Last week, after visiting with my friend Eva in San Diego, I was reminded of a vision statement that I had written in 2012 to help us begin a new non-profit organization, Warriors Live On. Eva has steadfastly worked on developing this organization since that time and growing it with new partners and participants. I returned to Vermont after that time focused on finding new work, hoping that one day we’d work together again. After meeting with her last week, I was overwhelmed with pride and respect for her and her work.
I also dug out the following vision statement that I wrote at that time. It is interesting to note that I wrote this before my wife and I started work at Stratton, before we opened up a yoga studio in Manchester, Vermont, and before I started a hiking club with my warrior-friend Jonah. It was before I met other friends living with PTSD or learned about Y12SR or read about current neurological research in mindfulness or knew about HeartMath or Brene Brown or Candace Pert. It was based on personal experiences and insights. It makes me wonder if this vision statement will be in my future intentions again…
Provide educational and life-changing experiences for people, especially combat veterans, battling through the symptoms of PTSD who are motivated to learn and live in a supportive and healing environment that includes: (1) therapeutic adventure activities that build trusting community and individual understanding of new self; (2) whole body-mind-spirit healing and therapies that teach new healthy daily practices to heal effects of trauma; and (3) educational experiences in an interactive, interdependent and sustainable working community that build new life skills for a fulfilling and enriching life.
(1) Therapeutic adventure activities that build trusting community and individual understanding of new self:
- Programs and activities that use experiential education models in an adventure setting to provide therapeutic and behavioral-changing outcomes. Through intentional and directed group activities and processing that includes interaction, teamwork, and trust-building, participants build sense of safety and have enriching “ah-hah” moments that build community, self-efficacy, and understanding of personal strengths and behavior.
- Participants build relationships with other participants, interns, and staff through activities in an outdoor natural environment.
- Teaching is conducted in a strengths-based, non-judgmental manner, building trust, mutual respect, feelings of safety and support.
(2) Whole body-mind-spirit healing and therapy that teach new healthy daily practices to heal effects of trauma:
- Programs will be holistic in nature, addressing whole body health, and teaching daily practices that can heal the effects of trauma. Traditional therapies for PTSD deal primarily with the mind; cutting-edge holistic therapies take advantage of the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit.
- Participants will have the following therapies and healing services available to them on a daily basis (in addition to the recreational and adventure therapies): yoga and meditation; one-on-one and group therapy; creative art and music activities; animal therapies.
(3) Educational experiences in an interactive, interdependent and sustainable working community that build new life skills for a fulfilling civilian life:
- Retreat setting will be a working homestead with organic gardening; food shopping and meal preparation education for healthy nutrition; animal care; synergistic relationship-building with local farmers, restaurants, and merchants; sustainable practices using renewable energy and recycled water technologies; artisan skill-building such as timber framing and/or other homestead crafts; and landscaping work. Participants will learn these practices through hands-on experience.
- Through participation and group reflection, life-skills are learned, relationships are built, group behavior is valued, and personal “can-do” attitudes are developed.
On-site workshops, group sessions, skill-building, healing and therapeutic services.
Off-site adventure workshops and activities, therapeutic recreation and experiential learning.
On-line outreach, community-building, and educational services to the broader community of veterans with PTSD and people battling through trauma. Educational articles, blogging, expert advice, on-line mentoring and support services.
Writing: books, articles in professional journals, on-line media.
Trainings, consultation and mentoring for interested groups and organizations.
Participation in research and cutting-edge studies.
Veterans of OIF and OEF who are either diagnosed with PTSD or who are battling through similar symptoms of combat stress, such as depression, anxiety, panic, and inability to function, and who are generally having trouble functioning and living in their civilian lives. These veterans will most likely be those who have already been treated in a clinical setting and are adjusting to home life unsuccessfully, or those who have never been diagnosed or treated and are having difficulty with the symptoms years after their active duty. The veterans will be screened, interviewed and required to complete an intake process to determine motivation, need, and behavioral issues. This will not be a program for veterans that are suicidal. It will be a program for veterans who are aware that they have a problem adjusting to civilian life and that they are motivated to learn how to get better.
