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Walton's Warriors fight in Colorado for suffering soldiers

September 10, 2017 Updated: September 10, 2017 at 11:07 pm
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Bonnie Walton, right, smiles as she talks with U.S. Army veteran CarrieAnn Grayson, left, about helping military families through Walton's Warriors and its parent program Project Sanctuary. They were photographed Aug. 22, 2017 during a Project Sanctuary retreat at Winding River Ranch in Grand Lake. Walton and her late husband Brian Walton, a U.S. Army combat veteran who suffered from PTSD, attended a Project Sanctuary retreat with their family at Winding River in 2015, less than a year before Walton died by suicide. As a result of Brian's death, Bonnie Walton worked to create Walton's Warriors to train veterans such as Grayson in recognizing and responding to emotional crises faced by military families. Photo by Andy Colwell for the Gazette

A ranch on the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park is the last place the Walton family was together and happy.

Army combat infantry veteran and PTSD sufferer Cpl. Brian Walton was not quite 40 years old when he died by suicide in the spring of 2016.

Since then, his widow has found solace and purpose at Winding River Ranch, which hosts weddings when it is not serving as a retreat for military veterans and their families.  There, along the banks of the Colorado River with mountain vistas in the background and flocks of geese honking overhead, Bonnie Walton has worked to build a band of brothers and sisters trained to help themselves and other former fighters to recognize and respond to the emotional crises that can tear families apart.

"I want my kids to know that when something terrible happens to you, you find a way to keep it from happening to someone else. It helps you heal," said Bonnie, who was raising four sons with Brian. "You can move forward and have something positive come from your grief."

The peer mentors known as Walton's Warriors are the newest service of Project Sanctuary, a nonprofit that serves military families from across the United States. At Winding River and other sites in Colorado and elsewhere in the country, therapy and recreational activities reconnect spouses, parents and children traumatized by war.

Bonnie Walton, left, poses for an Aug. 22, 2017 portrait with Heather Ehle at Winding River Ranch in Grand Lake. Walton met Ehle as part of Project Sanctuary, a nonprofit Ehle founded to serve U.S. military veterans and their families, including Walton's, from across the country. Walton and her late husband Brian Walton, a U.S. Army combat veteran who suffered from PTSD, were 2015 participants in the program before Walton died by suicide less than a year after the Waltons and their family spent six days at Winding River with Project Sanctuary. With the help of Ehle and Project Sanctuary, Bonnie Walton worked to create Walton's Warriors, a new service of Project Sanctuary that trains veterans to recognize and respond to emotional crises faced by fellow veterans and military families. Photo by Andy Colwell for the Gazette 

Project Sanctuary founder and chief executive Heather Ehle is a North Carolina native and longtime Coloradan with no military experience. She started on her path to helping veterans because she wanted to help children. A nurse and the adoptive mother of a boy who had been abused, Ehle was moved when she read that rates of child abuse and neglect increase when a parent is deployed on military service. She started Project Sanctuary in 2007.

At first, "I thought we'd just ride a lot of horses," Ehle said and laughed.

Horse-riding, hiking, summer rafting, winter snowmobiling provide a relaxed environment for families to talk about how they have been changed by war. Those in emotional turmoil, Ehle added, benefit from a good night's sleep after a day of outdoor activity.

At the request of participants, Ehle has over the years added classes on rebuilding marriages, coping with PTSD and even managing family finances.

"The families have built Project Sanctuary," Ehle said. "And the vets are building Walton's Warriors."

PTSD as a death sentence

Brian was diagnosed with PTSD after serving two tours in Iraq, in 2003 and 2008. Bonnie, a nurse, saw herself as his primary caregiver. She heard about Project Sanctuary from a friend who had participated. In 2015 the entire family traveled from its Illinois home to spend six days at Winding River.

"There were no VA appointments. The phone wasn't ringing. We were here together," Bonnie recalled of that idyllic week.

Brian shot himself less than a year later, back home in Dennison, a town of 1,500 people near the Indiana border. Brian had been in counseling and he and his wife and sons kept in touch with friends they had made at Winding River.

"He died because of his PTSD," Bonnie said.

"But there was so much more to him than that," she said of the man who took her on a motorcycle ride when they met on a blind date in 2003, just before his first deployment to Iraq.

His obituary described a man who enjoyed fishing and mushroom hunting and who loved his family, his fellow servicemen and women, and his country.

Ehle was one of the first people Bonnie called with news of his suicide.

"I asked her, 'How am I supposed to tell my kids?'" Bonnie said. "She just said to tell them the truth, because they're going to find out."

An average of 20 veterans a day die by suicide, according to a Veterans Affairs study. The VA puts the risk for suicides among vets 21 percent higher than for civilians.

By the time of Brian's death, more than 1,000 families had participated in Ehle's retreats and his was the first Project Sanctuary suicide. Soon after hearing from Bonnie, Ehle and her colleagues were talking about how they could ensure no more such calls had to be made.

"We can always do more. We can always do better," she said. "Because we've got to."

With funding from Infinite Hero, a national foundation that seeks innovative ways to address the most serious problems that veterans confront, Ehle and her team designed a 10-month pilot training program that 18 volunteers from across the United States are to complete in November. A licensed counselor and experienced mentors support the trainees, who will one day coach new classes of mentors, who will in turn coach more mentors, and on and on.

Ehle envisions a nationwide net of men and women among an estimated 22 million current American veterans who employ the skills they have learned in their daily lives, know they are not alone, watch out for one another and grow stronger in the process.

