This Sanctuary In The Blue Ridge Mountains Is Helping To Heal Our Nation’s Veterans

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” – John F. Kennedy

The wounds sustained in war aren’t always visible. And war isn’t always left behind on the field of battle.

Ken Falke, a 21-year combat veteran and the Founder and Chairman of the EOD Warrior Foundation, knows this firsthand. Ken served as a U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician and Master Chief Petty Officer, and was wounded in 1989.

Although he retired from service shortly after the war in Afghanistan began, Ken and his wife Julia ­– at the urging of an active duty friend ­– began to visit wounded EOD service members at Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Hospital. These visits eventually progressed to the Falkes inviting recovering veterans and their families to stay with them for short periods at their house in Bluemont, VA, which is only 50 miles from Washington, D.C.

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Photo: Boulder Crest Retreat

 

Seeing how refreshed their visitors were after these brief respites at their home, the Falkes were moved to do something bigger – something that would help more disabled veterans make successful transitions back to civilian life. They donated 37 acres of their land in Bluemont, drew up plans for a wellness retreat, and raised the money to build a rural sanctuary where combat veterans and their families could relax and continue – or, in some cases, start ­– their road to recovery.

The end product of the Falkes’ vision to help our country’s veterans is the Boulder Crest Retreat, which opened in 2013 and has since served over 1,000 service members and their families. With the mission of “Healing Heroes, One Family at a Time,” Boulder Crest is a wellness center geared toward the unique sets of challenges faced by combat veterans, including severe physical injuries, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

Ken Falke explains, “We are committed to improving the physical, emotional, spiritual and economic wellbeing of this remarkable community of heroes, and ensuring they have the opportunity to succeed in their new mission – a life of passion, purpose and service – here at home.”

Bluemont may only be 50 miles from the DC metropolitan area, but it is a world away from the frenetic pace of city life. Nestled among the rolling hills and bucolic valleys of Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains, Boulder Crest Retreat offers a serene, rural atmosphere and an abundance of natural beauty in which to rest, relax and recover.

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Photo: Boulder Crest Retreat

For six months out of the year, Boulder Crest Retreat serves as a place for combat veterans and their families to unwind and reconnect. Families can stay for two to seven nights, and during their stay can take advantage of activities such as archery, hiking and kayaking. Or they can do nothing at all and just relax in one of Boulder Crest’s four fully furnished – and handicapped accessible – cabins.

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Photo: Boulder Crest Retreat

Stays at Boulder Crest are free to the veterans and their families; they need only get themselves to Bluemont and provide their own groceries during their stay. This is especially beneficial to families of enlisted men and women, who might not otherwise be able to afford a much-needed getaway.

The benefits of this kind of retreat are summed up in one veteran’s comments after his family stayed at Boulder Crest: “The true healing nature of this experience lies in the fact that there are people left in the world who are willing to give and ask nothing in return. I have been deployed three times and had just about conceded to the fact that the very foundation of humanity that I have fought for was gone but the love, charity, sincerity, concern and understanding that was given to me and my family during our stay here reminded me of exactly what it is that was worth fighting for. That is what helps repair hurting hearts and troubled minds.’

The other six months of the year are devoted to intense therapeutic programs, including Boulder Crest’s flagship combat stress recovery program, PATHH (Progressive and Alternative Therapies for Healing Heroes). This unique program is open not just to warriors, but also their spouses, their families, and their caregivers. There are one-day sessions on career building, plus special programs for Gold Star families.

Boulder Crest estimates that more than 700,000 combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with some form of combat-related stress. Suicide rates are high among veterans ­– some estimates put it as high as 22 per day – and the Veterans Administration consistently fails to provide timely and effective care to our nation’s warriors. Falke told Opportunity Lives that while the VA does exceptional work in many areas, such as prosthetics, they – and the nation as a whole – don’t do well in the area of mental health.

He explains the idea behind PATHH: “One of the keys to our success is that our team acknowledges and discusses the truth about life. Life is hard – and full of ups and downs. Very few of us have ever been exposed to the tools we need to handle those so that we can live life on life’s terms. At its core, PATHH is training for life – it enables these remarkable men and women to tap their inner strength and capabilities and develop new tools and abilities so they can be as productive here at home as they were on the battlefield.”

Coming from a place of empathy, the PATHH program focuses on education, group therapeutic activities, group recreational activities and “taking it home” ­– individual life strategies to ensure the warriors’ success in the long term. One of the more unique strategies is the use of Boulder Crest’s meditative labyrinth, a series of stone pavers that is two-thirds of a mile in length, and which requires navigating a series of concentric loops in a meditative state, taking one step at time; once the center of the labyrinth is reached, the warrior takes time to reflect on their journey before making their way back out. According to Falke, techniques like this provide the “thread” that helps our warriors put the war behind them.

Falke estimates that programs like PATHH can prevent up to 80% of warriors from having to seek out the “medical model”, which relies primarily on medication as a means of dealing with mental health issues. He notes that medication can do more harm than good, as it often leads to a state of mind that makes it difficult to deal with issues in the long term.

Boulder Crest’s innovative approach to mental health care for veterans is making a difference in the lives of many. After completing the PATHH program, one veteran said of his experience: “After years of therapy, technology and medication, I was finally shone a real PATHH. A path that doesn’t seem so daunting to walk. Thank you BCR, I am going to take advantage of this second chance at life that I deserve.”

Boulder Crest’s programs are open to all branches of the military – both active duty and retired – and they welcome every generation of combat veterans to participate. Ken Falke’s vision is to have a network of Boulder Crest facilities across the nation to serve even more combat veterans and their families. As Ken sees it, “Philanthropy and innovation in the veteran sector is the solution.”

Boulder Crest Retreat is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and is entirely funded through private donations from individuals, foundations and corporations. You can make a donation here.

Teri Christoph is a contributor for Opportunity Lives, a co-founder of Smart Girl Politics, an online community for conservative women, and a full-time fundraiser for conservative candidates and causes. She lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with her husband and four children. Follow Teri on Twitter @TeriChristoph.