Ruben Rosario: Recovered veteran’s latest mission: helping those like him
September 13, 2011
Written by Ruben Rosario
Jerry Yellin flew 19 hair-raising combat operations over Iwo Jima and Japan as a World War II P-51 Mustang fighter pilot. But one of the toughest missions the 87-year-old ever undertook came last year.
A family friend, Dory Klock, a married father of two and a U.S. Army veteran who fought in Bosnia, killed himself. Yellin knew the 32-year-old man was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues.
The young man’s mother called Yellin and asked him to help place the ribbons and medals on her dead son’s uniform for the burial. Yellin broke down in sobs after the mother left his home with the decorated uniform.
“My thoughts ran wild with the suffering so many are experiencing from the life and death of soldiers and Marines who go into combat and have nothing to hold onto when they come home,” Yellin writes in “Resilient Warrior: Healing the Hidden Wounds of War.” (TotalRecall Publications, 2011).
That incident more than any has prompted Yellin to embark on another mission in his 80s: to offer help to veterans and their families struggling with PTSD, anger, substance abuse and other mental health problems.
The help might surprise some: Transcendental Meditation.
Yellin knows firsthand what soldiers used to call shell shock or combat fatigue in his war days, and he swears by TM. He’s done it twice a day for about 36 years. He calls it “a lifesaver.”
The Newark, N.J., native and Floridian is in town this week to convince as many people as he can of its benefits and its potential role in improving the mental state and outlook of combat veterans.
“I had it for 30 years. It was terrible,” Yellin told me of his own bouts with PTSD and depression. “I know dozens and dozens of alcoholics, the homeless, guys with four or five marriages, dealing still with anger and disconnection.”
He co-chairs Operation Warrior Wellness, a nonprofit offshoot of the David Lynch Foundation. The foundation teaches TM and was established by the Hollywood film director, a TM devotee.
Recently, according to the group, the commander of Fort Hamilton in New York pledged to begin TM training for fort personnel in coming weeks.
COMBAT ‘NEVER LEAVES YOUR BRAIN’
Yellin can easily rattle off the dark statistics he’s trying to curb:
- The suicide rate of National Guard soldiers and reservists in Minnesota mirrored a national trend and almost doubled last year, from 80 deaths in 2009 to 145 in 2010.
- More service members killed themselves last year than died in combat. Excluding accidents and illness, 462 soldiers died in combat last year, while 468 committed suicide, according to the Army.
- More than 500,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq since 2001 suffer from PTSD.
His group’s goal is to raise enough money to train 10,000 veterans, military personnel and family members in TM techniques by the end of next year.
“People don’t realize that it’s not just the veteran but the families that are also affected by this,” Yellin said. He knows firsthand the struggles many returning veterans face.
Yellin joined the Army Air Corps on his 18th birthday. He was 21 and a combat-hardened pilot when he landed on a dirt runway at the foot of Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi in March 1945.
He saw “huge” piles of dead Japanese soldiers pushed into mass graves as he taxied. To make matters worse, his squadron was stationed next to the U.S. Marines mortuary, where hundreds of American soldiers were readied for burial. He flew missions with 11 other pilots. None of the others made it home.
“The sights of combat, the stench of bodies and rotting flesh - that just never leaves your brain,” Yellin recalled this week.
Yellin was discharged in 1945 as a decorated captain and came home a changed man. He felt disconnected from everyone and everything. He switched jobs and locations like socks to see if the internal fog of war would lift. It remained. Golf, thankfully - instead of booze or drugs or wailing at the spouse or kids - was his vice, his addiction.
“I was not able to find any contentment, any reason to succeed, any connection to anyone that had meaning or value,” he wrote. “I was depressed, unhappy and lonely even though I was surrounded by a loving wife and four sons.”
This would last until 1975, when, by chance, his wife of 61 years, Helene, caught TM’s founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, on the old Merv Griffin TV show. Hooked, she took training. So did a son. Yellin followed. It changed his life.
He felt for the first time in decades a connection to loved ones, his surroundings and the world. Once the bearer of ill will toward anyone and anything Japanese, he came to embrace the marriage of one of his sons to the daughter of a combat pilot in the Japanese Imperial Army Air Service.
Basically, he regained his humanity.
No peacenik - he believed World War II was just and necessary - Yellin has little tolerance for politicians who plunged us into two costly wars in the past decade.
Luke Jensen is one combat vet who vouches for TM. The 32-year-old former undercover narcotics cop from Iowa struggled with PTSD and suicidal ideation after his return from Afghanistan.
“I’ve had more relaxation and peace and felt really good since I started doing it,” said Jensen, who works as a counselor at a Story County, Iowa, veterans affairs office. “I definitely give it a thumbs up, and I’ve recommended it to a few soldiers here at work that have opened up to me.”
For right now, Yellin’s focus rests squarely on providing further aid to the men and women thrust into war. Imagine that. A member of the Greatest Generation offering help to the post-9/11 combat generation here and now. As a pilot I know is fond of saying: Blue skies to you, Mr. Yellin.