Volunteer Spotlight: Kristine Ringler
Written by Abby Rosmarin
Anyone who works in the helping and healing modalities can attest: sometimes the first person you have to help is yourself.
Likewise, everyone past a certain age can remember where they were when 9/11 happened. For a lot of us, there is a distinct line in the sand: life before, and life after.
Before 9/11, Kristine had wanted to engage in humanitarian work, but couldn’t afford to join the Peace Corps while also attending graduate school – so she found a job within the Army Reserves’ Civil Affairs force.
“Their focus is to conduct humanitarian projects overseas for the Army,” says Kristine. “At the time (pre 9/11), Civil Affairs units were traveling to places like Haiti to help rebuild after hurricanes or traveling to Africa on peacebuilding missions.”
Before that, Kristine had had an idyllic rural upbringing in Minnesota.
“My parents had been raised on farms and so I enjoyed a childhood of visiting relatives in the country, collecting chicken eggs, catching frogs, and fishing in creeks,” says Ringer.
Kristine had grown up around the military. Her father had been in the Army National Guard; her uncles were in the Army and Air Force, respectively. Kristine received her bachelor’s in Communication and was a researcher for the North Dakota State University Foundation, which was a nonprofit that focused on a slew of charitable projects for the campus. However, it wasn’t until Kristine wanted to get her Master’s did she decide to enter the military and subsequently joined the Civil Affairs.
However, as it did for many people, 9/11 upended plans.
Kristine can still remember that day, experiencing the news of the terrorist attacks from Minneapolis.
“Everything in downtown seemed to stop. People walked outside onto the sidewalks and I remember how scared everyone looked. I didn’t realize then how much things would change – for the United States, The World and for me personally.”
Kristine would fully join the Army Reserves in 2002 as an enlisted soldier. She wanted to do the Civil Affairs job; however, there was no straight track to do this as an officer. She went to basic training that summer, and eventually onto her job specialization training at Ft. Bragg’s Special Warfare School.
“I still didn’t understand the depth of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan at that time. I was at a friend’s wedding when I received a phone call from the Operations NCO at my Battalion letting me know that I would be deployed to Iraq [in the summer of 2004]. I went outside from the wedding reception to get a breath of fresh air. The weight of the news was paralyzing to me. I didn’t understand what all of it meant at that moment.”
Kristine would be entering a world of unclear objectives and changing job functions.
“We didn’t have a lot of information of how long we’d be there, where exactly we’d be going or what exactly our mission would be. At the same time many of the past policies with the Department of Defense (DoD) were changing rapidly. Decisions were being made that had never happened before.”
Originally, the Civil Affairs unit’s objective would’ve been to help rebuild and assist after conflict.
“However, because of 9/11, the DoD changed its composition of how Civil Affairs would operate. The DoD had decided that Civil Affairs would be deployed and augmented with active duty components during the conflict to help mitigate relationships with Iraqis and Afghans. This was something I was not prepared for and I’m not sure many of my peers were either.”
Kristine’s time in Baghdad was one of constant stress and fear.
“We had heard about the IED’s and other threats. Female soldiers had price tags on their heads and other various news sent chills down everyone’s spines.”
However, Kristine was still able to help the Iraqis.
“We found a way to help farmers with their herds of sheep and cows. We helped rebuild schools, water wells and brought school supplies where we could. We worked with local translators and did the best we could in a hostile environment.”
This would mark the beginning of seven years of overseas work: “as a solider in Iraq and Kosovo with a Civil Affairs Unit conducting humanitarian work, as a social science advisor in Basra, Baghdad and Ninewa, Iraq for the US Army, and as an instructor for an international development company teaching a program management tool throughout Afghanistan.”
Yoga came into Kristine’s life after her first deployment, to help with injuries.
“I had carried around nearly 40 lbs of body armor and other equipment while in Iraq and the effects of the weight started creeping in. I had also sustained training injuries to one of my hips that made it painful to walk or stand.”
However, it was after her second deployment that she turned to it as a way to cope with the stress of her overseas work.
“This is when I experienced a sense of community, a sense of calm and grounding in the practice.”
The work Kristine had been doing was taking a toll on her, mentally and physically.
“I slept for days and still felt exhausted,” she says. “I had doctors tell me that my adrenal glands had physical bruising and that my cortisol levels that help balance stress hormones were nearly depleted. I remember the look of the doctor’s face. She looked at me in disbelief, like she had never seen that before.”
When Kristine was deployed to Iraq for a second time, she brought her mat with her.
“I would roll my mat out in the early morning before the sun rose when the mosques in a nearby Northern Iraq town began their morning prayers. It was during this time I felt the connection to a yoga practice on a deeper level. My body was feeling better, I was more centered and calm even within conflict environment. I also experienced the human connection during the call to prayer. It was a peaceful and grounding time for the Iraqis in the nearby village and it made me realize how connected we all are. That we are all just looking for peace and well-being.”
Kristine finished her time working for the military back in America, at West Point as a research consultant in Geography and Behavioral Sciences. She became a registered yoga teacher in 2012 and began teaching classes. It also around this time that she discovered Veterans Yoga Project.
“I found an article online by Dr. Dan Libby during his time at Yale University that discussed with evidence how yoga benefits veterans and PTSD recovery. I reached out via email to learn more.”
However, even though she knew about the training for yoga teachers, Kristine was hesitant.
“I immediately felt reluctance because it would mean I would have to face my own experiences. I started coming up with excuses for not being able to make the Hartford, CT training that July in 2013. Dr. Libby then told me, ‘just come and be.’”
Kristine was offered a full scholarship, which she accepted. This marked a different seven-year journey, this time with VYP.
“After the training I started asking how I could volunteer to pay back the generosity of the scholarship. I did various tasks for the organization, and then in the winter of 2013 Dr. Libby asked me to be a part of the first board of directors and we officially formed the non-profit status of VYP as a 501(c)(3). I have served as the Board Vice President ever since.”
Kristine has served on outreach, working committees, and various projects when needed. She currently works with the Development Committee.
“We are striving to create the first fundraising arm for the organization and to help it grow in a more long-term sustainable way,” she says.
The Veterans Yoga Project has made a profound impact on her life. She lauds the Veterans Yoga Project for its inclusiveness, empowerment, and understanding – which includes understanding that sometimes yoga might not be the right path for someone at the current moment.
“Maybe yoga and sitting meditation is not something that works for one veteran but it does for another. It definitely has positive benefits, but everyone is different for how they find what works for them,” she says. “VYP is expanding its offerings because it knows that there are many other modalities out there. In the end the organization wants everyone to feel good about their experiences however that looks.”
On top of her work with VYP, Kristine teaches yoga every Monday evening at the Fargo VA. Kristine credits yoga for helping her manage the after-effects of her work overseas, but knows that healing is an ongoing process.
Interested in working with Veterans Yoga Project? Consider becoming a volunteer. Or, take one of our teacher training classes in Mindful Resilience for Trauma and give back to veterans in need.