There will be a code of conduct that will include: norms of behavior (mutual respect, no alcohol or casual drugs or other self-medications not prescribed, safety, etc), activity guidelines, responsibilities for group living, and future mentoring and promotions (recruiting future participants).
Ideally, each session would have 10-12 participating veterans attending on scholarship for the session, 4-6 long-term seasonal interns (alumni, veterans who can stay for longer terms, interested civilians with PTSD experience) who would provide primary facility services and support on a work-for-free participation basis; and 4-6 fee-paying civilians who would volunteer to be involved in group skill-building and recreational activities.
Eventually, will conduct programs and retreats for caregivers and families of veterans addressing the veteran’s “dynamics” at home.
Location and Housing:
The retreat is intended to be sustainable and organic in nature. Permanent housing will be provided for 2-4 facility owners (and their families or partners). Temporary housing will be provided for participants, interns and fee-paying guests (18-24 total).
Housing will be low-impact, low-energy, green and sustainable in nature. Common and public services will be shared. Private spaces and facilities will be provided.
Permanent housing will small or tiny houses. Temporary housing could be a series of small modular-types cottages, tents or yurts.
There will be a common building with a commercial kitchen, laundry room, public baths and showers, yoga and meditation room, meeting room, treatment room, offices, and fitness room. Common building could be renovated existing farmhouse. There will also be a barn for outdoor workshops, animals, equipment storage, and facility support.
Entire facility would be planned in a manner that retreat could be subdivided and sold as private or public housing.
Retreat has become a sustainable geographic location with the following physical attributes (no order of priority):
- Acreage (approximately 25 – 50 acres).
- Proximity to thriving community with local farms and artisans and support services.
- Proximity to preserved nature land, preferably forested and mountainous, open spaces, great views.
- Proximity to sustainable water supply, for drinking and recreation. Consider climate in 10-20 years.
- Temperate local environment with high norms for days with sunshine (for solar facilities: no extreme heating- or cooling- days; for outdoor recreation; for growing food; for health).
- Progressive community economics and social services; proximity to wealth for local financial support; like-minded businesses for partnerships and synergistic, socially-responsible relationships.
- Proximity to major airport & transportation hub (plane, train, bus, vehicle travel) for easy access for travelers.
- Proximity to adaptive sports facility and volunteer base for outdoor activities.
- Proximity to outdoor education and therapeutic recreation choices: (1) Hiking and backcountry travel, (2) Flat water kayaking, (3) Biking, (4) Whitewater rafting, (5) Skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing (Backcountry, downhill, cross-country), (6) Rock climbing, (7) Surfing.
- Veteran-friendly community, perhaps with local VA facilities for referrals.
- On-site running water (stream) for tranquility and meditation.
- Proximity to university with research interests in our work.
Participant involvement will be experiential, hands-on, interactive, and relationship-building. It will be conducted in a manner that teaches life skills that can be applied daily in civilian life. As such, participants will be responsible for many of the daily activities required to run the retreat.
For continued growth, learning, and involvement in cutting edge work, the schedule and culture of this organization will promote learning and off-site travel. The leaders of this organization will be able to bring new life to this organization each session, promote work and personal growth in between, and continue on-line support as necessary at the same time.
To keep the organization a grassroots and socially-responsible business, we will seek supporters at a grassroots and local level. It will be desirable to have many small and invested supporters rather than just a few remote supporters. We’d like this organization to be as sustainable as possible. It may require individual fees or contributions from participants. We’d like to partner with local farmers and healthy food providers to assist with food services and joint marketing. We’d like to partner with local adaptive organizations for mutual support and longevity. We’d like to partner with larger organizations to provide services that are more intimate and holistic than they can provide. We’d like to provide with various holistic health organizations for services, such as local practitioners, local artisans, and local transportation service providers.
