When Licensed Massage Therapist Erica Dailey came to the Travis Mills Foundation from the corporate world, she sought healing. Healing for the post-911 recalibrated veterans served at the organization, and healing for herself.
For many years Erica worked successfully in various fields – in healthcare as a certified nursing assistant, human resources and recruiting, scheduling and staffing in home healthcare, and credit card fraud investigation.
“They were all very high stress jobs,” she said, adding that she experienced a change in lifestyle when she moved from Portland, Maine, back north to her small hometown town of Carthage, Maine in 2008.
Less than a decade later in 2016, at about the age of 40, Erica decided that she wanted to exit the corporate world and find a career that was rewarding, but different. She was accepted to school for Licensed Massage Therapy, leaving the corporate world behind and working at night at a group home for independent developmentally delayed adults and attending school during the day.
“Since there were only 12 of us in the class, and we were all very busy, motivated adults; we decided to train on weekends as well to get through the course even faster,” she said.
The group completed the two-year program in a mere 16 months. As is required to be an LMT in Maine, students needed to complete over 530 hours of education and at least 100 massages for family and friends.
At the same time in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine, the Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat was being established, where massage was one of the features of the newly formed Family Program.
Many of the students in Erica’s class came on board with the
massage therapy program at TMF to complete their training hours, including Erica.
Erica, in fact, tapped in on her management experience to help grow the Massage Therapy program. Seven years later, Erica is the LMT at TMF, assisting in encouraging healing for post-911 recalibrated veterans and their families through therapeutic massage.
Massage Therapy at TMF
While massage therapy can be healing in a number of ways, there can be a resistance to it, which is why Erica works to make participants, especially the post-911 recalibrated veterans served at the Foundation, comfortable before their sessions.
When participants arrive to the massage room at the Foundation’s Health & Wellness Center, they begin by filling out a brief form about injuries and issues they’re having with their bodies, and identifying on a chart where exactly that pain is coming from.
“Sometimes they circle the entire body,” Erica said, adding that when they sit down together, she starts with a simple question: “‘What is your body saying to you today?’”
Clients are often taken aback by that question.
“For example, if they have a headache, I ask in what part of their head they are experiencing pain,” she said. “A headache in different parts of the head means different things.”
Through her own personal experiences, Erica understands trauma – physical, for certain, but she also understands the intricacies of emotional and mental trauma. Many people experience anxiety, depression, generational family trauma, and the terrible feeling of a loss of their previous purpose in life. Her experience helps her relate to both her veteran and non-veteran clients in all aspects of what they are going through.
When Erica made the leap from working in the corporate world, there were issues she started to address in her own life and she quickly learned how massage therapy can address more than physical trauma.
Erica developed crippling test anxiety while training to be a licensed massage therapist. This was difficult for her to understand.
“In school, I’d always ace tests and even finish them early,” she said, adding that other students called her “brainiac,” a nickname that wasn’t quite welcomed in middle school.
“I think it was part of the trauma that I was starting to process,” she said, adding that she had to abruptly leave the building during a test.
“I had to drive around and calm myself down,” Erica said.
She realized she was having a panic attack, and started performing a technique she learned called box breathing.
“I felt ashamed because of my anxiety – a feeling that was more shameful to me than anything,” she said. “I talked to my teachers, explained what was going on, and they were understanding.”
Once Erica communicated to others about her situation and found ways to test that didn’t induce anxiety, her feelings improved.
Erica has found that her lifelong ability as an empath – being highly attuned to the feelings and emotions of those around her – benefitted her in this special work.
It also has an unexpected effect on her: “I literally feel other people’s pain – I found myself going home with phantom pain.”
Before leaving the Retreat, Erica takes her time preparing the massage space for the next day’s clients to help shake off any negative feelings. She also performs grounding and clearing exercises for herself and the person on the massage table.
“I do a clearing with clients after each session,” she said. “‘I say, to close our session, I’m going to disconnect you from me, and me from you, so you don’t take me home with you and vice versa.”
Sometimes, the post-911 recalibrated veteran who comes to Erica for a session has severe Post-Traumatic Stress.
“They can’t even blink, at times; hyper awareness doesn’t allow them to relax,” she said. “Other folks feel more comfortable talking for 40 minutes beforehand – telling their personal stories and experiences before they can get on the table. All the words and feelings come out like a waterfall. It’s all OK.”
