By Patricia Kime
years ago, retired Army Lt. Col. Andy Kaufmann had a plan to
work with injured combat veterans and first responders to help them reintegrate
and thrive in their communities. But the former OH-58 Kiowa pilot, who served
in Iraq in 2004, had issues of his own: mental struggles and physical pain that
required antidepressants, sleep medications, opioids, and fentanyl.
“All of my [post-traumatic stress] was getting in the
way of everything else,” Kaufmann says. “It was keeping me from reaching my
He heard about a relatively new program for combat troops
offered at a veterans’ retreat in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge
Mountains. When he was invited to attend the Warrior Progressive and
Alternative Training for Healing Heroes (PATHH) program at Boulder Crest, he
jumped at the opportunity, even though he wasn’t quite sure what he was getting
into. Kaufmann arrived with five other combat veterans for a week of
transcendental meditation and activities such as yoga, hiking, kayaking,
painting, archery, and caring for horses.
The casual observer easily might have mistaken the
gathering at the 37-acre resort as a “guys’ weekend,” with its luxury lodging,
activities in a gleaming clubhouse, and expansive countryside views. But this
was no holiday. Kaufmann’s week, with each activity selected to promote
introspection, awareness, and personal growth along with soul-baring
discussions around a campfire, was emotionally grueling and life-changing.
“You are getting this intense therapy without even
recognizing that you are getting it,” Kaufmann says. “It totally saved my ass.”
While the VA offers treatment for post-traumatic stress
at all of its medical centers — from one-on-one and group outpatient treatment
to intensive inpatient and residential programs — these center largely around
scientifically proven methods for treating post-traumatic stress, namely
psychotherapy and medication.
For many veterans, these interventions work. But for
others like Kaufmann, they have proven ineffective or, in some cases,
debilitating. For these former troops, nonmedical, peer-to-peer support
programs offered by various nonprofit and private organizations across the
U.S., such as Boulder Crest, Save A Warrior, Mighty Oaks, and Wounded Warrior
Project’s Project Odyssey, have proven to be lifesaving.
“We call it ‘war detox,’ ” says Save A Warrior founder
Jake Clarke, a former Army National Guard captain. “Previous generations have
found peer support at [Veterans of Foreign Wars], American Legion, AMVETS. But
sitting around a smoky bar telling your stories doesn’t appeal to this group of
veterans — they want the immersive, experiential model.”
This means an all-in physical and mental experience
based on holistic healing to foster personal growth. While each program has
unique features, at their core, they focus on wellness through acceptance,
humility, self-forgiveness, patience, physical well-being, and teamwork.
According to program sponsors, the goal is to decrease or eliminate
post-traumatic stress symptoms and restore veterans’ confidence to become
productive members of their communities.
Boulder Crest founder Ken Falke calls this
post-traumatic growth (PTG), a phrase coined by psychologists at the University
of North Carolina-Charlotte in the 1990s to describe the idea trauma can be a
catalyst for positive change.
“If you take the time to answer these tough questions —
‘Who am I? What do I want to be?’ — and
if you set goals and work for them, you can really be something special. You
can take it and improve the world,” Falke says.
Clarke doesn’t use the term PTG but says the ideas are
the same at Save A Warrior, based on ancient tenets that warriors can “travel
through their experiences and come out focused and stronger” when they receive
spiritual and emotional support.
According to the VA, roughly 14 percent of veterans who
served in Iraq or Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress. For Persian Gulf War
veterans, the rate of a post-traumatic stress diagnosis is 12 percent and for
Vietnam veterans, 31 percent. With some studies indicating the high rate among
Vietnam veterans has caused debilitating lifelong problems, psychiatrists,
counselors, and therapists are in a race to help post-9/11 troops now, before
their conditions become chronic.
“We spend weeks and months training these people to be
soldiers and go to combat, and then at the end, we send them to a measly
one-week course to teach them how to get a job,” Falke says. “We aren’t giving
them the skills they need to be leaders in their communities.”
Holistic programs steer clear of traditional
psychotherapies and pharmaceuticals and focus instead on activities that
explore a veterans’ personal and emotional status and build on existing
Many of the programs start and end with veterans
engaging in art therapy such as drawing mandalas. They learn meditation and
tackle physical challenges like rock-climbing or ropes courses that require
teamwork. They get uncomfortably close with horses. They spend time — a lot of
it — mindfully walking in labyrinths.
