GUEST BLOG: Healing and Empowering Military Families to Thrive

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Project Sanctuary works with DVNF to support heroes in need

Not an hour goes by for Jim* without reliving the horrors of that day. One moment he was on a fairly typical mission in Iraq. The next he lay trying to clear the dust from his eyes and inventory the full extent of his injuries.

The months that followed seemed like a series of snapshots, each one building upon the last to ensure Jim’s survival. Doctors had prepared him that the odds were against his walking again.

After three surgeries, recovery became Jim’s new mission and perhaps the most grueling of all, trying to make his body move as it had before. Post-traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury induced nightmares, flashbacks and migraines.

Jim often found it ironic that the virtues of freedom and independence for which he had fought in Iraq became the same virtues he was now fighting for within himself. The stress of recovery, on top of lives interrupted by combat deployments, began to take its toll on Jim, his wife Shannon and their children. A friend of Shannon’s told her about Project Sanctuary and recommended that she submit a family application. Jim wasn’t so sure.

Like Jim, many service members are apprehensive about what to expect at Project Sanctuary. Trust doesn’t come easily with combat veterans. In the end, though, they all seek change, overcoming apprehensions with the hope of starting anew.

At Project Sanctuary, we alleviate those apprehensions, creating a place where every member of the family can truly thrive. In this environment, relationships are renewed, memories made, and tools provided for empowerment. And with at least two years of follow-up support post retreat, families have a partnership they can depend on, even when times get tough.

From the moment Jim, Shannon and their three children arrived at their retreat, they felt welcomed, accommodated and safe. By day two, retreat administrator Neil recalls that Jim truly began to let his guard down.

“We were on a hike, surrounded by warriors with a variety of injuries, even amputations. I think being with them gave Jim the confidence to put himself out there. You could just see from that moment on that he refused to let either his physical limitations or his PTSD define him.”

Jim took part in zip lining and rock climbing, and even left his cane lying next to a log during one of the activities, walking on his own.

“There was a point about halfway through the week when Jim said he wasn’t ready for the retreat to end,” recalls Shannon. “He was looking forward to seeing and talking to people each day.”

At Project Sanctuary, Jim and his family gained the courage to try new things, make new connections and trust once again — changes that will allow them to reach new heights together. With over 1,900 families on our wait list, the grant from Disabled Veterans National Foundation enables us to help more families like Jim’s reconnect, heal, and gain the tools needed to thrive into the future.

*Names changed

Are You Sleeping?

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By Ana Yelen, Executive Director, Healing Warriors Program

A good night’s sleep is more elusive than we think. U. S. Department of Health and Human Services studies assert that sleep disorders affect between 50 – 70 million Americans, or about 20% of the population.

In the armed services, sleep issues are the de facto norm because of training, job schedules, and the need for a military force that is on-call and available at a moment’s notice. But the cost of long-term sleep deprivation is high and linked to depression, anxiety and worsening of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“More so than even the amputations and traumatic brain injuries that have come to define the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, insomnia is the hidden wound that America’s warriors are bringing home. It’s largely unnoticed, under-prevented and untreated.”1

At Fort Hood, Texas, Dr. Vincent Mysliwiec, reported that between 2000 and 2009 they found a 19-fold increase in cases of insomnia; that is an 1800% increase in insomnia in less than a decade. “If this was anything else, it’d be labeled an epidemic,” the Army’s top sleep specialist said at a Seattle sleep conference, according to Peter Green of Van Winkle’s (

“… Restoring sleep cycles is key to alleviating many post war ailments, including post traumatic stress.  It’s also the single most important factor, say military sleep researchers, for treating the post traumatic stress disorders that plague America’s returning veterans, keeping them on meds and out of work and preventing them from enjoying a normal life.2

We see this regularly at the Healing Warriors Program (HWP) clinic. Exhaustion from lack of sleep leads to high blood pressure, depression and often accompanies a sense of hopelessness. We all know this. We have all probably lived this. When we are over tired, what might be standard stressors become overwhelming making us feel engulfed, unable to swim out from the whirlpool.

So what can we do about this? We have some suggestions.


Those who have been in the military train themselves to perform certain tasks with specific cues, a process that usually started in boot camp. Through repetition and drill, muscle memory eventually and automatically takes over. It’s a good thing too, as it may be life-saving. In the same way, though, we need to signal our minds and bodies to relax, rest, and sleep by establishing those cues and creating a routine.