No matter the client’s process, Erica carefully works with them to ensure they are at ease during their sessions, whether that’s getting them comfortable on her massage table by using adaptations, and many pillows; or by utilizing a massage chair or even working with a client in their wheelchair, if that’s how they feel most cared for, relaxed, and comfortable.
While Erica can work in a number of different massage therapy modalities, she most often works with TMF participants in neuromuscular techniques, trigger point therapy, heat or cold therapy and reflexology. She went on to describe how the brain and muscles can work together – or not.
She gives an explanation to clients on what may help reduce pain and increase function.
“Sometimes the muscles aren’t listening to the brain, and the brain says to the muscles, ‘You know what you’re doing, but the “phone line” from that particular muscle has been disconnected by a past or recent injury, I’m going to use some techniques to reconnect that phone line so that your muscles have an easier time listening to your brain’s direction.’”
With massage therapy, Erica can open those lines of communication, so to say, by hitting certain trigger points in the body.
“A week later, or even right away, your brain might say to you that it’s ready to work together with those muscles and allow you to move in a way you couldn’t before,” she said.
“If you hit the right trigger points on the body, it can actually reset it, both physically and emotionally,” she added. “It’s like taking a dam out of a river.”
Erica also likes to mention gut health to clients as it’s not only an important part of your physical health, but emotional health as well.
“There are a lot of lymph nodes in the gut – a lot of trigger points, too,” Erica said. “In fact, over 75 percent of your body’s serotonin is stored in the belly.”
She often works with people for their emotional needs, as well as physical.
“It’s amazing. You can see the emotional transformation in a person,” she added.
Stretching, Erica advises, is especially important for amputees.
“They cannot fully stretch themselves like they want to because there is no counter weight,” she said, adding that she teaches them stretches they can do on their own.
“When participants are able to achieve something with their bodies that they couldn’t do before, they are so proud of themselves – I love that.”
Most of the participants Erica treated when TMF first opened came straight from recovery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Hospital. The Foundation’s late Vice President of Programming Kelly Roseberry trained Erica and the other students in her class on how to best work with amputees.
“It was very hard emotionally, for me, but I was very professional, and also kind and gentle,” she said.
The veterans Erica treats sometimes listen to music or sound therapy during massage.
“For some it’s death metal, whatever helps them relax and be open to healing,” she said, adding that others may want their wives in the room during the massage. Many also have their service dogs with them, a relationship that Erica greatly appreciates.
“If the veteran is asleep and maybe the dog is under the table or even on the table with them, or at my feet, and I start to put my elbow deep into the veteran’s muscles – even when they’re both asleep – just the dog could wake up and let out a little growl.”
“The connection they have is incredible,” she added.
Meeting SSG Travis Mills
Before she worked at the Travis Mills Foundation, Erica was delighted to meet U.S. Army SSG (Ret.) Travis Mills when she earned an award for hiring Vets at the large bank she worked for in Wilton, Maine. She focused on recruiting veterans at Maine Career Centers and Job Fairs.
“I noticed how many highly skilled veterans worked at the mills that were shutting down,” she said. “So I started focusing on hiring more veterans.”
Then, Erica said, the state of Maine also became involved in supporting the program, offering incentives to veterans, such as help with job coaches and resume reviews, interviewing skills, and gift cards for gas.
“Some of them went right to leadership,” she said. “They just needed that opportunity.”
When it came time to accept the award, she was nervous to walk across the stage and accept it, along with “Tough as They Come,” from Travis himself.
The experience, was inspiring.
“After, when I struggled, I would repeat in my head, ‘Never Give Up. Never Quit.’ Over and over again,” Erica said.
Travis’s lifelong motto of “Never Give Up. Never Quit,” carried him through recovery after losing portions of all of his limbs during his third tour of duty in Afghanistan.
It also serves to inspire the post-911 recalibrated veterans and their families who visit the Retreat, and Erica agrees.
“It’s helped so many veterans here.”
About The Travis Mills Foundation
The Travis Mills Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports post-9/11 veterans who experienced life-changing injuries while in service to our country. The Travis Mills Foundation Veterans Retreat offers our nation’s recalibrated veterans and their families a week-long, barrier-free, all-expenses-paid experience at its world-class Retreat in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine. It offers various programs that help these brave men and women overcome physical and emotional obstacles, strengthen their families, and provide well-deserved rest and relaxation. The Foundation also offers Warrior PATHH (Progressive & Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) for combat veterans and first responders, the nation’s first-of-its-kind program designed to cultivate and facilitate post-traumatic growth. Learn more >>>