Couples leave Virginia retreat armed with tools to alleviate weight of war

Iraq war veteran Lucas Lewis, left, his wife Christine Lewis, fellow veteran Adrian Veseth-Nelson, his wife Diana and retreat staffer Misty Williams gather for a final cheer at the end of the Bridging the Gap retreat in Middleburg, Virginia on Dec. 12, 2015.


By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 19, 2016

“The people attending this retreat through the nature of their traumatic experiences have seen the very worst side of humanity. But these retreats show them the very best side. …. There is one central truth that has never changed for me. And that is, that the only force of nature powerful enough to overcome the moral injuries that are inherent to traumatic experiences is a strong sense of community and human connection.”

— From “Overcoming Moral Injuries,” a digital TEDx talk by retired Army Maj. Josh Mantz, whose injuries nearly led him to suicide. He was a patient of Victoria Bruner as she created her retreat model.

MIDDLEBURG, Va. — And then it was over. They filled out their questionnaires, said their goodbyes and stepped out of the bubble that had formed around them.

Six couples came to this retreat in Virginia because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had wreaked havoc on their lives and relationships. They’d been skeptical: Nothing had worked. What could a long weekend do?

By the last day, former strangers were hugging. Laughter carried through the house, and couples were talking about how much better they felt, how much they learned. The men openly acknowledged the enormity of the war they carry. Too often, they said, they shut their partners out of their pain and got lost in anger and frustration. Unable to connect, their partners suffered, taking the brunt of a trauma they didn’t understand.

Early Bridging the Gap retreat results look promising

Couples were reaching across frayed seams of their relationships to try to strengthen their bonds.

They tried yoga breathing, sleep techniques, meditation, acupuncture, equine therapy and the ancient Chinese energy practice of Qigong — easier once they saw Bronze Star recipient Adrian Veseth-Nelson embrace the techniques.

Adrian had been through the worst. He told the group he was living proof that you can come out the other side. His wife, Diana, told the women that it wasn’t easy, but they can learn ways to help the men — and their relationships. Adrian and Diana helped organize the retreat through their nonprofit Invisible Wound, which helps others with post-traumatic stress. They were also the mentoring couple on the retreat, to show the others — including two of Adrian’s former soldiers — that help is available.

Lucas Lewis and David Inglish watched their former platoon leader reach up to the sky for stretching and close his eyes to the sleep meditation called Integrative Restoration. They saw the strong relationship that Adrian and Diana have, and how openly they talk about the anxiety, sleeplessness, irrational bursts of anger and fear and frustration that disrupt all their lives.

David’s partner Renee Kuhler and Lucas’ wife, Christine, were startled by how much of the retreat was geared at them. Unlike the road that brought them here, they would not be alone on the road to recovery.

For four days, they talked, listened and breathed. It was revelatory. David slept. Renee laughed and smiled. Lucas found a day free from pain. Christine let relief wash over her. They weren’t alone.

Then, they headed home to the reality of their lives.

Christine and Lucas

They talked a lot on the ride home to Tennessee, sharing things they hadn’t said.

Christine told Lucas how much his isolation hurt her. That his efforts to protect her from the violence of his wars left her alienated and in the dark. Your battles belong to both of us, she said.

“I don’t think we had ever really talked about it, said out loud just how hard it was for me to deal with it all,” she said.

Then her husband, a man who does not like to talk about himself, said, “You know, you never really asked for all the details.”

So she listened. He told her the details about the day at war that entangled his soul. How it left him terrified — and angry. Scary angry.

The couple knew the test of how successful the retreat was would come once they got home, back to the stresses of work and parenting a small child. That things could pile up, and Lucas could withdraw into his shell.

“That’s going to be all of our biggest challenges,” Lucas said that last day of the retreat. “Going back to our old habits.”

The couple made a concerted effort. He looked for acupuncture but their local VA didn’t offer it. He would have to go Nashville or Atlanta — both two hours away. It frustrated him that veterans have to drive so far or pay out of pocket for healing treatments.

Instead, they tried essential oils. He tells her where it hurts, and she applies the oils. Their room now is a blast of scents.

“It’s amazing how well they work,” he said.

They changed their patterns too. He will walk away and say he needs a few minutes. And she’s learned how to bite her tongue and let him process. That is how she helps dismantle his triggers — something she learned at the retreat.

“He knows how I will react when he asks for space,” she said. “He doesn’t have to explain. All he has to do is say ‘I need a minute.’ ”

They still have times when things are rough. But neither feels all alone anymore. They want to stay involved with the others in the group because that will help them continue the hard work, she said.

He’s started reaching out to other veterans. “He loves to help people,” Christine said.

Lucas has a dream of buying some land, getting some cabins and holding local retreats, she said. In the meantime, he’s looking at starting groups for isolated local vets — and their wives.

“I thought that was just a perfect idea,” she said.

David and Renee

A week after the retreat, Adrian received a Facebook message from David.

