Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
The small village of Angel Fire, long known for its ski slopes and proximity to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial State Park, is also gradually becoming known as a place where veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder, and their loved ones – whose lives are also affected by PTSD – can work toward healing.
“I’m not going to tell you that we ‘cure’ PTS, because we don’t use the word ‘cure,’ ” Vietnam veteran Chuck Howe said last week as he greeted 13 couples taking part in a free, weeklong retreat at the National Veterans Wellness and Healing Center.
“But we’ve seen tremendous healing … and that healing continues the rest of your life,” he said.
“You might have noticed that we have dropped the ‘D’ (from PTSD),” Howe told the group. “It may be considered a disorder” by many in the medical community, he said, “but it’s just PTS with us.”
The center employs a number of alternative therapies for dealing with PTSD, including equine-assisted therapy, massage therapy, Reiki, chiropractic, breath work and partnered stretching, energy work, art therapy, and “language of the body and heart.”
Center co-director Ron Ford, an Air Force retiree who flew 250 combat missions in Vietnam aboard C-130 gunships, said 235 couples have been through the retreat.
To participate, the veteran must have received a diagnosis of PTSD and be willing to commit to the retreat, and be accompanied by a spouse, partner or other significant “support person.”
Ford said the retreat’s theme of “Head, Heart, Body and Soul” reflects its emphasis on holistic healing.
“What we’re trying to do is create the knowledge, the understanding and the desire for moving away from this condition called PTS,” Ford told the group during orientation.
“Instead of thinking ‘There’s something wrong with me,’ … we want you to (realize instead) that ‘Something happened to me,’ ” and that there are ways to deal with what happened.
“When you walk away at the end of this week, you will be significantly different than you are tonight,” Ford said. “But that’s going to require a lot of hard work.”
Participants are urged to avoid distractions during the week by “unplugging,” or refraining from using computers, email and television – though they can use their cellphones to make calls during breaks or free time. They’re also asked to abstain from alcohol and drugs, except for prescribed medications. Staff and volunteers do the same.
While recognizing that most of the participants are, or have been, in conventional medical treatment programs for PTSD, retreat organizers say the alternative treatments offer additional benefits.
The center’s contract therapists include a Reiki master, relationship coaches, massage therapists, a sex therapist, a “movement educator,” a counselor specializing in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and a chiropractor.
Each couple also attends at least one hour of personalized counseling per day with a trained counselor.
Last week’s retreat started at noon Oct. 18 and concluded at noon today. All meals are provided, and participants stay in nearby condos adjacent to Angel Fire’s ski slopes.
A way forward
Ringed by the Sangre de Cristo mountains and standing within view of the state park dedicated to Vietnam veterans, the couples were greeted by center staff, a handful of locals and a massive American flag waving atop the village Fire Department’s ladder truck.
It is the 17th such retreat since the program started in 2009. Though initially funded through the state Department of Veterans’ Services, the center currently operates on a $1.4 million, four-year grant through the state Behavioral Health Services Division, Ford said.
Last Monday – the first full day of the retreat – participants visited the nearby Roadrunner Tours and Riding Stables, where longtime owner Nancy Burch conducted a “horse whispering” session with a skittish horse that was more intent on rejoining his stablemates than accepting a saddle.
Burch slowly worked the horse around the circular pen until it willingly followed her. The horse eventually allowed Burch to rub it with a halter, then with a saddle blanket.
The exercise, Burch said, was showing the horse that it can trust her, regardless of any past experiences with humans.
Afterward, retreat co-director Mary Scott said the demonstration helps veterans understand the need to rebuild trust – a difficult but necessary step in dealing with PTSD – and to move forward at a pace they are comfortable with.
Afterward, willing participants went on an hourlong guided trail ride through the Carson National Forest, already dappled with fall colors.
The trail ride, Scott said, puts participants in touch with nature, empowers those riding for the first time or after many years, and teaches some participants that physical problems don’t necessarily preclude them from enjoying the outdoors.
