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Mental Monday: Animal-Assisted Therapy in War Zones


Golden Retrievers are often used for therapeutic purposes

I recently learned that a psychology team in Afghanistan brought a few therapy service dogs with them to help the troops.  There is reason to believe that these dogs will be very helpful for the troops as they help keep spirits high and ease the mental and physical stresses associated with combat.

Since World War II, animals have been commonly used in both mental and physical therapeutic settings as a way to help the healing process. From cats and dogs to horses, animals have been proven to be a wonderful way to help people recover from both mental and physical ailments. Anyone who has a companion animal or a service dog already knows that there is nothing like holding, hugging, and petting a warm, soft, and cuddly animal to help ease the mind and soothe the soul.

Animals can help lower blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety levels. They can also help combat depression and social isolation, two issues that are often comorbid with other mental or psychical health problems. Specially trained service animals have helped people in private therapeutic settings, schools, hospitals, convalescent homes, and even prisons. (continues…)

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Longing For An Ordinary Life

On the 4th of July, that day of all days, my baby brother deployed to Afghanistan.

For my family, this meant two things.  My brother, an Army psychologist, had to leave his base in Europe and say goodbye to his pregnant wife and two year old son for the next year. It also meant that, as of the 4th of July, both my brother and sister are now living in Afghanistan.

As I spent the long holiday weekend at the beach, enjoying the company of my family and good friends, my mind was elsewhere. It was on a military plane that was flying my brother to a war zone. It was in the isolated desert compound where my sister lives and in the helicopter that transports her to various work assignments. It was with her husband, my brother-in-law, patiently waiting for his wife to return home to him. It was with my pregnant sister-in-law, living alone in Europe with her toddler, missing her husband tremendously. It was with my two year old nephew, not old enough to grasp that his daddy won’t be there every night to read him a story before going to sleep.

My brother and sister, the two people I grew up with fighting and loving along the way, do not live typical American lives. And when people you love are living an extraordinary life, it makes you appreciate your ordinary life all the more.

A few months ago, my sister called to say hello. It was 2 am her time and she had been watching her DVD’s of the TV show 30 Rock. While watching the show, she had become homesick. There is always a little ache within her – she always misses her husband and her family. But what surprised her were the little things that caused her to miss home even more, like watching a TV character drink a Starbucks coffee while casually walking down a busy city street. It was a simple reminder of her former life. She longed to do those little things that most of us take for granted, the simple things that provide normalcy. We don’t give walking down the street with a coffee in our hand a second thought. We don’t consider going to the grocery store to buy fresh food or go window shopping at the mall a big deal. Why would we? Living ordinary lives gives us the power and freedom to ignore everyday things.

When families are separated for a while, for whatever reason, it’s not just the big events that will be missed. My sister has had to miss wedding anniversaries, birthdays, and funerals. My brother will miss the birth of his second child and  his son’s third birthday. But, perhaps even more importantly, is that they will also miss the normal everyday family stuff like cooking and eating meals together, going on a walk around the neighborhood, enjoying a fun day at the park or beach, or reading a story to your child at bedtime and giving him a kiss goodnight.

I spent the 4th doing what most American families were doing, spending the day with family and friends and enjoying the fireworks. My normal and simple life will continue as usual, but a big part of my mind and heart will be in Afghanistan for a while. I will be waiting for my brother and sister. Waiting for them to return back to an ordinary life.

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Mental Monday: In Memoriam Of Former Selves

Every Memorial Day, I pay respect to the men and women who lost their lives for our country.

I also pay respect to my father.

My father survived a tour of duty in Vietnam and earned a Silver Star for his valor. He was only 23, and a newlywed, when he was drafted into the war. I was born about a year after the war ended, so I never knew the person he was before Vietnam. I cannot compare the father I know and love to the young man who left for war, but I do know one thing. He did not return home as the same person. He lost a part of himself on the battlefield, a former self that has never been recovered.

When one enters a war zone, it will be impossible to leave the same. Profound or traumatic experiences will do that to people. No one leaves war unscathed. And, for some, the psychological trauma will sustain long after physical wounds have healed. Like thousands of soldiers who have lived through war, my father deals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I will not go into more specifics out of respect for his privacy, but I will say that he has been doing exceptionally well despite it.

Not everyone is so fortunate. (continues…)

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The Children Of Afghanistan

What do you see in these photos?

It’s hard to look at these pictures without projecting our own thoughts about the war in Afghanistan and what affect it has had on their youth. What kind of life do these children lead? Are they happy? Do they share the innocence, playfulness, and carefree nature that most of our children possess? I want them to. I hope they do. But it’s hard to be optimistic and idealistic when confronted with the young faces of reality.

The images you see here are photos my sister has taken during her first year in Afghanistan. She has given me permission to use them for the purpose of this blog post. I found these pictures to be so beautiful that I was moved to share them.

(click on pics to expand)

Did these photos move you as well? Please share your thoughts.

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Foodie Friday: (Really) Authentic Afghanistan Cuisine

If you’re a regular reader of mine, then you probably know that my sister is a civilian lawyer working in Afghanistan. I cherish all the stories and pictures she shares with me about the Afghan culture and way of life. Since my sister moved there nearly one year ago, she has undoubtedly lived a challenging life, a life that is vastly different from what most of us will ever know. But there are perks, too. And one of them is, without question, the local Afghan cuisine.

Just today, my sister sent me a batch of pictures about a recent excursion involving a sheep slaughtering. She spared me the photos of that aspect, but she did send me photos of locals preparing what is probably the most popular dish in Afghanistan – kebabs and kofta kebabs (ground meat). Needless to say, the kebabs were prepared from the freshly slaughtered lamb.

Once the kebabs have been grilled and prepared to perfection, they are then wrapped in Naan bread. Naan bread is popular in Afghan cuisine, but also Indian, Persian, and Pakistani cuisine.  Haven’t tried Naan bread? It’s not nearly as good as fresh homemade Naan, but stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods carry it. Another Afghan staple is rice and most dishes are prepared with a side of it. The many different variations of Afghan-prepared rice is considered the most important part of any meal and the wealthier you are, the more rice you eat. (continues…)

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