Without further ado:
In the words of Jen Ables, Executive Director, Soldiers Who Salsa, here is Joe’s Story:
(all names, ranks, and military affiliations have been changed to respect patient privacy)
When I first met this soldier, he was sitting in the corner of the room, lights off, hooded sweatshirt pulled over most of his face, headphones on, and arms folded across his chest. I was told that I would be getting a few new patients that week with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and some that also had Traumatic Brain Injuries. I had no way of knowing which of the conditions this gentleman had, but the symptoms of avoidance, withdrawal, and isolation were clear. I got barely a nod when I introduced myself and welcomed him to class, but attempted to start a conversation anyway.
Me: “So, how did you hear about class?”
Him: “My therapist told me I should come, so here I am.” No enthusiasm, no excitement.
Me: “With all the activities you have to choose from, why Salsa dancing?”
Him: “I already know how to dance, and I like the music. I’m Latino!” Now, a little pride.
Me: “Well then, I’m glad you’re here. Maybe you’ll be able to help some of the newer people.”
Him: “Yeah, maybe. I don’t know.” Back to being despondent.
Class started, and it was clear to see that he sincerely enjoyed both the music and the dancing. He smiled a little bit, and I could tell he was really “feeling” the music. At the end, I complimented his skills and said I looked forward to seeing him the following week. Again, he just nodded and walked out.
As the weeks went on, Joe began to show up early for class and would be seen socializing with others in class, building friendships with other men and women and even relying on them when his stress level got too high. He would turn to his fellow servicemen when he needed help, as sometimes his anxiety levels left him unable to concentrate at all. Like many others I have met, he eventually went into a special inpatient program to deal with his PTSD.
During the time Joe was coming to classes, more and more of his upbeat personality would come out, and I could always count on him cracking a joke, or trying to get the rest of the class laughing with him. He rarely missed a week, and would tell me in advance if he wouldn’t be there. When we hosted outside events, he was first on the list to sign up. And unlike others whose anxiety would stop them from actually attending an outside event, he would press through it and face his challenges. He always said it was tough, but that he wanted to get through it, and that dance was helping to force him into a safe social environment, and he knew that is what he wanted.
Now, several months after starting with our salsa program, I rely on Joe to actually assist me with new people in class. Without me having to ask, he has started encouraging new participants to join, he cheers on others who may be struggling with a step, “Don’t worry, just keep practicing and you’ll get it!”, and keeps the class going with a positive and upbeat vibe. He has shared with me that even though he already knew how to dance, the reason he keeps coming back to class is that it is a fun and social environment where he gets to be himself again. He knows that salsa provides a social outlet outside of our class setting, and by participating he has met new people and gone places he says he would not have pursued on his own. He is looking forward to going back home and dancing with his family, as this is an activity they as a family have always enjoyed.
I was struck at how far Joe has come by an event that happened in class recently. A fellow patient was having her own anxiety issues, and couldn’t seem to concentrate on anything else even though she said she wanted to dance. She sat in the corner, with her sweatshirt pulled over her face, headphones on, and arms folded across her chest. Without any kind of prompt, Joe went over to her, took her by the hand, and led her outside of class so that she could talk through her issues. She trusts him because he has been where she is now, and they have built a rapport through dance classes and our other dance outings. They talked for a good 45 minutes, and just as we were finishing the last few steps, both of them joined class with a smile, and ended the session with the rest of the patients. Joe had gone from the guy needing the help to the guy who others now turn to for help. I couldn’t be more proud of how far he’s come, and I feel fortunate that the work we do has provided a forum for service members to connect and socialize on a level like this where they can help each other through tough times. Joe exemplifies the warrior code of “never leave a fallen comrade,” whether that comrade is on the battlefield or the ballroom floor.
Never leave a fallen comrade. What an amazing two-part Superhero Statement, right?! I have had them up my sleeve for three weeks and my initial feelings of being awestruck are still just as strong.
I would like to thank Jen Ables of Soldiers Who Salsa for allowing me to interview her for Likes to Smile and for sharing Joe’s story, as well. So inspiring!
And you? What do you think of Joe? Do you have soldiers in your family? What are their stories?
Until next time!
Postscript: All images and photographs in this blog post are courtesy of Soldiers Who Salsa.