“Dude, this retreat saved my life,” David wrote. “I can now see how much pent-up aggression I had inside. I was literally a walking time bomb. At first I thought it was all the meditation. But I think that guy who put the needles in my ears really worked. Literally saved my life. For the last few months leading up to this retreat, I literally was thinking of taking the easy way out.”

Things had been getting bad for months before the retreat. David’s nightmares were worse than ever and he was punching and screaming in his sleep. He and Renee started sleeping in different bedrooms.

He worked, smoked and played video games. Anything more, well, what was the point? One day he said he was going over their health insurance and thought to himself, “I am just going to max accidental death and dismemberment and then I am just going to punch out and all my stuff and Renee are all taken care of.”

A short time later, they had one of their fights. He was crying and told her what he’d been thinking about. She started crying too. It was good after that for a couple of days. But then they went back to screaming and yelling.

After the retreat, they started talking again. David believes it was the acupuncture. And the meditation.

The couple has been together for five years and they have a child together. But he’d never thought to explain what was going on with him.

“I was always mad that she didn’t understand,” he said. “But a big problem was me not talking about it.”

Now, he notices when he starts to get angry or stressed, and sometimes can change course before he boils over. Renee is also more able to stay calm. She’s there when he comes back and is ready to talk. And she’s ready to listen.

“So many horrible things go on in war,” she said. “I guess maybe, too, it’s hard to imagine David over there going through all that stuff. Not somebody else telling the story. It’s David.”

David couldn’t get acupuncture through his VA for his post-traumatic stress. But he did sign up for group mental health sessions. They reminded him of the retreat.

In mid-March, Vic and her staff ran another retreat in Chicago. David offered to participate as a peer-support veteran.

Renee didn’t join him. Her sister was due to have a baby.

But David reveled in being part of the process again. “I am still in awe of how much help can be given in a short amount of time,” he said.

He’s sure that the more of these he gets involved in, the more healing he will do. And the more he and Renee will communicate.

She needed to know what he had been through, he said.

One recent night, he woke up screaming. The next morning, she asked whether he’d had a bad dream. She’d never done that before, he said.

“It’s almost to the point where she’s like an Adrian or a Lewis,” David said. “I almost kind of feel that with her now.”

Adrian and Diana

It struck Adrian during the retreat how comforting it was to get his band of warriors back together. That bond forged in combat was real, he said. And they agreed to hold onto it.

Adrian also realized that his mental injuries only really surfaced after he left his unit. Now his unit was coming together in healing.

“Nothing is going to be cured in four days,” he said. “But you can change your mind to make a difference; you can open your eyes to new things. You can learn healing is possible.”

It takes constant maintenance to make it work, and Diana is there, always, to get him back on track if he falls down.

He watched his men learn that.

There’s hope in knowing you don’t have to sit there and hurt — and that hope is really addictive, he said.

“Knowing there is something other than a handful of pills that can help. That knowledge that you are not alone, but also that there are things that can help. There’s a lifeline there.”

Six weeks after the retreat, Jan. 26, 2016, marked the 10th anniversary of Crash Day — marking the day Adrian led David and Lucas into the worst battle of their deployment. Diana watched her husband turn dark and sullen.

So she created a toolkit — one Adrian could turn to whenever he was struggling. On a poster board, she drew up lists for him to choose from under five headings: supplements, at-home treatments, activities, therapeutic treatments and finally, medications. The options — dozens of them — ranged from taking vitamin D to brushing the dog, using a heating pad, or going for acupuncture or counseling.

At the bottom of the poster, there’s an asterisk. It says: Try one from each column before using medication.

She wanted Adrian to have tangible options.

“Relationships are complicated enough outside the challenge of post-traumatic stress,” Diana said. “You put PTS on top of it, it’s no wonder people need support. They need actual applicable tools. They need a plan.”

It is a constant, demanding commitment, she said. “I have moments when I see my brooding husband and I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be easier if my husband were a happy-go-lucky guy and I could go to malls and parades and his moods were predictable?’”

“But sometimes I think having a higher cause than ourselves helps,” she said. “Instead of hoping there is a community out there, you build it.”

Not alone

They came to Virginia, to this weekend retreat looking for a way to heal. The men, trying to find a way forward from the most powerful and often haunting times of their lives, their partners, looking for understanding.

For years, Christine focused on helping Lucas. Having people recognize that she also needs support came as such a revelation.

“It’s just a relief,” she said.

That’s one of the powers of this retreat, Diana said. Couples learn that the battle belongs to both of them. No one is alone.

The men rekindled a bond that they’d lost — only this time, incorporating their families.

On Mother’s Day, David asked Renee to marry him. It was the first time since he came home from deployment in 2006 that he was willing to put that kind of trust in marriage again. They are planning a small ceremony in October.

For more information about Bridging the Gap retreats, contact Invisible Wound:
Website: www.invisiblewound.org
Email: retreats@invisiblewound.org

Twitter: @diannacahn

Iraq war veteran Adrian Veseth-Nelson and his wife Diana, who served as the mentoring couple, partipate in the closing session of the four-day Bridging the Gap retreat for veterans traumatized by war or injury and their partners.