Project Sanctuary at Snow Mountain Ranch helps veterans and their families |

Project Sanctuary at Snow Mountain Ranch helps veterans and their families

Tonya Bina
Grand County, CO Colorado
A verteran and his daughter relax at Sombrero Stables at Snow Mountain Ranch in October during a Project Sanctuary retreat. Courtesy photo

It was during her husband’s fourth deployment overseas when Michelle Bruce experienced overwhelming hardships.

Within one year, the couple’s 2-year-old daughter had to undergo two surgeries, Michelle’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and the family’s dog died. Then two weeks after her husband, Tech Sgt. David Bruce of the Air Force, arrived home, Michelle became so ill she was hospitalized for two weeks for an auto-immune disorder she still lives with today, four years later.

“I didn’t know how to deal with all of that stuff when he came home,” Michelle said. She struggled with how to mend.

The Colorado Springs couple had been married for five years, and Michelle knew when she married him, the challenges of a military household would be many.

Their children would grow up hardly seeing their dad, and when he would come home again, the family would face new dynamics and the need for time to adjust. Her husband would encounter the challenge of a “new normal” on home ground.

And when he would leave again upon redeployment, resentment would sometimes build deep inside, Michelle said.

“But you have no where to put it, because it’s not his fault, and you’re not angry with him. You can’t be mad at him because he’s serving the country, and you knew what you were getting into.

“But he’s not there for the most important moments in you life,” she continued, “whether it be graduations, birthdays, deaths in the family, devastating news or fantastic news.

“And the sacrifice for him is just as great as it is for us at home.”

Michelle and David and two of their three children were the first family chosen to attend a Project Sanctuary retreat at YMCA-Snow Mountain Ranch in Grand County – a nonprofit founded by civilian registered nurse Heather Ehle of Parker, who treated Gulf War veterans while working at a free clinic in Estes Park in the late 1990s.

Ehle soon recognized the mounting needs for military personnel returning home. She created a program that touches active duty members and veterans and their families, one that initiates healing on a “spiritual, physical and emotional” level, Ehle said.

A recreational therapist and professional counselor, as well as Ehle and a handful of volunteers, attend retreats with six to 12 families at a time at Snow Mountain Ranch, where families can take part in marriage counseling sessions, spend treasured time with each other, and take part in recreational opportunities without the interruption of TVs, phones or the day-to-day demands of home life.

“I wanted to be able to break the cycle of stress,” Ehle said. “Many families say what was most therapeutic was sitting around the campfire with counselors and other veterans. They also talk while they fish, they talk while they bowl. They bond with other families and they realize they’re not alone, and children realize other kids grow up moving every two years, and celebrating birthdays by Skype.”

Welcoming veterans home

Veterans who see active combat, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, “are coming home to a savage economy and other domestic challenges,” according to a report released this week compiled for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., by a team of about 64 individuals closely tied to military issues, all who attended a recent “Colorado Veterans Forum.” Ehle took part in the Forum.

Cognitive and mental health issues from which many returning service men and woman suffer can lead to depression and mood swings, even substance abuse, violent crime and suicide.

According to the study, veterans are three times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, meaning about 18 veterans commit suicide every day.

The unemployment rate for veterans ages 18 to 24 is much higher than the civilian unemployment rate. And roughly 60 percent of employers believe they don’t understand what an ex-service member can offer by way of job skills, according to the report.

Combat veterans are 62 percent more likely than civilian males to have at least one failed marriage, and veterans comprise of about one-fourth of the total U.S. adult homeless population.

But there may be ways this country could put warriors to work, provide easy and efficient access to earned benefits, to end veteran homelessness and address veteran home foreclosures, improve the public’s awareness of mental scars from combat, and educate families and communities about the hurdles military men and women face when they return home.

Ehle’s program is one way the healing can begin, and Project Sanctuary commits to supporting families two years after their retreats, providing a lifeline of sorts for anything from counseling to directing families to resources.

As the Project approaches its fourth year, 800 families are currently on Project Sanctuary’s wait list. This year’s Veterans Day weekend at Snow Mountain Ranch is the program’s 20th retreat to date, having served 143 military families, the majority from Colorado.

Transformative retreat

“It’s so desperately needed by the military families,” said Kristi Cox, who has spent 16 years living a military life, both as a veteran and as someone married to an Army major.

Last February Kristi and husband Joseph and their four children went on a retreat two years after Joseph had returned from a year in Iraq. Upon his deployment, Kristi had been left alone for the first time to home school their children, and it was the first extended period the Cox children were without a father in the home.

From the stresses of that time, the children still “harbored feelings” when the family embarked on the Project Sanctuary retreat, Kristi said. The relaxed atmosphere in the mountains was transformative for them, she said. The couple attended marriage counseling sessions to strengthen their union, and the children were able to spend time with their father without the interruptions of work, travel, phone calls or television.

“(Joseph) was able to talk with other soldiers who were dealing with the same kind of stresses,” Kristi said.

For both Michelle and Kristi, their experiences at Snow Mountain Ranch motivated them to become involved in the Project. Michelle has worked as the military outreach director since her retreat, and Kristi has become the Project’s community outreach coordinator.

During Michelle’s family retreat, she even noticed positive change in her 3-year-old daughter. At home, the little girl would become scared and worried every time her daddy left the house, even if it was just to take out the trash or to get the mail, Michelle said.

But during the family’s retreat, “a peace came over her knowing that daddy was here, he wasn’t leaving,” Michelle said. And for David, the retreat “gave him the chance to finally take that breath he needed,” she continued. “It was a pivotal moment. That’s why I stayed involved.”

The couple gained tools to work through their stresses, and is now “stronger than ever,” Michelle said. In his last return home, David left his mission to be with Michelle, who was struggling with her health, even though Michelle had begged David’s superiors to let him continue his work.

“He had to try and deal with his emotions. He’s torn between his calling to be a husband and a father and his calling to be a military man,” Michelle said.

Despite these challenges, for Michelle, the military life is one she wouldn’t trade.

“It’s very beautiful. There’s honor in it,” she said. “We can say we’re making a difference.

“He is willing to sacrifice his life to keep other people safe. Our whole family is making a sacrifice. “

Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603

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