintuitive, but true, I’ve found.”

Adam shares his sketch. “I really became appreciative of these kind of practices,”he says, “of empowering people with tools to meet their own needs – it opens them up up the full spectrum of what it means to be human again – because sometimes they have to do very inhumane things whether they wanted to or not. And that’s hard to reconcile, so taking the time to work through it is important, not just for veterans who may struggle with this, but for their families and friends. Doing that is also very hard when you can’t relax enough to think it through, so practical tools to calm the body help tremendously.”

“Can you be present in the room with yourself?” he says. “You’ve got to be present enough to experience what you’re experiencing and then be present enough to make meaning out of that experience and these tools are invaluable in helping people do that. People kinda get hung up on the different cultural elements and I find that unfortunate, especially if you’re at a point where you’ve tried everything else and nothing works. From my experience, when people are suffering enough, they’ll try anything.” “Nobody is asking me to become a Vedic philosopher,” says Adam. “Nobody is asking me to abandon where I come from, or my system of beliefs. Nobody is asking me to take a pill, or sending me a bill for it. It’s just people trying to do good things for the world, so why not let them?  When people come together in this way and have some humility, and benefit from the knowledge of one another, I think that’s when mountains move.”