“I’m going to place the needle,then invite you to inhale,and I’ll push the needle in as you exhale,” Duncan whispers.
Five needles go into each ear. At most,it’s just a small pinch.
Johney Evans,63,takes off a black baseball cap with “BRONZE STAR” stitched in gold letters and a pin featuring the screaming eagle of the 101st Airborne Division. He takes off his dark-rimmed glasses,leans back and closes his eyes.
The retired police officer from Oxon Hill,Md.,is a Vietnam veteran who participates in a weekly complementary and alternative medicine program that seeks to help former soldiers who can’t get relief from traditional medicine.
Evans served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969,and has suffered nightmares and pain ever since.
He’s seen improvement in the two years he’s been coming to acupuncture on Thursdays. He doesn’t have as many nightmares and is no longer afraid to go to sleep.
“At first,I didn’t know what to expect,but the second time I felt something I didn’t understand,” Evans said. “I can’t wait for Thursday. Tonight will be nice.”
Within minutes,some of the veterans start to smile. They lean back,close their eyes and relax. Some bow their heads. Others fold their hands in prayer.
The patients are seated in large,black chairs in a conference room in the basement of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northwest Washington.
They are all veterans. They have all been broken. They are all reaching out beyond the bounds of Western medicine to find holistic health.
Some have had nightmares that kept them awake for all but two hours each night. They’ve had pain so bad it was difficult to walk. They’ve harbored uncontrollable anger. They’ve had flashbacks to their time in combat.
With the help of Duncan and other doctors at the VA Medical Center,they’ve been able to find peace.
In 2011,the Department of Veterans Affairs conducted a study of Veterans Health Administration centers to investigate the extent of complementary and alternative medicine treatments across the VA. It found that 89 percent of VHA centers were using or prescribing some kind of non-traditional medicine.
At the VA Medical Center in Washington,748 acupuncture treatments were administered to nearly 170 veterans in the first half of fiscal year 2012.
The split from traditional Western medicine is easy enough to understand. Veterans’ wounds have become deeper,the diagnoses more complicated. More soldiers are coming back with not only torn bodies but also with invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
The VA has been struggling to take care of new generations of injured soldiers. The doctors at the VA Medical Center do their best,but there are still holes.
According to VA estimates,18 veterans commit suicide each day.
“It’s really has been a grassroots effort here since 2007,” Duncan said. “We didn’t really go out to make banners and with a bullhorn to tell what we were doing. The veterans told their own story,and the veterans grew the program from the beginning.”
Acupuncture is meant to treat the whole body. While Western medicine will send a patient to three specialists for three distinct symptoms,an acupuncturist will develop a “constellation” of points to maintain with whole-body health.
“I think of us as particularly helpful in what I call the strange,rare and peculiar. The things that are a little bit difficult to pin down,difficult to isolate and focus,” Duncan said. “We don’t slice people into symptoms,we treat a whole person.”
Jeanette Akhter – a doctor who specialized in obstetrics and gynecology for 35 years in the U.S.,Pakistan and Afghanistan – was hired as the first full-time acupuncturist at the VA Medical Center in 2009.
“I realized that I was getting a bit older and really couldn’t keep up that pace,” Akhter said. “I was not interested in retiring,but I wanted to look at another way of looking at medicine and health.”
That kind of holistic treatment is just what the doctor ordered for many returning veterans.
“Many times we came to the limits of what Western medicine could offer and felt like we needed to do more,” Akhter said.
In the dark conference room,soft sounds of chirping birds and crashing waves came from small speakers as 11 veterans dozed.
“This is a time that’s meant to come inside,” Akhter said. “Some sleep because some veterans will say they only feel safe when they’re asleep.”
Evans imagined himself at “a place they call the sweet place,” on the banks of a running stream in a small country town outside Birmingham,Ala.,where he grew up. It’s quiet and peaceful.
Tom Delvin,65,was a Marine in Vietnam where he was hit by a booby trap and thrown 20 feet in the air. A retired police officer from Silver Spring,Md.,Delvin has been suffering from pain in his knee and lower back.
As the lights dimmed,he pictured himself on the Central Jersey Beach in Seaside Park,N.J.,where he spent time growing up. He thinks back to cottages near the beach where he spent his summers as a teenager.
“It’s just a real nice,calm place. I love the ocean,” Delvin said.
Four years ago,he began coming to the acupuncture group at the VA and has seen dramatic results. He used to take high-dose painkillers that never seemed to work. Now his pain is manageable.
“My sleep’s better,I don’t have the pain. I notice,and a lot of my friends notice,that I’m a lot calmer,” Delvin said.
Most of the patients in the CAM groups are Vietnam-era veterans. Although more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are returning from war,the majority of veterans in VA care served in Vietnam.
Karen Soltes is in charge of the yoga nidra – a guided meditation practice – program at the VA Medical Center. Many of the older veterans take Thursday as a “spa day” with yoga nidra in the morning and acupuncture in the afternoon.
She and others at the WRIISC (pronounced “risk”) said that they are working to find space and resources to start evening classes for veterans who are still working and can’t attend daytime sessions.
“We are still working with decades of trauma that came from that conflict,” Soltes said of the Vietnam veterans. “We haven’t even gotten to the next generation.”
Duncan was listening to the radio in 2005 when she first thought about treating veterans.
She heard the family of a young man who had served overseas. Unable to cope with what he had seen and done,he committed suicide.
“It struck me in that moment that acupuncture could have served that young man and could have served his family with coping with the impact of the war,” Duncan said.
The idea soon faded away. Three months later,she heard the same family’s voices on her car radio.
“I recognized their voices before I heard them identified,” Duncan said. “I was scooped up.”
She began studying the relationship between traumatic stress and acupuncture. In 2006,she worked on a research project at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that studied the effects of acupuncture on PTSD patients.
In 2007,Duncan started as a part-time acupuncturist in the WRIISC. She soon had a waiting list of referrals from throughout the hospital.
That’s when she started the ear acupuncture group.
“We’re using a constellation of points that we’ve determined to be helpful in a kind of one-size-fits-all approach to just bring you more regulation,bring you more coherence,bring your more calm to a nervous system that’s gotten jangled,” Duncan said.
“Our time together is coming to a close,” Duncan said softly to the veterans in the dark room. “Take that way you feel overall and bookmark it.”
As the veterans mentally came back to the room,their eyes opened.
Duncan slowly made her way around to each veteran and with a few quick plucks,she removed all of the needles. She placed a small piece of medical tape with a fermented radish seed on one of the acupuncture points in the outer ear. It’s a physical reminder of the meditative experience.
“You can pinch it if you’re feeling squirrely in any way throughout the week,” she said.
One patient,Mary Lewis,71,stayed to help clean up.
Lewis said she started coming to the sessions seven years ago. Now retired after 26 years in the Army,she commutes to the VA Medical Center from Fort Washington,Md.
She was depressed,suffered from anger-management issues and anxiety attacks,had trouble sleeping and had chronic aches and pain throughout her body.
“That part of my life is over,” Lewis said. “It really settles me down. I push my way in here on Thursdays.”
When she first came to WRIISC she was skeptical about acupuncture. Today,she’s one of the regulars who make it to every session and look forward to Thursdays.
“They had to hold my hand when I started,” Lewis said. “Now they have to kick me in the hiney to get me out.”
Reach reporter Charles Scudder at email@example.com or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.