"Isolation's what's killing veterans," she said, speaking besides the remnants of a campfire on a bright morning, the scent of evergreens sharp in the warm air. Ehle's shirt bore the Project Sanctuary logo, a red and green camouflage parachute.

"There is hope," she said. "We live it. We breathe it."

Language of combat

Mentor training has included online courses and two retreats with role-playing exercises to prepare Walton's Warriors to talk to a suicidal friend. Mental health professionals check in weekly with the volunteers.

Dr. David F. Tharp, a clinical psychologist who manages a VA PTSD program in Waco, Texas, has offered his expertise. He pointed out to the mentors-in-training that it is natural to bring home behaviors such as the hyper-vigilance needed to stay alive when you are in danger. Knowing that can help veterans respond more appropriately to situations at home where battlefield alertness isn't necessary.

Tharp, an Air Force Reserve officer, first encountered Project Sanctuary when he came with his family to a retreat after he served as a NATO medical advisor in Afghanistan in 2011. He sprinkles his presentations with jargon such as the A, B and C bags soldiers are directed to pack for deployment, each containing items for specific situations. Tharp adds E for the emotional baggage some may bring home.

"A lot of times you will hear a combat veteran say, 'You don't understand because you haven't been there," Tharp said. "When we speak the language, they get it. They instantly connect with what you're saying. And it gives you credibility."

Kate Dahlstedt, a therapist trained in clinical psychology who has worked with veterans and their families for three decades, was impressed that Ehle's volunteers devote so much time to preparation.

"It proves that the person doing it is really committed," said Dahlstedt, who is not involved with Project Sanctuary or Walton's Warriors. The New York-based Dahlstedt and her husband, Dr. Edward Tick, a psychotherapist, are the founders of Soldier's Heart, which offers retreats and other programs addressing PTSD and reintegrating veterans into civilian society.

Mark Scraba, a retired Army general who advises President Donald Trump on veterans issues, said Project Sanctuary sets a "gold standard" because of the research behind its programs. Scraba added that veterans and their families he's met across the country often point to a poor transition from the battlefield to civilian life as a contributing factor in suicides. That transition, Scraba noted, was a focus for Project Sanctuary even before Walton's Warriors was founded.

The support from Washington has been bipartisan. In 2010 Project Sanctuary was among six organizations from across the country singled out by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden to mark the first anniversary of their Joining Forces initiative to honor service members and their families.

Healthy to help others

As her 10 months training as a Walton's Warrior neared its end, Army veteran CarrieAnn Grayson said the most valuable lesson she had learned was the importance of ensuring she was healthy enough to help others. 
Walton's Warriors coaches urged her to seek counseling, something she had not done consistently since leaving the military in 2008. Now, she sees a therapist weekly.

"We can't create a program that's going to leave mentors alone and dangling," said Ronie Huddleston, an Army veteran who runs Project Sanctuary retreats and coaches Walton's Warriors.

Grayson, who served in Iraq, left a teaching job in Texas to come to Colorado to work as Project Sanctuary's marketing director in 2016 after a friend told her about the program. Her Walton's Warriors duties are extra and volunteer.

Therapist Dahlstedt said veterans can bring important perspective, including an understanding of the guilt former warriors carry for killing - and for surviving when some comrades fell.

As much as the mentees may get out of the relationships, Dahlstedt added, mentors gain a sense of purpose and an opportunity to realize the need to serve that drove many to join the military in the first place. But Dahlstedt cautioned peer mentors must also recognize their limitations.

That's built into the Walton's Warriors training, according to coach Huddleston.

"We're not counselors," he said. "We try to drive them into counseling. Then all we're going to do is support them through it."

Shades of isolation

Huddleston can speak from experience about the importance of professional counseling. His 2005 deployment to Iraq left him with traumatic brain injury and PTSD and he retired from the Army in 2008. After years of struggling, his wife persuaded him to bring his family to a Project Sanctuary retreat in April of 2013.

Ehle remembered Huddleston sitting with arms folded and barely talking for most of that week.

"But I heard everything," he said.

And he saw a drawing his teen son produced during art therapy at the retreat. The then 15-year-old depicted a happy mother and children on one side, and a father in angry shades of red and black in an isolated corner. The image prompted Huddleston to ask for help. Ehle helped arrange 90 days of intensive psychotherapy.

After some of those sessions, Huddleston said, he would drive around for hours until he was calm enough to return to his family. He wishes he had had a Walton's Warrior to assure him he was not alone.

Huddleston soon returned to Project Sanctuary asking to volunteer. By late 2013 he was Ehle's logistics manager.

"There's no cure for PTSD," Huddleston said. "But there's definitely growth and a way to deal with it and to have a good life."

The Wyoming native had been studying nursing at the University of Denver before his family's Winding River retreat. He switched to social work and earned his bachelor's two summers ago. He now lives with his family in Colorado Springs and describes helping fellow vets as his new mission.

Bonnie has met with Walton's Warriors at Winding River to share a story that is a testament to both the impact of suicide and the possibility of resiliency. She remembers a trainee who thanked her and told her "he had called his wife and apologized for a suicide attempt he had made."

This summer, Bonnie moved with her sons from the Illinois-Indiana area where she grew up to Colorado to be closer to Winding River, where she had Brian's ashes buried five strides from the river bank.

"It's home," she said, her eyes shiny with tears.

"I come here to get glimpses of him and to find myself," she said. "I still have days when I cry at the drop of a hat. Other days I feel stronger."

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