Project Sanctuary At The Winding River Ranch.
Rand Case. Now there’s a name you don’t hear everyday. And neither had I until I met Rand during my last door to door campaign for the Colorado House about four years ago.
Of course, after doing it thousands of times, I pretty much had my line of front porch patter down cold: small business owner, Colorado native, all three kids graduates of Cherry Creek schools, a son that served eight years on submarines. Something, almost invariably, made a connection.
In Rand’s case, it was the Navy and submarines: he’s a graduate of the Naval Academy. And served on subs. And, for good measure, he’s also a Colorado native: grew up in the profoundly land locked little tourist town of Grandby, just south of Rocky Mountain National Park and west of some of the most rugged peaks on the Continental Divide.
Not Just War Weary. But Actually Doing Something About It.
But by then in my political life, when I met someone with a military connection on the campaign trail, I usually couldn’t refrain from saying something about my weariness of our endless wars. The broken bodies. The broken minds. The broken families. And for what purpose? To enrich defense contractors and to justify Congressmen’s boasts about bringing home that tainted defense “bacon.”
And that’s probably why Rand also told me about Project Sanctuary. Run by and for veterans, it’s an organization that recognizes, as it says on the website, that “The whole family serves, and the best way to ‘support the troops’ is by supporting the entire family.” Rand serves as board secretary. Most of the other board members are vets as well.
But the real impetus for the organization came from registered nurse, Heather Ehle, who, in 2007, saw the need, set up a card table in front of a local grocery store, and began asking for money for 6 day family retreats. The retreats focus on three aspects of the lives of returning vets: assessing the need for help, reconnecting families at the 6 day retreats, and offering up to 24 months of ongoing support. All services are free of charge. In their effort to take soldiers from “combat ready to family ready,” they now offer programs all across the country.
My wife and I had our first in person exposure to Project Sanctuary at their annual fund raiser. Heather, I’ll confess, spent a good deal of time in the spotlight that evening. And the program planners seemingly lost track of the maxim that the “brain can absorb only so much as the rear end can endure.” Heather, especially, was a bit too much for my wife.
But it was also clear that Heather was a hero to the many vets and their spouses in attendance that night. Moreover, who but someone endowed with enormous self confidence and grit, could raise an organization from nothing to one that has now impacted 1,000+ families in just over 10 years?
KP. Babysitting. And PTSD For Kids!
So, I decided to volunteer for a retreat-the 149th since PS began. But I started by dipping my toe in the shallow end at a nearby retreat at the Winding River Ranch, just outside Grand Lake, Colorado.
Initially, I thought I might be helping with cooking-something I’m pretty good at. But fortunately, they had that covered. Cooking three meals a day for 50 some people for 6 days is no mean feat. So I did KP: putting out food for the cafeteria style meals, washing dishes, sweeping floors after meals. You know, the glamorous stuff.
And, while parents were in sessions where heavy topics like Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were discussed with trained counselors, I helped babysit the younger kids. Sharon Harris, a licensed play therapist, did a great job coming up with diverting games that usually managed to sneak in a lesson about family team work or some similar moral.
It was heartbreaking to learn that there was a session for kids to help them cope with the PTSD that’s sunk its claws into their families.
When the lights went out at 9 pm, I slept the sleep of the righteous. Despite a stuffy, far from luxurious room and a roommate I’d never laid eyes on before.
Two of the little kids at Winding River were beautiful, blond twins who rode in the back seat from Georgia with their parents who, after going through the program themselves, were now back as volunteers. Although you wouldn’t know it if you saw him on the street, the father’s among the walking wounded.
At breakfast one morning, I had the opportunity to speak with the wife-who described herself as a “husband caregiver.”
“How,” I asked, “is the care you get from your local Veterans Administration? The VA hospital they recently built here has been a scandal. About a $1 billion over budget and years behind schedule. Has President Trump’s effort to introduce choice into the VA helped?”
“The choice program might be a good idea” she answered, “but it’s still snarled in red tape. The GP we’re assigned to has about 7,000 patients. There’s no was they can keep up with it. And with that kind of workload, there’s a lot of turnover among doctors. That’s why,” she concluded, “PS is so important to us.”
Bonnie Walton was another PS staff member that I met. When I started speaking with Bonnie, I had no idea of why she was on staff. So I asked.
“Because my husband, Brian, and I went through the program. And it was great. But, despite that,” she concluded, “he ended up committing suicide.”
Talk about a gut punch. And Brian is only one of what the VA estimates could to be up to 20 service members per day who commit suicide. But there is some hope; Brian is the only Project Sanctuary graduate who has taken his life.
And, to try to make sure that Brian is the last veteran that kills himself, the organization started Walton’s Warriors. Although the program is multi-faceted, it’s built around “peer mentors”: vets who’ve wrestled with the same demons that have lead so many to despair and death. Who then volunteer to be trained and ready to help others.
“Get Out Now!”
When I served in the Colorado House, the Iraq and Afghan wars were still raging. And the vet suicide issue was rapidly making its way to our attention.
In response, a bill was introduced that set up a state program providing “early intervention” mental health services for returning vets. For obvious reasons, it was one of those bills that got unanimous support. Members lined up to speak in favor; the phrase “early intervention strategies” was uttered repeatedly.
But while I had every intent of voting for the bill, I sat at my desk, stomach churning, a scowl on my face. I was debating whether I should speak. And what I should say.
Finally, mind made up, I got in line to take my turn at the mic.
When I got there, I first turned to my left to thank the sponsor, Dave Young.
“But,” I went on, scanning the entire chamber now, “how about this as an early intervention strategy? GET OUT NOW!” With that, my “speech” was done.
The Colorado House of Representatives operates under certain rules of decorum. One of those is that members and spectators should observe a respectful silence when we are in session.
My fellow legislators observed the rules after my little talk.
But before I’d left the podium, a small group of spectators, above me and to the left, erupted in cheers and clapping. I still don’t know who they were. But the Speaker of the House, presiding over our deliberations from just behind me, immediately gaveled down the gallery, crying “Order, order!”
The Real Question.
So, here we are, nearly 20 years on from 9/11. And we’re still not entirely out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Not to mention all of the world’s other hot spots where our military’s presence will probably do no more to insure this nation’s peace and security than all the blood and treasure we’ve squandered in the Middle East.
And even when we do finally get out, the horses have already left the barn-and we’re not gettin’ ’em back: the vets whose lives and families have been shattered. Whose wounds, both mental and physical, have left the VA hideously overtaxed. And have left organizations like Project Sanctuary to pick up the pieces. Whose efforts, although valiant, are little more than a drop in the bucket.
So what’s the real question? Just this: Have we, finally, learned our lesson? Yes, it may be an old saw, but we can’t be the world’s cop. Nor, and just as importantly, does much of the world want us to be.
America, it’s time to come home.