By Abby Rosmarin, Volunteer Blogger for VYP
Veteran’s Gratitude Week Spotlight: Mark Ballinger
In 2011, everything in Mark’s life changed. A helicopter crash would affect him in profound and irreversible ways – but also get him on the path to yoga, both as a student and as a teacher.
Before the crash – before he even enlisted as a Marine – Mark Ballinger was a child of the 60s, having full run of the neighborhood, playing pickup football, baseball, and war games.
“One year I had my mother make me a civil war uniform,” said Mark. “The kids in the neighborhood divided up into different sides and we would attack each other.”
Mark’s father was an Army serviceman and a veteran of the Korean War. During World War 2, his maternal grandfather was in the Illinois militia. While his paternal grandfather couldn’t serve due to losing an eye as a child, he served as a long-haul trucker, delivering supplies during the second World War. Mark also had an uncle in the Marines, although his uncle never talked about it.
Originally, Mark wanted to be a Navy frogman. Mark graduated from high school in 1973, right after the draft ended. While he qualified for scholarship to Illinois State University, they didn’t have the program he wanted, and eventually he dropped out of college to enlist.
It was luck that Mark would become a Marine: while Mark was still hoping to become a frogman, the Navy recruiter wasn’t in the day that he came to the recruitment station – but the Marine recruiter was. And thus would begin a long and fruitful career, where he would eventually get his BS in Aviation Technology, as well as his FAA Airframe and Powerplant Mechanics license, and eventually his FAA Private Pilot’s License. He would retire in 1995, after 21 years of service.
After retiring, Mark became a contract drone pilot before being hired by the Raytheon Company – first as a systems engineer and eventually as an unmanned aircraft systems engineer and unmanned aircraft pilot.
While his primary job was engineer, he would be called on to fly for company programs. It would be on one such flight that life would change forever.
One day, Mark was asked to fly a small helicopter as a target for a radar program. The engine failed, and the helicopter crashed into the trees.
“I have no memory from about twenty minutes before the accident to eight days later,” said Mark. “I can only tell you what I’ve been told or learned afterwards. I almost died that day. I broke my neck at the C2 vertebrae – also called the hangman’s break – and my back from L1 to L5 with an L1 burst fracture. I broke my sternum and a dozen or more ribs, and had two punctured lungs. I had a subdural hematoma and traumatic brain injury. I was a bruise from my head to toes.”
While Mark could still move some muscles in his legs, he couldn’t feel much from the waist down. He spent 25 days in intensive care before being transferred to a neurological hospital. Miraculously, within four weeks, he was walking with assistance.
“I started out in a wheel chair (the doctors said that would be a year), transitioned to a walker, and then to a cane,” said Mark. “I still use the cane on long days or on uneven ground. I have no feeling in the glutes, back of the legs, and half of each foot. It’s hard to breath.”
Yoga came into Mark’s life after he started physical therapy, occupational therapy, and pelvic floor therapy. Pain management became an issue, as he started having an adverse reaction to hydrocodone.
“Nothing but ibuprofen from then on,” he said. “That did not work well as there was still a lot of pain.”
In December 2013, two years after the accident, his pelvic floor therapist recommended that he see her yoga therapist friend.
“I’m a retired Marine and yoga was not high on my list of things to do. I thought I would give it a try, as I like to say, ‘can’t hurt, might help.’ Well it did hurt, a lot, but I was not going to let a yoga teacher get the best of me.”
Together with the yoga therapist – who is also a Doctor of Physical Therapy – Mark began to find strength in areas of weakness and release in areas of limited flexibility.
“While the therapy process hurt, I felt better afterwards and the pain lessened. I became a believer. I learned yoga asanas. I still attend physical therapy with my yoga teacher, plus various other body therapies.”
Three years later – in the fall of 2016 – Mark was inspired to become a teacher.
“I was reading the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) magazine and happened to see an article about yoga for veterans,” said Mark. “The article talked about troops coming home from the war with post traumatic stress and other physical injuries and how yoga was helping them. I figured, if yoga could help me, then maybe I could help my brothers and sisters in uniform.”
He eventually got in contact with the author of the article, who got him in contact with Dr. Daniel Libby, the executive director and founder of Veterans Yoga Project. Mark first completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training in order to qualify for the VYP teacher training. He became a registered yoga teacher in June of 2017, attended his VYP training in September 2017, and led his first class during Veterans Gratitude Week in that same year.
Mark now teaches regularly for veterans and their families, free of charge. Most students are 65-80 year olds, Vietnam veterans and beginners to yoga. When it comes to the memorable moments as a yoga teacher, what sticks out to Mark isn’t any grand gesture, but the gentler moments.
“My oldest student is 81, and he came to class one day smiling and laughing. He was so excited, he was almost giddy. When class started he announced he had clipped his toenails for the first time in 15 years. Such a simple thing we take for granted. I almost cried,” said Mark. “It is the small things like a smile because someone finally balanced on one foot or touched a toe.”
Mark has also started teaching at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Tucson, AZ, where the student base is more diverse, but also dealing with more physical trauma.
Mark truly hopes that the attitude about yoga can change in the veteran community.
“‘It’s for sissies,’ or it’s too ‘woo woo’. It’s hard to get someone to even consider attending a class. But if you can just try it, maybe, just maybe, it might help. Look for a VYP class and attend a class with other veterans. It’s easier than going to a yoga flow class at the gym full of twentysomethings. There are other veterans’ programs out there too. And don’t forget the VA. Most VA hospitals are starting yoga programs.”
Likewise, Mark encourages any teacher who is hoping to work with anyone dealing with PTS or other traumatic injuries to invest in proper training.
“There are many things you can do to make a class more comfortable for veterans. Unfortunately, that might mean giving up some of your favorite teaching techniques. Set up a class for veterans. Once they learn the basics you can start to integrate them with your other yoga students. This is what happened with me. ‘It’s all therapy.’”