Mindfulness, Yoga And A 40-Foot Jump: KC Veterans Group Teaches Holistic PTSD Healing

Jul 14, 2017

Justin Hoover, left, an Army veteran, took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004 and 2005. Walt Disney spent 13 years in the U.S. Navy SEAL Teams, and is now a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist.
Credit Marleah Campbell / KCUR 89.3

“Kansas City has PTS,” says Justin Hoover, director of marketing at Warriors’ Ascent. “Our warriors do, our first responders do.”

“And if they do, so do we.”

PTS, or post-traumatic stress, occurs in some people who have experienced a traumatic event, such as a terrorist attack, combat situation or even a traffic accident. Symptoms include hypervigilance, painful flashbacks and depression, among others.

For veterans and first responders, extreme circumstances like these come with the job.

“If you put ordinary people in these extraordinary positions over and over again, they’re going to suffer a moral injury," Hoover says. “If you put an individual in a fire, they’re going to get burned."

That’s where Warriors’ Ascent comes in.

When the organization's co-founders, Adam Magers and Jay Waldo, returned from deployment in Iraq, they sought long-term solutions for the psychological injuries they suffered on the battlefield. Eventually, they created a unique suite of methods, each based in scientific research, that takes a holistic approach at healing the mind, body and soul.

In 2014, that suite became Warriors’ Ascent. The program aims to help similarly struggling individuals cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s a gift too good not to share,” Hoover says.

Hoover and Walt Disney, program director of Warriors’ Ascent, spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of Up To Date.

“We use practices that have been proven through science — aka mindfulness and yoga — which has proven to help many different modalities like depression and anxiety, but also helps the brain recover from the high-anxiety, high-threat of combat,” says Disney, who suffered symptoms of PTSD after 13 years as a U.S. Navy SEAL.

In a free five-day program called the Academy of Healing, veterans and first responders, the “warriors,” are housed, fed and taught holistic-approach methods. These include mindfulness, meditation, good nutrition and functional fitness. For some, it's their first try at practices like yoga.

“Most of them don’t have any yoga pants at all, so that’s the number one struggle,” Hoover laughs. 

Instructors and staff help warriors work through the stigma that comes with yoga, Hoover says, which at first glance may not appeal to the average veteran or first responder.

“The body can signal what is going on in the mind and the soul," Hoover says. "Paying attention to that is part of the yoga experience, it’s developing the part of the mind that becomes aware of yourself more.”

Warriors at the Academy of Healing also participate in some unconventionally liberating experiences, like the "leap of faith."

In the "leap of faith" at the Academy of Healing, participants climb and leap off of a 40-foot pole, signifying a release of one's burdens.
Credit Warriors' Ascent

The bungee-jump style plunge from a 40-foot-tall pole is a physical manifestation of releasing the burdens holding them back. For a group where jumping out of planes and rappelling walls is part of the job, the height seems insignificant. However, the leap holds deep symbolic significance.

“It’s an amazing transformation to see these individuals who haven’t cried in years, or they haven’t felt joy in years, to come down and they’re a changed person,” Hoover says.

Warriors also walk a labyrinth, which was a form of meditation for Knights Templar. It's one of the many cathartic rituals rooted in ancient culture that the program uses to help modern-day participants.

Once warriors complete the Academy of Healing, they’re not yet out of the woods.

“No one’s going to be healed after five days,” Hoover says. “We’re giving you the tools and the training that you need to go back to your life, back to those stressors.”

Upon completion of the five-day academy, alumni are encouraged to connect as they continue their healing journey. By serving as sponsors and mentors, former participants support those currently going through the program.

“It takes a community of like-minded individuals, people who have gone through the same experiences that you have," Hoover says.

“There’s a proverb that says ‘As iron sharpens iron,’” Disney says. “As they are helping others, they find themselves back in the environment that was so helpful for them.”

Every Thursday evening, the group of alumni gather for a meal.

Warriors' Ascent aims to heal veterans and first responders of PTSD through a rounded approach. "The body is holistic," Hoover says. "You cannot divide its parts — the mind, body and soul.”
Credit Warriors' Ascent

“We run out of chairs every single time,” Hoover says.

“You see these individuals, and they don’t even know each other. They put their arms around each other, give each other a big hug, and make those introductions,” Hoover says. “You don't see that in a lot of other veterans programs."

Disney, a licensed therapist, says symptoms of PTSD can vary greatly, but often stem from one thought: “I’m not safe.” Those suffering from post-traumatic stress are physically out of the distressing situation, but the fear and anxiety persists. This, according to Disney, raises the burning question: Is there ever an end?

“That’s where we offer hope,” Disney says. “Hold fast.”

“You can go through one-week training somewhere, and you still have to perfect that,” Hoover says. "It is a journey, as is life."

With over 150 graduates in three years, Disney and Hoover hope Warriors’ Ascent can lift even more veterans and first responders out of suffering in the years to come.

“There is always an ascent out of the abyss,” Hoover says.

You can listen to Hoover and Disney's full conversation with Steve Kraske here.

Marleah Campbell is an intern at KCUR's 'Up to Date.' You can reach her at marleahcampbell@gmail.com.