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U. of New Mexico retreat helps vets retool for school

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For veterans who have recently returned to the “real world,” particularly those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, transitioning from the military to life on a college campus can be rough.

In some ways, these veterans are probably wise beyond words. But at the same time, they may require nurturing to help them decompress from the razor-wire, explosive reality of a war zone to the much more peaceful campus environment. The University of New Mexico, home to more than 1,000 student veterans, is aware of the changes the former fighters may be going through and the bond they share with one another.

This fall, for the second time in as many years, the university’s Student Health & Counseling office is sponsoring a retreat for veterans at a remote ranch high in the mountains about 50 miles west of Taos.

The cost is $500 per person, but thanks to donors, there is no charge to the veterans for the time they spend at the Vallecitos Mountain Ranch. The retreat is hoping to attract 25 war veterans.

The deadline to apply is March 31. The retreat begins Sept. 11 and wraps up Sept. 14.

Peggy Spencer of Student Health & Counseling, a medical doctor and driving force behind the retreat, said the purpose is “to offer something special.”

In a project description she wrote for funding requests, she noted that student veterans “are often older than their non-military peers, and have had unique experiences that set them apart. Many student veterans suffer unseen wounds of war, such as post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury.

“Without recognition and support, these students are at risk,” Spencer continued. “It is easy and far too common for veteran students to become isolated and emotionally distressed and falter in their education, even to drop out of school.”

Other professionals also staff the retreats, including Stephanie McIver, a psychologist and director of a UNM counseling program.

The Vallecitos Mountain Ranch is in a 135-acre wilderness, 8,880 feet above sea level. Its rustic, one-person cabins and yurts — circular tents similar to tepees — are simply furnished with bed, table, chair and lamp.

A main lodge serves as a communal meeting room and an adjacent dining room offers vegetarian meals.

Separate bathhouses for men and women include toilets and hot indoor and outdoor showers. The ranch is far from the electrical grid, so lighting in the buildings and yurts is powered by the sun. There are no electrical outlets for personal appliances or electronic devices.

Christopher Baeza, a 31-year-old Navy veteran who went on last year’s retreat, described the ranch as “beautiful beyond words.”

He recalled the first night, after everyone had gone to bed, sitting outside his “casita” under the mountain sky. “There were no cell phones, no communication,” he said. “It was completely dark and so quiet it was like a dream, a good dream, not a nightmare. I couldn’t hear any bugs or any birds, nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

In the morning, the air would be cold when the vets would gather in the main lodge for meditation. The ranch director would already have a fire going in the hearth and the aromas of breakfast would fill the room. After meditating, they would go about their day, which usually involved hiking in “the wonderfully peaceful setting.”

Baeza said he comes from a Christian background and the meditation was something of a surprise. “But it was really awesome — it was very calming and soothing and very rewarding,” he said. Today, a year later, to unwind he still practices some of the techniques he learned on the retreat.

Coast Guard veteran Angelina Vega, 32, said the experience was “so wonderful I don’t know where to start. I didn’t know places like that existed in New Mexico.”
 

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