Veterans struggling with PTSD find peace and support at spiritual retreats
By ALISSA WIDMAN NEESE | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: June 11, 2018
UNIONTOWN, Ohio (Tribune News Service)— 15 years and five psychologists later, Jeff Robinson still couldn't overcome the crippling after-effects of combat.
He isolated himself as he struggled with depression and stress. His relationships with his wife and children suffered. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors prescribed him drugs he said he didn't want, leaving him feeling helpless.
This year, a friend and fellow veteran suggested a religious retreat.
It changed everything, he said.
In one week, Robinson, 49, of Uniontown near Akron, finally shattered the walls he couldn't break through all those years. Supported by more than a dozen other veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, the Marine Corps veteran said the experience at The Wilds, near Cumberland in Guernsey County, culminated with a baptism in a lake. The spiritual moment helped him reclaim control of his life and his relationship with God, he said.
"I never dreamed of something like that happening," Robinson said. "I felt like I dropped 100 pounds of excess baggage I didn't need to be carrying around anymore."
For six months of the year, Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs, a Temecula, California nonprofit group, is helping veterans like Robinson overcome post-combat stress by hosting monthly retreats at The Wilds, a 10,000-acre wildlife conservation center about 70 miles southeast of Columbus.
This is the group's first Midwest location. It also hosts retreats in California, Texas and Virginia, and has outposts that offer support in those states and in Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma and Washington.
Robinson was prepared to fly as far as necessary to get help with the Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs. But he was surprised and happy to learn he had instead been assigned to a retreat within driving distance.
He graduated as part of the first Mighty Oaks class in Ohio on May 25. The June retreat is this week, with a graduation ceremony on Friday.
The retreats at The Wilds are possible because of a $2 million gift from Bill Straker, a World War II veteran and oil and gas industry executive from Zanesville. The gift built seven cabins and a large lodge surrounding one of the many lakes at The Wilds, which opened this year for public rentals.
One week each month, Mighty Oaks uses all the cabins at what is now called Straker Lake for its faith-based, Christian programming.
Each retreat will host a different group of veterans from across the United States. They will participate in classes, group work and recreational activities. An added perk of the location at The Wilds is an up-close encounter with exotic animals, including southern white rhinoceroses.
Since 2011, Mighty Oaks has graduated about 2,000 people.
All of the program's associated costs, including travel, are covered, but it has a waiting list.
Long after the retreat ends, most participants stay in touch, creating a long-lasting support system — something struggling veterans really need, said Jeremy Stalnecker, Mighty Oaks' executive director.
Nationally, an average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the most recent Veterans Affairs data.
In 2014, more than 7,400 veterans took their own lives, accounting for 18 percent of all suicides in the nation, according to a 2016 VA report. Veterans make up less than 9 percent of the U.S. population.
No Mighty Oaks graduate has committed suicide, Stalnecker said.
He credits much of the program's success to its "team leaders," who coordinate retreat activities. They're all veterans and Mighty Oaks graduates themselves, which helps foster understanding and personal connections, he said.
Mighty Oaks also offers programs for first-responders, law-enforcement officers, female veterans and military spouses.
Aaron Siegel, 32, a Delaware County deputy sheriff from Bucyrus who helped lead the May retreat, said he graduated three years ago. The Navy veteran entered the program a skeptic, arms crossed, he said.
That didn't last long.
"Within the first hour, they were helping me learn how to deal with things I had never dealt with before, because it was too difficult," Siegel said.
Now, he wants to have the same impact on others.
Robinson said he, too, felt nervous and doubtful the first day but is now recommending the program to others. He also is coming back to The Wilds in July to support other veterans on graduation day.
"As graduates now, I feel like it's our responsibility to pay it forward, to get other people the help they need that helped us," Robinson said. "You learn to be thankful for what you have, instead of a victim of what you went through."
People can apply to participate in the Mighty Oaks Warrior Programs at mightyoaksprograms.org.
Veterans and their loved ones can contact the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential help 24/7 by calling 1-800-273-8255, ext. 1, sending a text message to 838255 or visiting the online chat at veteranscrisisline.net.