Veteran families find reconnection, renewal, hope in the outdoors. Project Sanctuary retreat #22
Granby, Co, March 2012.
Project Sanctuary’s therapeutic retreat #22 started off pretty much like most. Twelve stressed out military families arrived Friday night, wide eyed and not sure what to expect for their six day adventure. For this particular retreat we had partnered with Sierra Club (they understand the benefit of outdoor recreation).
“Military children serve too, and we’ve found that connecting these children with the outdoors allows them to not only have fun, but gives them and their families a sense of resiliency,” said Stacy Bare, Sierra Club Mission Outdoors Military Families and Veterans Representative. “The outdoors heals.”
This March in Colorado is officially MUD season, so planned snow activities like tubing and Horse drawn sleds were nixed. YMCA of the Rockies and the PS staff quickly added new activities like Horse Back riding, Yee Haw! Our twelve families came from all over the county to enjoy, not only horses, but wagon rides, hikes, snow mobiles, Healthy Marriage Classes and Financial Peace classes. We even had an acupuncturist show up for free evaluations and services. Cups and needles galore!! Country Music Singer, Barry Michaels, provided our families with an intimate private concert! Kids were singing “Don’t’ Uncountryfy Me” for the rest of the week!
Our families were a mix of active duty, Veterans, some with physical wounds, but most with invisible wounds. Two of the families were “dual”, meaning both mom and dad serve. And one very special family was divorced. With a deployment for dad looming in the next few days, this family came together for their three kids.
TBI stands for Traumatic Brain Injury. It is one of the”invisible wounds of war”. When a service man or woman is near an explosion or for whatever reason their brain gets rattled, the injuries can be lifelong. One of the common problems is sensitivity to light. Most of the “guys” wear dark glasses to keep from getting migraines. So picture a beautiful Colorado day, and we have a professional photographer, Steven Willis, lined up to get those family portraits, outdoors……..
One of the first families to show up is a young Veteran, Chris , his wife Allison and their two small girls. He is donning really dark sunglasses. As they are poised on the log, the wife whips out her sun glasses and puts them on. Hey? What is going on? She doesn’t have TBI and it certainly isn’t bright? Steven snaps away.
Then the next family shows up. Again, this Soldier is wearing dark sun glasses and so is the wife. And then the third family, same story. As we watched the silent service and support that these spouses portrayed, we had chills. This is their life. To them living with TBI is part of their new normal. And heck, doesn’t everyone wear dark glasses in their professional family portraits?
As the retreat progressed we heard from many of the “sunglass wives” that the retreat was life changing. That this was the first time in many years their husbands were not only being social, but enjoying it! Being outside and getting stuck in the mud is a spontaneous group bonding activity. And is actually therapeutic! Anything to get these families engaged, outdoors and with others!
The kids had a blast, swinging in the fresh air, connecting with other kids. We never saw an iPod, phone, game system or heard a child complain about the lack of TV. They were too busy PLAYING and just being kids.
Now we don’t proclaim to fix marriages or save lives. There is no magic and no purple Kool-Aid. What Project Sanctuary does is provide a safe, loving place for these families to heal. They do all they work. For Retreat #22, it seems the families did extra work. There were lots of tears during check out, families trading emails, making plans for after; just what we love to see. A drastic contrast to the reported 18 Veteran suicides that happen every single day.
The email I got following the retreat is a testament to the strength and resilience of our military families.
The subject line was “NEW PURPOSE IN LIFE”. Chris, our young Veteran in Dark Sunglasses, is moving to Florida to take care of his Grandfather. Because like most military families, they step up to the plate. But because of TBI and Post Traumatic Stress he had lost grip on his personal goals. His wife Allison and their two daughters were always there and exemplified support and just how the families serve every day.
In his email he outlined a new direction, a new passion, HOPE, and a future. Chris wants to give back and help other Veterans through raising livestock. Yep, help other Veterans. Chills. So yes, this family’s glasses may be dark, but their future is, once again, bright.
-Heather Ehle, Executive Director and Founder of Project Sanctuary