Registered nurse Heather Ehle founds a free retreat for veterans,
active duty military and their families
By DANA KLOSNER
ir Force wife registered nurse and mother of three Michelle Heather Ehle saw a need. As the veterans Bruce was came home, she saw families disintegrate married just and even instances of child abuse. There three years were a lot of services for the veterans, but when her there weren’t a lot of services that aphusband plied to the entire family, she says. David, a
She started Project Sanctuary as a free technical retreat for active duty military personsergeant, nel and their families. Housed in the went on Colorado Rocky Mountains, the retreat his first combines recreational activities such deployment as skiing, snowmobiling, hiking, fishfor seven ing and horseback riding and “covert”
months. therapy. There is financial, marriage and “When my husband came home I was parenting classes available free of charge. kind of mad at him,” Bruce says. “He A licensed clinical social worker is on wasn’t there when we needed him.” hand.
While her husband was gone, Bruce “When I started this program, I didn’t was hospitalized. At the same time, her know one single military family,” Ehle two-year-old had a kidney infection. She says. “My biggest fear was that I was had to discharge herself from the hospi- going to build a whole program, and no tal until her mother arrived, then go back one was going to come.” into the hospital. In the meantime, her That’s when she got an email from mother was diagnosed with breast cancer Michelle Bruce. and underwent five surgeries. She says “The email basically says, “Great webshe felt like her family was broken, and site, but what can you do for me now?'”. she didn’t know how to fix it.
Ehle says. Then a friend of a friend told her
Ehle told her the project could start about Project Sanctuary – a non-profit with them. The Bruces never had a organization that provides retreats to honeymoon or a vacation with the military families to help the entire family entire family. “She was blown away by reintegrate when the active duty mem the retreat and the fact that there were ber returns home from deployment. The no strings attached,” Ehle says. “The organization was started in September problem was no other (military] families 2007 on a shoestring budget. While work- would come with them.” ing for a free clinic that served veterans, “Military don’t normally get things
given to them,” says Michelle Bruce who now works as the Military Director for the Project. “They would hang up on her. They thought she was selling a time share or she was something religious. I speak military lingo. I am a military wife. We are actually going to do this for free. I started volunteering as soon as we went. We knew specific people that needed it.”
Bruce began calling families. The second retreat included three families, the third included four families and the fourth included ten families.
Bruce’s family went on the retreat in May 2008, and she says they are still reaping the benefits. “The retreat was instrumental in helping the kids and the family,” she says. “There were no distractions. There was no phone reception, so everyone that meant well and wanted to call and check up (on David) couldn’t. There was no TV or computers. It gave us time to be together with no responsibilities. No cooking or cleaning. It was all about us, only us. They sent us to a fun amusement park. We went horseback riding, putt-putt and they even gave us a date night. The kids had a blast, and my husband and I had a romantic dinner. It was our first date in a year and a half. It gave us time to be at peace together.”
Because of the retreat, the family still has traditional pancake Saturday. And the effect of no TV gave them talent night for the kids which they are still doing today.
In addition to helping families where
12 January 2011/Family
Scenes from the various retreats provided by Project Sanctuary
one member is just back from deployment, Project Sanctuary helps any military family in need. Army wife Carrie Stecklein’s husband Beau suffered a level two traumatic brain injury while he was on combat duty in Afghanistan. The injury has caused him to have memory loss. Because of the injury, he can’t be around large groups of people and he can’t handle repetitive noise, she says. Because of the injury he will never work again.
“You take him from being the leader of 36 men, take him out of the military and put him on the couch,” Stecklein says. The couple has three boys ages 4, 8, and 10. “We called Heather, and she approved the trip. We had the chance to connect with other families that are facing the same obstacle.”
For the Steckleins, the retreat was just what the doctor ordered. “Heather recognizes the need to keep families together and help them get through,” Stecklein says. “Guys come in hardened. They refuse to do healthy marriage class. By the end of the week, everyone is a huge family. My husband bonded with the therapist, and now they are good friends. Since then, he has been referred to a therapist, and he is taking medication for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I credit that to Project Sanctuary. He never would have opened up to do it.
“We really reconnected as a family,” Stecklein says. “I’m forever indebted to Heather and her staff.”
Stecklein now attends the retreats as a volunteer. According to Ehle, 60 percent of families that go on the retreat come back as volunteers, and those volunteers are needed, because Project Sanctuary follows the families for two years and helps them with whatever they need. They help find a job, they help with emergency housing – whatever families
need to stay connected and together, Ehle says.
And so far it’s working. Out of the 76 families Project Sanctuary has served, there’s been only one divorce, Ehle says. Currently, there are more than 550 families on the waiting list.
For more information on Project Sanctuary, go to projectsanctuary.us.
January 2011/Family 13