Rural retreats offer traumatized veterans and their families time and support to heal
By HANNAH NATANSON | The Washington Post | Published: July 17, 2019
In 2007, Allen Rogers stopped leaving his bedroom.
Public places transported the 49-year-old veteran right back to Afghanistan, where he spent a year on active duty in the mid-2000s. Haunted by memories of women, children and donkeys "stuffed" with explosives, he grew suspicious of passersby.
"I just felt like everyone was out to get me, like I would explode if I went outside," said Rogers, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. "Over there, you couldn't tell the difference between a soldier and a civilian."
For months, all he did was watch TV and eat meals delivered by his wife, Christina Rogers. He withdrew from his family. He began answering questions with shouted expletives; he stopped looking at his two children. Over three years, Christina Rogers suffered 400 seizures, which doctors told her appeared to be brought on solely by stress.
"For so long, all I knew was just that he was angry," she said.
That's how life went until the family found Project Sanctuary.
The nonprofit group, based in Granby, Colorado, offers free six-day retreats in bucolic settings for veteran and military families. Participants take a wide range of classes, including on dealing with PTSD, managing household finances and communicating effectively. They also break for recreational activities like rock climbing and fishing.
Since its founding in 2007, the nonprofit agency has hosted 180 retreats in seven states serving about 1,400 families. This month, it held its first retreat in Maryland, attended by the Rogerses and 10 other families.
Heather Ehle, the founder and CEO of Project Sanctuary, said she is helping military families navigate the difficult readjustment to civilian life. Research has shown that U.S. servicemembers and veterans struggle to keep jobs and marriages after deployment, and that this has negative effects on family and friends.
Sometimes, the worst happens. Roughly 22 veterans die by suicide every day, according to data compiled by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"People commit suicide because they feel disconnected from themselves — they knew who they were as a warrior, but they don't know who they are as a dad," Ehle said. "We offer a sanctuary, a safe space of healing: We're connecting them back to themselves and their immediate family."
Jasmine Townsend, a professor of recreational therapy at Clemson University, said Project Sanctuary is unique in involving the entire family. "If we're only focused on soldiers and their needs, we are leaving out a massive side of the story," Townsend said.
The Rogerses flew seven hours from their Nampa, Idaho, home to Reisterstown, Maryland, eager to repeat the life-changing experience they had at the June 2016 Project Sanctuary retreat in Grand County, Colorado. They had heard of the program from a military friend who participated.
"It was the best thing we could have done," Christina Rogers said of their first retreat. "He realized he's not alone, I realized I'm not alone, the kids realized they're not alone — there are others, and we share a common bond."
Allen Rogers nodded. By talking to other veterans in Colorado, he said, he found a way to explain the one thing his wife had never understood: the reason he could not meet their children's gazes. Now, sitting side by side, the couple said it together.
"When he looks at our children, he sees ..." Christina faltered.
Allen reached over and gripped her hand.
"The life I took away in Afghanistan," he said.
'Why are they not getting care?'
At first, Ehle struggled to make people believe in Project Sanctuary.
Some saw her lack of military ties (she is a civilian) as proof she was "just in it to make money off veterans," Ehle said. Plus, she is a woman — and blond, she noted.
But she had fun with it.
"I would walk into a crowded room wearing red high heels, a little pencil skirt, and have my hair big, up, and blond," Ehle, now 51, recalled of early meetings with state officials and veterans groups. "Then I would sit there and suddenly go, 'What about the spouses? The families? Who's taking care of them?' "
Asked why she wanted to help military families, Ehle gave the same answer she gives today: It started in the early 2000s, when she was midway through her former career as a nurse. At the time, Ehle was volunteering at a free health clinic that sometimes saw veterans of the 1991 Gulf War.
She spent hours giving former soldiers steroid injections and drawing blood for lab tests. But she also listened as they spoke of pain nobody seemed to understand. And she watched as families loitered in the clinic's waiting room, unattended.
"I kept thinking, 'Why are they not getting care? Why are we not taking care of our vets?' " Ehle said. "Something is wrong. He's not making this up. But nobody is taking them seriously."
In part inspired by chats with families at the clinic, she came up with the idea of a retreat center for military parents and children. The only way to help, Ehle was convinced, was to "get the whole family together."