“It may sound like mumbo jumbo, ... but it’s not.
Fortunately, the science is catching up with metaphysics,” Clark says. “This
program helps create the ideal conditions to disrupt or dislodge this path to
illness or suicide and [gives] veterans another way to go.”
Falke says many veterans want this type of program
because they don’t want to revisit their trauma, they distrust the VA, or they
have tried treatment and found it failed to help.
“What we are doing for veterans in respect to the
medical model ... is not working. … We just can’t keep doing the same thing
over if it doesn’t work,” Falke says.
Care at the VA
Dr. Sonya Norman, a psychologist and director of the
PTSD Consultation Program at the VA National Center for PTSD, disputes that
assertion. She says post-traumatic stress once was viewed as a chronic
condition similar to, say, diabetes, which can be managed but not cured. But
therapy for post-traumatic stress has developed to a point where three months
of treatment can be highly effective.
“It doesn’t mean they’re completely symptom free or exactly
the person they were before the trauma, but it certainly means they can feel
better emotionally, and their symptoms can be reduced,” she says.
Every VA health facility offers post-traumatic stress
counseling and treatment; most provide evidence-based therapies —
psychotherapies and/or medications that have been proven to work in research
and clinical trials. This includes cognitive processing therapy, which focuses
on changing people’s thoughts on their experiences; prolonged exposure therapy;
and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which promotes rapid
eye movement similar to the movements in deep sleep that helps guide a patient
to “see” trauma in a less disturbing way.
Some VA facilities also offer complementary and
alternative medical treatment (CAM), such as yoga, chiropractic care, and
meditation, but program availability depends on the medical center. One study
found 89 percent of VA facilities do offer some form of CAM, but for the most
part, VA physicians rely on standard treatments, since scientific research has
proven they work.
hopes a study under way at Boulder Crest will contribute to the research on
alternative therapies for post-traumatic stress and support anecdotal evidence
that programs like Warrior PATHH and Save A Warrior work just as well as
University of North Carolina-Charlotte professor Dr.
Richard Tedeschi, who, along with psychologist Dr. Lawrence Calhoun developed
the term post-traumatic growth in the 1990s, is working with former Army
psychologist Dr. Bret Moore to follow 50 Warrior PATHH participants through
their one-week intensive stay at Boulder Crest, the 18-month follow-on program
they continue at home, and beyond to examine their abilities to manage their
physical and mental well-being, relationships, and work.
is a psychologist who has spent 30 years studying trauma victims, survivors of
violent crime, and bereaved parents who believe they experienced positive
change after dealing with a traumatic event. This observational study is an
opportunity to see if PTG can be facilitated and fostered.
“People experience this growth naturally — you don’t
have to go to a psychologist to have someone produce this in you,” Tedeschi
says. “But we have seen that if you have a trauma and you experience a great
deal of distress … where you might be questioning your core beliefs … that
questioning process very often leads to positive change. And that’s what they
are doing at Boulder Crest: helping with this questioning process.”
A new study at North Carolina State University examined
the relationship between post-traumatic stress, PTG, and time, finding those
who reported the highest growth also were those who said their trauma
“fundamentally challenged the way” they saw the world, spent a lot of time
thinking about their event, and had the highest rates of post-traumatic stress.
The study also showed growth could occur quickly or unfold over time.
“In other words, while recovering from trauma can be a
painful and difficult ordeal, veterans and their families can have hope,” says
Jessica Morgan, a researcher with the nonprofit health research firm RTI
International and principal investigator on the study.
But like Tedeschi, Morgan says more research is needed
Even without evidence, young veterans are signing up for
these programs, which are offered for free, in droves. Save A Warrior has a
waiting list of at least 200 and seeks to offer the program through
partnerships with other therapy centers. Boulder Crest just purchased a ranch
in Arizona to expand to the West Coast.
Kaufmann himself has established an equine therapy
program for veterans near Ashland, Va. When he gets in a rough spot, he heads
to the barn or meditates — coping skills he learned at Boulder Crest. He turns
to the one phrase that stuck in his mind from Warrior PATHH: “Stop looking in
the rearview mirror.”
He wishes other veterans could find the peace he has
found through holistic healing. “Without [the program] I wouldn’t be where I’m
at,” Kaufmann says. “Boulder Crest helped me see things 180 degrees differently
than I did before.”