Other Relevant Ideas Related to Healing and Culture:
Process begins when person becomes aware of a personal issue and becomes motivated to change. For someone to decide to then spend time with us, they’d have to first develop a feeling that coming to our program would be safe and beneficial. So, they’d have to first have some level of trust, faith, and hope that coming to our program will help. This is where on-line community with story-telling may be beneficial.
Story-telling might provide sense of validation, validation that their personal experience is a result of normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. Thus, on-line community might also provide educational stories, providing feeling that one is not alone and that others have same or similar symptoms.
Education might help participants realize that: the mind and body have changed; there are practices to help you change again; the physical imprints of trauma are stored in one’s body; emotional pathways are wide-open- all emotions- positive and negative, and logical and memory pathways are reduced; pathways to healing involves mindfulness, body work, and re-programming of thought processes to affect emotional response.
Developing mindfulness skills through meditation and therapies, and discovering the mind-body-spirit connections through yoga and outdoor activity in beautiful (and safe) settings will be the foundation of a beneficial community environment. We’d also teach: relaxation techniques to help get rest, recover and help body re-program nervous system; healthy eating and lifestyle skills that help body rebuild healthy cells, pathways, and bodily systems.
Vulnerability- Being vulnerable is uncomfortable for everyone, especially for those trained to be stoic and trained to control the situations one is faced with. However, through experiencing vulnerability in a safe and supportive environment, we learn about ourselves, our true and authentic nature, and we learn to appreciate the positive emotions that we are now experiencing.
Through learning about our own personal vulnerabilities, our true selves and authentic nature, and our inherent strengths and positive attributes, we develop self-efficacy. Through self-efficacy and feelings of self-worth in our “constantly-growing” bodies, with a new outlook that lets go of control and embraces living in the moment mindfully, we further develop positive emotions and we start to open up the neurological pathways to parts of our brain and body that have been shut down, allowing ourselves to heal previous physical imprints and re-program ourselves to a new healthy being.
Through this process, we discover a new sense of worthiness, that inside we feel like we are safe, worthy, and deserve goodness. We start to have faith in the future again, faith in ourselves, faith in others. Fear starts to become manageable and it eventually subsides. With faith comes hope; hope is a fundamental feeling that continues to allow all other positive emotions to develop.
Being in a beautiful outdoor setting not only helps participants feel safe, it helps them see beauty again in the world, helping them tune into the big picture, the miracles of life, and further develop positive emotions and spiritual presence. Being in a supportive environment where people appreciate the positive aspects of each other (strengths-based), participants start to let go of self-judgment and see the possibilities of positive, interdependent personal relationships with others, and will be motivated to find supportive communities at home.
Other skills-based and teams-based learning activities (food planning and preparation, arts and crafts, fitness and sports, sustainable home-living skills, animal care) further develop the sense of interdependence, worthiness, self-efficacy, and the feelings that we can thrive in our new bodies in our new civilian lives, and feel safe. Other creative activities like music, drumming, story-telling, and dance also help develop the idea of being vulnerable, non-judgmental, and free to share positive emotions.
Experiential education (EE) and therapeautic adventure (TA) models in a strengths-based learning environment, in a setting that is beautiful and safe, are the basis for developing this healing or living-well process. In an intentional manner, participants will be faced with sequenced situations that develop teamwork, trust, communication, and being vulnerable with others. If this vulnerability takes place in a safe and supportive sequence that builds trusting relationships, personal skills and interpersonal trust, participants go through a self-realization process that allows them to continue to succeed, one step at a time, building self-efficacy and self-worthiness. Other complimentary therapies would be utilized to support this process along the way, helping participants cope, helping participants become more aware, helping participants learn to be compassionate towards themselves, helping participants find physical health and spiritual health in their current mental being, and helping participants develop positive emotions and feelings of faith and hope. The EE and TA processes are the basis of what helps us all to quickly develop the sense of brotherhood or (sisterhood), trust, and which allows us to begin the process of being vulnerable and open to learning, changing, and living happy and well.