Virginia sanctuary helps veterans heal
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WASHINGTON -- The war followed Scott Botts home.
It lurked in his dreams, drenching him in cold sweat. It overwhelmed the dozens of medications that did nothing to ease his anxiety. It invaded his home in Tennessee, where one night Botts, convinced that he was still in Iraq, frantically swatted desert sand from his clothes and shouted for his wife to get down.
But here -- in a quiet log cabin in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains -- Botts hopes to escape the war's lasting grip, at least for a few days.
Botts, 42, a retired Marine Corps staff sergeant, and his wife, Theresa, are one of four families that spent the Thanksgiving holiday at Boulder Crest Retreat for Wounded Warriors in western Loudoun County, Va. The nonprofit organization, which opened in September, is the nation's first rural retreat devoted specifically to caring for physically and psychologically wounded service members and veterans.
It's been nearly two years since the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, and more than eight since Botts returned from his deployment as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But for Botts, like many other service members, the impact lingers long after his tour ended and after the war began to fade from the public consciousness.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about Iraq," he said.
For veterans still struggling through the long process of recovery, Boulder Crest offers a simple but vital service, Botts said.
"It's just peaceful here," he said, sitting beside his wife in a cabin. Outside the large picture windows, the rolling hills were faint silhouettes through the fog. A fire glowed in the stone fireplace.
Botts' seizures and flashbacks are less frequent now, but he continues to cope with the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. At home, a calendar on the fridge is filled with medical and therapy appointments. Theresa Botts doesn't recall the last time the couple was able to take a break from that schedule.
"It's so good to be where you do not have a structured day," she said. "If you want to walk the trail, you walk the trail. You can stand outside in the rain. You can sit on the deck."
She exhaled. "This is giving us a chance to regroup," she said. "We need that."
Three years ago, Boulder Crest founders Ken and Julia Falke decided that they wanted to use part of their scenic 200-acre property in Bluemont, Va., to create a sanctuary for wounded military service members and their families.
Ken Falke, 51, a retired bomb disposal expert with the Navy, had spent years offering support to injured troops and their families through the Wounded EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Warrior Foundation, a nonprofit group he founded with Julia in 2007. The couple understood how exhausting the recovery process can be and the heavy toll it often takes on marriages and families.
The Falkes set a $10 million fundraising goal and broke ground on Boulder Crest in May 2012. So far, they have raised more than $6 million to build, launch and sustain the retreat.
Since opening this fall, Boulder Crest has hosted 36 veterans and active-duty military personnel and more than 100 of their family members. Guests have come from the Washington area, including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and from as far as California.
The organization divides its bookings between structured programs and restful visits. Individuals and families can stay in one of four fully accessible cabins for as little as two nights or as long as two weeks. The property also hosts organized retreats that offer therapy and other forms of support. The retreats have included programs for service members who attempted suicide or who suffered sexual assault while on active duty, Falke said.
The need is great, Ken Falke said. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan left hundreds of thousands of troops with profound physical and psychological scars, and learning to cope with them can be a lifelong task.
"We've thought all along that mental health would be where we are most relevant," he said of Boulder Crest. "It's not that the government isn't doing great things. … but this problem is just bigger than anyone was prepared for. You need small nonprofits like us to step in and help find a solution, and be innovative and creative."
Falke said Boulder Crest was always intended to operate year-round, including during the holidays, a period that can add to existing stress.
"Just from my own personal experience in the military, holidays are a lonely time," he said. "Getting away to a nice place like Boulder Crest and celebrating your family holiday for free, that's a pretty powerful thing."
Liza Kazee, 34, an Air Force mental health technician, echoed that sentiment. Kazee and her husband, Matt, have four children from previous marriages, and finding the time and money to go away together is difficult.
Like Scott Botts, Kazee suffers from a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of a makeshift-bomb blast that abruptly ended her second deployment in Afghanistan last year.
After months of outpatient treatment, Kazee was given a medical retirement by the Air Force. After 14 years of military service, Thanksgiving marked her first full day as a civilian and military veteran.
"For that, I feel relief," she said as she sat at the dining room table in the family's cabin, surrounded by children and stacks of board games.
Kazee said she is still figuring out what the next chapter of her life might be. But for now, she said, she was grateful just to have a peaceful place to be with her family.
"I thought this would be a great chance for the six of us to do something all together," she said, "Someplace with not a lot of noise, nobody around, no real plans. Just playing games and being quiet."
On a bright, cold Thanksgiving afternoon, Ken and Julia Falke bundled up and knocked on the doors of Boulder Crest's four cabins. With local volunteers, the couple delivered lavish Thanksgiving meals -- turkey, cranberry sauce, salads, pies, and baskets of snacks and sweets -- to each family. The Falkes thanked their guests for coming. Their guests thanked the Falkes for giving them a place to go to.
It had been a quiet morning in Scott and Theresa Botts' cabin. The day before, they had visited Arlington National Cemetery. Theresa snapped a picture of Botts as he stood at the grave of a friend.
After an emotional day, Scott Botts said, returning to the solace of Boulder Crest had been especially comforting.
"If there wasn't places like this, programs like this … there'd be a lot more veterans committing suicide, becoming alcoholics or drug addicts," he said. As a recovering alcoholic himself, he said, he understood the appeal of self-medicating. "That was me," he said. "My support group was Jim Beam."
Theresa stood with her back to the fireplace. Today, she said, she was thankful for the people who go out of their way to help families like hers.
"If it wasn't for them, if it wasn't for people like Ken …" she trailed off.
Scott finished her thought: "It makes a difference."
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