For example:

  • Take a hot bath using a scented bath salt or soap that you really like (this will also engage the sense of smell as a cue)
  • Brush your teeth and create yourself a pattern
  • Fluff your pillow with intent
  • Brush down your sheets and blankets to smooth out
  • Breathe – use conscious breathing techniques like resetting your breath to remind your body that it’s time to stop and cleanse
  • Smell – spritz an essential oil on the pillow (lavender, chamomile, valerian, vanilla) that you will begin to associate with going to sleep and will become your cue
  • Calm your mind – try using a short meditation or prayer to focus and calm the mind
  • Use guided Imagery which uses verbal suggestions in order to relax

All of these help you create a nightly ritual for going to bed that signals your body that it is time to power down and get some sleep. Best of all, it is a good way to practice self care.


When was your last physical? Do you get any exercise at all? How about taking a walk right after dinner? Walking helps keep the digestive system moving and increases oxygenation to the body.  Exercise helps all bodily functions work better because it stimulates the production of enzymes and hormones that keep us running well.

Speaking of running, it is important to include some cardio into your weekly routine.  Running, calisthenics, bicycling and even sex, are important ways to get that blood circulating and feeding the entire system.

Exercise also has the added benefit of helping soften the side effects of some medications that slow down digestion and elimination.  When our bodies are sluggish about processing waste, it adds more workload for our major organs.

Do you get healthy meals regularly? Are you drinking alcohol or consuming a lot of sugar before bed? Having a heavy, carbohydrate meal right before bed makes the digestive system, and our major organs, work even harder.  Worst of all, they can trigger the central nervous system into a state of agitation and anxiety. Again, we want to power down, not rev the engine.

Make sure you deliberately take in more vegetables and fruit.  These provide critical fuel and cleansers for your body.  The protein helps feed the creation of new cells and the fiber acts as internal scrubbers.  Even the simple act of munching on an apple or a carrot sets a host of enzymes and digestive processes in motion that clean and tune up your internal engine.

Always remember to eat and drink moderately in the evenings, and try to be kind to yourself. When your body doesn’t have the opportunity to digest properly, the result is churning and discomfort with resulting gas.

And remember, it’s ok to go to bed feeling a little hungry, but if you have to have a nightly snack, try a mug of hot chocolate or some hot milk with cinnamon. Keep it light.

Making some simple changes with your activity levels and with nourishment will make a big difference in how you feel.  You’ll have better rest and sleep.


A service member once told me a story about sleeping in the walk-in refrigerator on base. As odd as it may sound, studies have shown that we sleep better when the temperature is lower. Always keep your bedroom quiet, dark and cool.

If you’re having problems from different light sources, invest in black-out curtains for your bedroom. If you are having trouble sleeping because of a hot room, and you don’t have air conditioning, purchase a cooling gel pad for your mattress – good ones can be had from $30 to $100, and on up. If you do have air conditioning, try lowering the temperature at night 2-4 degrees.

Getting a good night’s sleep often hinges on our body’s memory. Use these suggestions, hit the reset button, and make valuable changes. If you live in the Colorado area, come down to a Healing Warriors Program clinic and participate in our 6-session sleep therapy series. You can restfully sleep again.

“…There is also a need for further research to evaluate the efficacy of innovative and promising treatment techniques that may fill treatment delivery gaps and be preferred by servicemembers, such as video teletherapy, therapies delivered through mobile technology, and CAM techniques  (e.g., meditation)….2


2 Sleep in the Military: Promoting Healthy Sleep Among US Service Members, Wendy M. Troxel, Regina A. Shih,  Eric Pedersen, Lily Geyer, Michael P. Fisher, Beth Ann Griffin, Ann C. Haas,  Jeremy R. Kurz, Paul S. Steinberg  pages             , 129

Other articles

As Sleep Improves, So Does an Injured Brain

How Soldiers Deal with Sleep Deprivation

An Epidemic of Sleeplessness,  f

Guest Blog: Honoring a Military Family

After reading They Marched Into Sunlight, a powerful book about two days during the Vietnam War, written by Pulitzer Prize Winning journalist David Maraniss, Robin Becker, Artistic Director of Robin Becker Dance, felt compelled to create an evening-length dance.

Deeply moved by the integrity, honor, and commitment of both those who fought the war, and those who fought against it, Robin Becker embarked upon the creation of this dance hoping that the universal language of the body would reflect and offer the same sense of healing that David’s words evoked in her.

In the audience during the company’s performance at Georgetown University was Lieutenant Clark Welch, one of the featured veterans in David’s book. Lieutenant Clark Welch was one of the most decorated soldiers during Vietnam. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for his action at the battle of Ong Thanh, and also three Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars and five Purple Hearts for his service.

Lt. Clark Welch (January 3, 1940 – April 12, 2016) with the dancers of Robin Becker Dance

After studying Clark’s history through the book, he became one of the lead inspirations for many of the dancers, and they were remarkably honored to meet him personally.

Sadly, this past spring, Clark Welch passed away. Now, Robin Becker Dance continues to honor his legacy through dedicating Into Sunlight to him.