For a year, she woke up every morning thinking about the idea. Finally, she took a leap: Pulling the funds from her own pocket, she held the first Project Sanctuary retreat in the spring of 2008 with just one family. The second came a few months later with five families. Word got around, and demand exploded.
Today, Sanctuary hosts 30 retreats a year, each attended by 10 to 12 families. The nonprofit group receives 350 applications annually and accepts as many as it can: about 300, Ehle said. All applicants must do is complete a form online.
Ehle switched to running Project Sanctuary full-time in 2010. Now, she spends her days overseeing the group's 20 employees — including licensed professional counselors, recreational therapists and social workers — seven of whom are full-time. But she also devotes a lot of time to raising money. Project Sanctuary is funded mostly by grants and donations. Last year, it took in $2 million, just about enough to "skid in break-even," Ehle said. Its target this year is $3 million.
"There's never been a place where, 'Oh well, we can relax now,' " Ehle said, adding that Project Sanctuary wants to increase its yearly retreats to 40 by 2024.
As it expands, the nonprofit agency is also tracking how its participants fare post-retreat. Townsend and other professors of recreational therapy conducted a study of Project Sanctuary outcomes in 2016, checking in with attendees right before, right after, three months and six months after their retreat.
The professors found that Project Sanctuary leads to "immediate changes in psychological functioning," Townsend said. Specifically, it reduces depression, anxiety and stress — and those gains persisted throughout the period examined.
Jamie Hoffman, a professor of recreational therapy at California State University at Sacramento who also worked on the study, said the program's success is due partly to its family focus and partly to the professional qualifications of its staff.
"Allowing families to engage in recreational therapy that is purposeful and goal-oriented creates outcomes where people can re-establish interests and commonalities and a sense of community and adventure," Hoffman said. "And that's a really important thing for these families."
Can't fix everything
Still, Project Sanctuary can't fix everything.
At their first retreat, the Rogerses learned how to talk through disagreements. Fortified by that and other lessons, Allen Rogers isolates himself less often now, obeying Christina Rogers' requests that he run errands, go for walks, get outside.
But nothing can undo Afghanistan.
"I used to be very outgoing, 'Let's go have a picnic,' 'Let's go to the lake,' 'Let's go do this,' 'Let's go do that,' " Allen Rogers said. "I came home a totally different person. I don't act the same way I did when I met her."
Christina Rogers sighed.
"You just find your new normal," she said.
With the help of Project Sanctuary, another couple - the Lopezes of Jacksonville, North Carolina - are searching for just that.
Juan Lopez, 48, served in the Marine Corps for 22 years before retiring in 2011. He saw 11 deployments over the course of his career, including two active combat shifts in Iraq. When he came home for the last time to his wife, Maria Niriel Lopez, he tried to be a good father to their four sons. But he could not shake the Marine mind-set — could not dispel the conviction that immediate obedience of his every order was required for survival.
"I'm getting frustrated because my children didn't listen the first or second time," said Juan Lopez, who suffers from PTSD. "I'm looking at it as, 'I'm telling you this because you're going to get injured or hurt.' And their mind-set wasn't like that."
When the boys ignored him, he lost it, yelling and scolding. Maria Niriel Lopez, 53, could not understand why her husband was upset. She thought she must have done something wrong.
The family situation deteriorated, prompting Juan Lopez to seek treatment for PTSD. That's where he met a nurse who suggested Project Sanctuary. The couple attended a retreat in April 2018, went again in May and have kept coming back as volunteers ever since — most recently at the Reisterstown retreat.
Juan Lopez, sitting beside his wife at the retreat, said Project Sanctuary has renewed his faith in other people.
"I was hardened at heart. I had just been around the worst of humanity," he said. "Then I realized there's folks that really want to help, and I started to realize that there's a lot of good in humanity."
Maria Niriel Lopez said Project Sanctuary allowed her husband to "let down his guard." It made both spouses feel relaxed and safe. It showed them they were not alone. It reaffirmed their love for one another.
The two stood up and headed out - first to lunch, and then to a campsite where the Maryland retreat participants were clambering over a ropes course. The Lopezes had families to help.