Back From the Battlefields, Soldiers Find Healing Ground

Virginia retreat offers veterans sanctuary from war's ravages.

Sixty miles outside of downtown Washington, D.C., the air seems lighter at the Boulder Crest Retreat. This is where some 800 U.S. service members and their families have come over the past year to seek comfort and refuge from the ravages of war.

By the time guests pull through the Virginia retreat's gates, the noise of the city has been swallowed by the Blue Ridge mountains. A noticeable calm covers the property—from the horses languidly grazing in their paddocks and the rhythmic gushing of a fountain to the picturesque log cabins nestled into the mountainside.

Boulder Crest is a 37-acre sanctuary that welcomes active-duty service members, veterans, and their families to spend a week taking part in alternative therapies designed to bring about physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. Many guests arrive at the retreat grappling with recent combat-related amputations, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, or a combination of these.

Founded by Navy veteran Ken Falke, the retreat isn't government subsidized. Thanks to extensive fund-raising, however, the entire experience is free.

When Falke decided in 2010 to create the retreat, it was the first approach of its kind. Since then, similar places have started to pop up around the country. Falke hopes this trend continues. "We'd like to replicate our proven business model in other communities with large military and veteran populations," he says.

Considering that over the past 13 years more than 2.6 million service members have returned from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan—with more than a million injured and rates of post-traumatic stress and suicide at all-time highs—there will be no lack of guests for these programs.

Returning to Baseline

"When veterans get here, there is normally that first-day anxiety of 'what have I signed up for?' " says Falke. "But usually after the first few days, people begin opening up and talking, and by the last day they are hugging," he says. "It is an interesting dynamic of people who won't talk to you on Monday to people who are your best friends on Friday."

Among the sessions offered throughout the week are yoga, equine therapy (which involves caring for horses), meditation, acupuncture, acupressure, art therapy, journaling, and therapeutic horticulture (gardening).

"The whole point is to get people moving so the brain releases chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine—all of which have a positive influence on depression and moods," says Falke.

One of Falke's favorite success stories concerns a veteran who'd been in the military for 30 years and was "tough as a man could be." For two days he walked around the retreat wearing sunglasses and staring at the ground, with a rucksack over his shoulder. "This was his way of coping," says Falke. "Always being ready to move."

The veteran finally decided to participate in an equine therapy session midway through the week and the next morning came to a meeting with no sunglasses, no rucksack, and a smile. "He was literally a changed man," says Falke. "He wasn't healed when he left here, by any means—we helped him get into regular therapy—but he was a changed man."

"I've never seen anything like this," says clinical psychologist Bret Moore, who notes that it can take up to a year or longer to see progress from traditional psychotherapy, because it's typically administered one hour a week. "What they've done here in the past two days—about 14 hours of therapy—you don't get that anywhere else.

"It's frustrating to see how the media portrays our veterans as broken," Moore adds. "But that's not really the case. Most of our soldiers are very resilient and return to baseline on their own after months of being home." He explains that a minority of service members need the extra help to return to "baseline," which is why a place like Boulder Crest is so important.

Out of the Labyrinth

In the meadow behind the horse paddocks winds a gray-brick labyrinth. Falke says he built it because "the labyrinth is a medieval form of mobile meditation." Upon returning home from war, he explains, a warrior would carry his sword and shield as he made his way through the labyrinth thinking about the friends he had lost and the men he had killed. When he reached the center, the warrior would leave his sword and shield behind and reflect on the future of his family and country. These reflections were supposed to help warriors heal and leave the horrors of war behind them.

"The problem is that our system is broken," says Falke. "Our soldiers don't have any sort of facilitation to ease back into society after war. That last journey through the labyrinth for those warriors was crucial and helped them move on.

"The whole concept of Boulder Crest is to get veterans to walk that labyrinth to the center, be able to leave their burdens there, and walk out with a new sense of purpose."