Clark’s wife, Lacy Welch, shares with us the impact the dance work Into Sunlight had on her and Clark:

Into Sunlight made a profound impression on both Clark and me. When we first heard that there was to be a dance about the book, we were skeptical (camo tutus and combat boots?) Then, Clark went to the opening night performance; he called me to tell how beautiful and overpowering the dance was. The act portraying his fallen soldiers turning into angels mirrored his hopes that his men who had made the supreme sacrifice were transformed by their actions. He was moved to tears by the dance.”

“Clark’s life has always been about the responsibility and stewardship of those who came within his circle. He carried those emotions with him forever, particularly towards his beloved Delta company, and he felt that “Into Sunlight” reflected and honored those soldiers, indeed, all those who go in harm’s way. He came home with great anger towards the actions and after actions of the battle and struggled with what he saw as a betrayal by his Army that he loved and revered and he carried that anger for the rest of his life, but I think that some of his anguish was assuaged by the Dance. I know that he remained grateful that the experience had been so meaningfully and beautifully portrayed.”

Because of these strong reactions to the work, similar to Clark’s, Robin Becker Dance is now committed to sharing this piece to a wider military audience. The grant from the DVNF has helped us bring excerpts of Into Sunlight, along with movement workshops directly to the veterans, most recently at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. As this partnership continues, it is our mission to help facilitate feelings of hope, healing and understanding to many more military families.

Stephanie Grover is the Administrator of Robin Becker Dance. For more information about Into Sunlight, visit

Also take a look at the Robin Becker Dance Facebook page.

Guest Blog: 3 Beneficial Activities for PTSD

Life with PTSD can be tricky. You have to learn to cope with the symptoms and learn new tactics for feeling better. While treatment is a very important part of living with PTSD, there are a few things you can do to improve your quality of life at home such as form a routine. Every human being does better if they cultivate a routine to follow.

This is especially true for those with mental illness. The orderly existence prevents triggers for a number of disorders, including PTSD. So, if you have PTSD, you may want to consider a few of these activities to work into your daily schedule. Continue reading “Guest Blog: 3 Beneficial Activities for PTSD”

It’s Not Just About the Fishing


Photo: Ed Kashi

Plans do not always work out. For some Veterans this deviation from the plan is often the result of an unforecasted, traumatic event that leaves many wondering, “What am I going to do now?” The Veterans that make their way to Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing programs find that the multifaceted nature of fly fishing helps in answering that question. Continue reading “It’s Not Just About the Fishing”

Guest Blog: Tips for Veterans to Become Entrepreneurs


Contributed by:
Amy Ridgway
Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program

Traditionally, the first step an entrepreneur would take is to conduct extensive research and build a concrete business plan complete with all the details of running a business. Although this method teaches a comprehensive way to help entrepreneurs envision issues and a concrete method for developing the business plan for investors, the fact remains that at least 9 out of 10 startups will fail.

Continue reading “Guest Blog: Tips for Veterans to Become Entrepreneurs”

Guest Blog: Supporting Veterans with Mental Health Issues

Contributor: Helios Warriors, Marsha Bennett, Executive Director & Gulf War Veteran

The statistics concerning veterans with mental health issues are startling. According to the National Center for PTSD, between 11 and 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress and nearly 20% of soldiers involved in these wars have experienced a traumatic brain injury. These issues are certainly not new to those who have served in the armed forces. Veterans from every conflict throughout history have suffered from symptoms ranging from sleep disturbances, apathy, exaggerated startle response and personality changes to extreme anger and suicidal thoughts. An alarming 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to a 2011 VA statistic. Continue reading “Guest Blog: Supporting Veterans with Mental Health Issues”

Signs of PTSD and What to Do Next

“Stay busy, stay focused on what’s up ahead.
Keep going.
No matter what, don’t think.
Don’t talk about it.
Can’t sleep.
Brain is a spinning top that turns and jumps, try to quiet it and the invisible hand hits the reset button, round and round we go again.
Drink. Drugs. Anything to numb it out.
Can’t deal with your BS right now.
Avoid That! No point going there.
No, pull back.
Push those guys away. Nobody needs me in their lives, I’m too messed up. The world is better off without me.
I can’t turn my brain off.
Can’t sleep.
Push them away…” Continue reading “Signs of PTSD and What to Do Next”

Guest Blog: HERL Trains Vets in Manufacturing


Dr. Rory Cooper (left), Director of HERL, talking with a veteran in his program.

We at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) – a partnership between the University of Pittsburgh and VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System – take great pride in our work with Veterans. Our efforts are aimed at improving every aspect of their lives and the lives of their families, whether through programs to assist with the transition from the military to enrollment in STEM-related fields of study, or research that will improve their level of satisfaction and participation in everyday life activities. Continue reading “Guest Blog: HERL Trains Vets in Manufacturing”