REGION — In 1991, Henderson Nugent was one of more than 900,000 service members sent to the Persian Gulf to fight Iraqi forces who had invaded Kuwait.
After more than a month of battle, Operation Desert Storm left 467 U.S. men and women dead, and hundreds of thousands of others from other nations.
Nugent left the U.S. Marines after four years of service, but the attacks left a lasting impression — one he’s now facing with the help of Connected Warriors, a nonprofit that brings free yoga to veterans.
Nugent, who now lives in Fallbrook, is one of roughly 150 veterans who participate in the weekly vinyasas offered by the nonprofit, which is based in South Florida. More than a dozen certified yoga instructors currently guide the local veterans during seven classes offered throughout the region, including San Marcos, Escondido and Oceanside.
Diane Williams Callan, the Southern California coordinator for Connected Warriors, said the goal of the nonprofit is to help veterans find alternative forms of treatment for the challenges they may be facing.
“We welcome veterans where they are on the mat,” Callan said. “These veterans are facing real trauma, and we can help them address that through yoga. It’s a physical cure.”
In fact, Callan said she has seen firsthand how yoga has helped veterans.
“My former husband served for 28 years and left with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder),” Callan said. “He was encouraged to at least try yoga and after three times I saw the biggest positive effect on him —more than any medication he ever took.”
Yoga has also helped Callan, personally, she said.
“It has helped me keep my sanity,” said Callan, who has been practicing for 10 years. “It keeps me emotionally stable.”
Callan, who has worked with the nonprofit for more than two years, said the majority of veterans participating in the classes are suffering from PTSD.
“Yoga gets (veterans) back into their bodies and breath,” Callan said. “They are able to get control of themselves and really, sleep naturally, which can be very daunting.”
For Nugent, 47, serving in combat left him with challenges such as being able to sleep through the night.
“Stress can tighten your muscles, so yoga has helped me deal with my stress,” said Nugent, who attends the classes with his service dog, Sienna. “It has reduced my anxiety and has helped me sleep a little bit better. It stops the repetitive thoughts in my head.”
Nugent said yoga has also encouraged him to communicate with other veterans and people.
“It was becoming difficult for me to connect with other people so yoga has helped me get out more,” Nugent said. “It keeps me from going through withdrawals.”
The same benefits are true for Vietnam veteran Lou Leach. Leach, who served in the Marines, said he began taking yoga to improve his health.
“I wanted to do something for my health,” said Leach, 70. “Yoga helps you concentrate and be loyal to yourself.”
The knowledge that yoga has helped so many veterans is driving Callan to further expand the practice in Southern California, where there’s a high concentration of military personnel. Veterans make up more than 13 percent of the population in the region, according to the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.
In March, Connected Warriors will be training 25 more certified yoga instructors into working with veterans. She also hopes to help train veterans who want to become instructors themselves.
“We want to create a new lifestyle for the veterans so they can be their own advocates,” Callan said. “We want to give them peace of mind.”