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Veterans find peace during Won Dharma retreat

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    Daniel Zuckerman/Columbia-Greene Media Claude AnShin Thomas speaking to Won Dharma Center staff and a retreat participant.
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    Daniel Zuckerman/Columbia-Greene Media Veterans eating lunch in silence during the last day of a veterans’ meditation retreat at the Won Dharma Center in Claverack.
November 13, 2017 12:15 am

CLAVERACK — Veterans came to the Won Dharma Center this weekend for a meditation retreat dedicated to them. The retreat started last Wednesday and wrapped up Sunday.

The last day consisted of a meditation service followed by a lunch that was eaten in silence and with a final prayer. The retreat was facilitated by Claude AnShin Thomas, a Buddhist monk in Soto Zen tradition who is a Vietnam War combat veteran, having served from 1966-1967.

Thomas’ approach involves meditation practices that are offered and he said it works well because the practices can appeal to all; they do not have to be Buddhist to participate. Thomas does not like to use the phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder” and said flashbacks of war are consequences of a veteran’s experience.

“It’s all rooted in breath awareness — you have to breathe anyway, so why not do it consciously,” Thomas said. “I emphasize that post-traumatic stress is not a disorder. We are not broken, we are not mentally deficient — we are wounded.”

While in service as a helicopter crew chief, Thomas’ helicopter was shot down five times and he was wounded, for which he received a Purple Heart, he said. Thomas’ assault helicopter company often supported other units across Vietnam, where he was in constant combat.

“I live with the cost of war,” Thomas said. “It’s a combination of physical wounds and post-traumatic stress.”

Thomas abused alcohol and other drugs following the war and has been sober since 1983, he said. Thomas was recommended to attend a retreat for combat veterans by a therapist.

“I dealt with a lot of wreckage of my past but had yet got to Vietnam,” Thomas said. “I felt like I needed something more, something else.”

After attending the retreat, Thomas trained in a Buddhist monastery in France for three years before becoming ordained as a monk in 1994, Thomas said. Thomas then walked from there back to Vietnam, an experience he said was important, but hard to articulate.

“What I realized is that I had a sense that I belonged there, because I left blood there,” Thomas said. “The country was in me, I really felt a part of it.”

Thomas finds that veterans who come to his retreats are not always sure what to expect, as he felt when he went to his first retreat. Silence is prevalent during the retreat and it gives participants a chance to be more intimate with themselves, Thomas said.

“I don’t [know] who gains more, them or me,” Thomas said. “I do it because I can do it.”

It was Thomas’ first time teaching at the Won Dharma Center and he said he has been facilitating veterans’ retreats across the country for two decades. Thomas wanted to have separate retreats in the Northeast, Southeast, Northwest and the Southwest, rather than one central location where many people would have to travel far to get there.

“When considering this I was looking at possibilities around and someone suggested this place,” Thomas said. “Each place has its own character and this has served us well.”

Jason Neal, of Bellport, is an Army veteran who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Neal heard about the retreat through the Long Island chapter of the organization Veterans for Peace.

“I felt this would be the best way for me to honor other veterans and their service,” Neal said.

Neal found that the retreat brought healing to veterans who needed it and would come back for another one. Neal praised Won Dharma staff for their hospitality. “This is not my first meditation retreat but it was my first with Claude AnShin Thomas,” Neal said. “They did a great job.”

Tara Trestier, of Brooklyn, is a veteran of both the Air National Guard and the Navy for a total of six years. Trestier does veterans’ retreats and considers the other participants to be family.

“It’s almost like coming back to family,” Trestier said. “When you go into the military, they [fellow soldiers] become your family.”

Much of the retreat was conducted in silence and Trestier said there was nothing to distract herself from the silence. Trestier is used to silence at home but said she has distractions like television.

“I have no way to distract — everything would come up,” Trestier said. “I’ve heard it’s very enlightening, the silence — I decided to give it a shot.”

During the retreat, Trestier was in a writing class where she read aloud writings that were about her personal feelings. Trestier, who said she did not expect to read what she wrote at first, then read her work out loud to the rest of the retreat participants.

“It was cathartic,” Trestier said. “I was drained, but I felt like a weight was lifted.”

Ray Kaniatyn, of Brooklyn, is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and has done seven retreats in the past similar to the one at Won Dharma.

“My wife said ‘You’re going,’” Kaniatyn said of his first retreat. “She dragged me to Omega [Institute].”

For Kaniatyn, his favorite part of the retreat were the meditation courses because he said it helps slow him down during his hectic life.

“It makes me feel peaceful,” Kaniatyn said.

The retreat is a great way for veterans to heal that is not pharmaceutical in nature, Kaniatyn said. “I come and I feel like I am a better man, a better husband, a better father and a better grandfather,” Kaniatyn said of the retreats.

To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.