The trail ride, purposely set early in the retreat, is an ideal icebreaker for the participants, most of whom are strangers before meeting at the retreat.
Just before lunchtime, Richard “Rich” Fluke, a Native American and former retreat counselor, conducted a ceremony to welcome the participants.
Using an eagle wing to fan smoke from juniper leaves burning in an abalone shell over each participant, Fluke said the purpose of the ceremony “is to allow folks to open up to the possibility of letting go and healing.”
“It kind of clears the etheric body, that body we’re not aware of but that communicates with the world in a spiritual sense. … It kind of cracks the psychic shell,” he said.
Throughout the week, couples participate in private and group therapies and exercises, all aimed at educating them about PTSD and teaching them strategies for dealing with it.
The majority of the veterans at last week’s retreat fought in Vietnam, but veterans from the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan also attended. They ranged in age from the mid-20s to the late 60s.
Ty Ann Nakai, who served in both the Air Force and Marine Corps for a total of 13 years, deployed to Egypt and Kyrgyzstan. Though she never saw combat, her military experiences led to a diagnosis of PTSD.
Nakai went through the retreat a year ago with her parents and said she was back to work on her relationship with her adult son, who was raised by his father.
“I have a really hard time sharing my experiences,” Nakai said, trying in vain to hold back tears. Those experiences, she said, had “really damaged my relationship with my parents.”
“I know my mom still wants her little girl back … but I’m not the same person,” she said, adding that the previous retreat saved her relationship with her mother.
Nakai was attending last week’s retreat with her boyfriend, Jordan Becenti, also a Marine Corps veteran. He said he was there to support his girlfriend. The two met in May 2009 at a Wal-Mart store while both were stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.
Vietnam veteran David Perry of Milan, N.M., attended the retreat with his wife of 21 years, Beatrice.
After a year as an infantryman in Vietnam and leaving the Army in 1973, Perry said he became a loner and had trouble keeping jobs for very long. Although he had been through several programs at the VA, including for PTSD, “There hadn’t been any type of program where I could involve my wife,” he said.
After hearing about the retreat from another couple, he and Beatrice signed up. Just minutes after arriving at Angel Fire, he ran into fellow veteran Jerry Herrera, whom he hadn’t seen in 40 years.
“I don’t feel alone anymore. I don’t feel like I’m crazy anymore,” Perry said. “I just feel something wonderful is going to happen this week.”
Each retreat includes “sponsorship couples” who have completed a retreat and who act as mentors to the new couples.
Vietnam veteran Art Canales, 68, of Santa Fe and his wife, Vikki, went through the retreat in November.
“I didn’t want to come back from Vietnam. I did multiple tours there and tried to re-up so I could stay there. But the de-escalation had started, and they made me come home,” Canales told the group.
After three failed marriages, he withdrew from people and spent years living alone in remote areas of the state.
“Each of you guys have been in your own prison, just like I was,” he said.
“This program will help you rebuild your lives, rebuild your relationships and help you get your families back,” Canales said. “It’s going to be a lot of work, even after you leave here,” he said.
Iraq war veteran Peter Alarid and his wife, Andrea, went through the retreat in 2011 after enduring a separation and Peter’s multiple suicide attempts. They were attending last week’s retreat with two of their teenage children, who have also had to live with their father’s PTSD.
“This PTSD stuff was ruining my life, and I’m sure it’s ruining your lives, too,” Alarid told the group. “You guys have to learn how to fight it. You’ll learn a lot of tools here, and they will help you.”
“This place didn’t change our lives; it saved our lives,” Andrea Alarid said.
“The first couple of days we were here (at the 2011 retreat), we kept looking for a reason to leave,” she said, noting that others in the room were probably feeling that way now. “By the end of that week, I had found people that I trust more than I trusted anyone in my own family. … I found a peace and a calmness that I don’t ever remember feeling in my life.”