How Veterans Can Fight Their Way Through PTSD
Growing number of retreat centers work to heal what medication and occasional therapy can't
Veterans Day originated with the signing of the armistice that ended World War I on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It differs from Memorial Day, which celebrates the lives of all those who died in the service of the country. The Veterans Day holiday celebrates all those veterans who survived their service and who still contribute to society in meaningful, significant, and essential ways.
Veterans are among the most honorable of our society — yet they are also among the most vulnerable.
Reports from the Journal of the American Medical Association show that only 40 percent of veterans who test positive for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ever get referred for further care. About 20 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. These sobering statistics — and these men and women — have experts across the country calling for new and more effective treatments for PTSD.
A new program centered in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Bluemont, Virginia, however, could be developing a network that achieves higher levels of recovery for soldiers returning from war. The program, called Warrior PATHH (for Progressive and Alternative Training for Healing Heroes), teaches military men and women how to turn their post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth.
"We've fallen into the medical model of talk therapy and medications," said Ken Falke, chairman and founder of Boulder Crest Retreat and a veteran himself. "What's wrong with the medical model, in my opinion, is that it really teaches us how to live with a diminished version of ourselves. Our belief is that combat veterans are very strong, and the last thing you want them to do is come home and live with a diminished version of themselves. How do they really come back to society and become that great asset that they are? We're teaching them to thrive rather than survive."
Veterans from across the country can attend the program at Boulder Crest Retreat for free, thanks to the generosity of private sponsors and donors. The men and women come to the location in Virginia for a seven-day immersion and training program. They rise every morning at 7 a.m. and begin training, which is often centered around activities that have some anchor in warrior traditions, such as archery and kayaking.
On the 3.5-hour kayaking trip, life coaches use the river as a metaphor for life: sometimes fast-paced, sometimes slow, sometimes tumultuous. During the trip, the participants contemplate their lives and the path they want to take.
- Almost 31% of Vietnam veterans
- 10% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans
- 11% of veterans of the war in Afghanistan
- 20% of Iraqi war veterans
- Many servicemen and servicewomen have been shot at, seen their buddies killed, or witnessed death up close. These types of events can lead to PTSD.
The whole program revolves around setting goals for the future that encompass "mind, body, spirit, [and] finances."
"We added in [finances] because it's such a realistic and tangible issue for these men and women who are transitioning out of the military and may not have a job, may not have a guaranteed income," Falke told LifeZette. He said many of the veterans who have chosen suicide in his community have focused almost exclusively on financial problems. The coaches at Boulder Crest connect veterans to community resources such as Hire Our Heroes, which can help them improve their resumes and mentor them through the job application process.
Following the immersion program, the veterans return home to their communities and implement their goals. The coaches at Boulder Crest and other peer-to-peer mentors connect with them via Skype every week for the first month and hold them accountable to those goals. They continue connecting on a monthly basis for the next 18 months.
"If you add those hours, it comes out to 75 hours of contact time," Falke said.
That's a vastly superior model to a one-hour occasional discussion with a therapist.
The program aims to get veterans, who are highly motivated by service as a group, to get back into their communities and serving again. "One the final phases of post-traumatic growth, what we would call a post-traumatic growth indicator, is that you are healthy enough to provide quality service back to others as well," Falke explained.
He tells countless stories of vets who take varied paths to that service. One vet was a former helicopter pilot who tried to commit suicide four times. He was ready to divorce his wife and separate from his two teenage children. When he left the program, he became certified to teach yoga and turned part of his property into an equine therapy arena.
"It's amazing to watch a journey like that," said Falke.