John Thurman was inside the Pentagon during the 9/11 attack
He survived, but went on to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
He recovered using yoga, and subsequently become a yoga teacher
Editor’s Note: Vital Signs is a monthly program bringing viewers health stories from around the world.
John Thurman thought he’d be safe there. After all, he was stationed at the Pentagon, not in a war zone.
After spending time in Germany during the Cold War, and then Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, a desk job in Washington was surely a safe bet.
Until it wasn’t.
“I thought it was a bomb,” Thurman said. Then, “it felt like an earthquake.”
At 9:37 am on September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the west side of the Pentagon, the same where Thurman worked.
“We were in this small room, no windows,” Thurman remembered. “We were immediately plunged into pitch darkness. There was a bit of a fire ball that came up and over through the ceiling.”
Thurman’s survival instincts and years of training in the United States Army kicked in. “I tried to get to some of my colleagues that I knew were in the room,” he said. “We were at that point of having to crawl on the floor and because it was now full of smoke, very hot air. You took your face off the floor and you couldn’t breathe.”
Survivor’s guilt and PTSD
Thurman and his colleagues were in the second of the Pentagon’s five rings. The plane went through to the third ring.
After 20 minutes or so, Thurman said he was able to reach a back door, and get help. He was taken to Arlington hospital, and treated for severe smoke inhalation.
“I was really fortunate in the fact that the outside of my body – I wasn’t cut, I wasn’t burned,” Thurman said. “A lot of the jet fuel splashed up into our area, and burned some people fairly significantly. However, being exposed basically to kerosene…I had severe smoke inhalation.”
Thurman was on a breathing tube and oxygen for 24 hours. When he woke up the next day, he learned the towers had fallen in New York, and that another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania.
With his country now at war and anxious to return to work, Thurman left the hospital after a week, and was back at work a few weeks later. Because their offices were destroyed in the attack, Thurman and his colleagues were at a temporary location in Alexandria, Virginia. Not long after he left the hospital, Thurman began to notice signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I would take the Metro down and we would stop at the Pentagon station,” Thurman said. “There’d just be this feeling of dread even pulling through the station. The first time I was back in the building, I could still smell that kerosene smell, which was unnerving.”
Thurman had trouble sleeping. He experienced nightmares, and flashbacks. Doctors prescribed him drugs to help him sleep, but Thurman says nothing really helped him. On top of the PTSD symptoms, he was also experiencing survivor’s guilt. Out of the 125 people killed inside the Pentagon that day, 26 of them were Thurman’s coworkers.
“The people that didn’t make it that day, that died very close to me … those things all really sit heavily on your heart.”
The benefits of yoga
For six months after the attack, Thurman was healing physically, but not mentally. Then one day, a friend suggested yoga.
“I had doubts, but I was willing to try anything,” Thurman said. “Taking drugs to sleep, taking drugs to … just everything – it felt like a wet blanket. And so I was willing to try anything. And pretty fast, within a few weeks, was feeling some of the benefits.”
Yoga is scientifically proven to help reduce stress. For Thurman, the biggest benefit was a reduction in what he called the “mind chatter” he experienced with PTSD. For the first time in a long time, he felt relaxed. Yoga worked so well for him, he took a teacher training course to deepen his understanding of the practice. Eventually, Thurman decided to pursue yoga full time. In 2013, he left the Army.
“For me, as a teacher, what is it that you want to do with your yoga? For me it was twofold: one was to bring yoga to men,” Thurman said. “It’s a good workout. You get your cardiovascular on, you’re building strength, but you’re building flexibility and length in your muscles. The other (reason) was to specifically bring it to service members and veterans.”
The Pentagon – the place where this journey began for Thurman – hired him to teach a weekly class at the athletic center there. So every Thursday, you’ll find Thurman and a packed class of 40-50 students. He estimates his class is a mix of active duty military and civilians, as well as retired military.
“They come every Thursday at noon,” Thurman said, “which I think is a big statement, because when you look at someone who’s working at the Pentagon – to give you an hour of their time … I think that’s a big statement in and of itself.”
The VA estimates as many as 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD. In a move to cut down on prescription pain medicine, the U.S. Veterans Health Administration has started incorporating yoga into alternative therapy programs for PTSD.
Thurman says it certainly worked for him.
“I think you know, one of the things out of 9/11, is the fact that I have been able to become resilient and recover, and live my life. I have a responsibility to do that. For the people who lost their lives on that day, you have a responsibility to live and be well.”