US veterans find combat-related stress relief in holistic-medicine retreat

Ever since 47-year-old Andy Kaufmann retired from the U.S. Army in 2009, scenes from active duty in Iraq, Bosnia, and the Saudi Arabia and Kuwait border have rattled his body and mind— giving him hyper-vigilance, disrupting his sleep and memory function, and threatening his marriage of 21 years.

Kaufmann, of Montpelier, Va., thought he had tried everything to shake post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition common among military veterans that will affect nearly 8 percent of Americans at some point during their lifetime, according to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA). After serving in Iraq, Kaufmann suffered an injury that required more than 20 surgeries on his back and neck, and caused short-term memory loss. The father-of-three tried traditional talk therapy and a slew of common prescription medications, and even tried magnetic resonance therapy, an experimental treatment. When none of those things worked, Kaufmann developed an alcohol dependency.

“It was ugly,” Kaufmann told “My wife basically said, ‘Get help, or get out,’ and it was on no uncertain terms.”

What Kaufmann hadn’t tried was confronting his fears head on— while leaning on a group of other veterans whose experiences he shares.

At Boulder Crest Retreat, a wellness center in Bluemont, Va. that uses holistic medicine to help form bonds among veterans with combat-related stress, Kaufmann got to do just that. In September, he participated in their Warrior PATHH program, a seven-day retreat that combines group therapies and activities to prepare veterans with combat-related stress to lead happier, more productive civilian lives. Today, he says his marriage is stronger, his sleep is better, and his mind is clearer.

“We learned Transcendental Meditation,” Kaufmann said. “The first session that I had, I started crying, and [the teacher] said, ‘Are you OK?’ and I said, ‘This is the first time in probably 10 years that the music and the forces and the images have stopped … it was that good.”

U.S. Navy veteran Ken Falke started Boulder Crest, and the retreat offers a handful of programs, each tailored to an area of life, like relationships, personal growth and career. Its Warrior PATHH program integrates therapeutic peer support and life coaching with yoga, music therapy, equine therapy, kayaking, gardening and other activities. Veteran military mentors are also on hand to support participants.

“You have that immediate sense of trust and brotherhood, and in many ways they have traveled the same roads,” Josh Goldberg, director of strategy at Boulder Crest, told “For us, there’s a belief that struggle is a universal part of life. We believe as guides and as mentors we’re simply serving as role models for what it looks like, and all the ups and downs.”

Some studies suggest certain forms of holistic medicine may benefit veterans with combat stress. The VA has long recommended many of the same types of activities as programs like Boulder Crest’s to help ease PTSD symptoms, said Dr. Harold Kudler, chief consultant of mental health services for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) in the VA. The VA’s recommended programs vary by state, but they include yoga, transcendental meditation, and music and art therapy.

“Freud said that the purpose of human life is to work and to love, and I think it’s very important to ask that question: Are you able to work and are you able to love?” Kudler told “And yet, you won’t hear those questions asked in clinical settings too often.”

Where Boulder Crest’s model differs from other centers of its kind is its immersive nature to try to prepare veterans to confidently return to civilian life and feel a sense of self-growth, Goldberg said. The organization calls itself the nation's first privately funded rural wellness center for veterans and their families.

Falke and his wife, Julia, founded Boulder Crest in September 2013 after hosting veterans with combat stress in their home inspired them to start an official wellness center.

Since its inception, the retreat has hosted more than 1,500 combat veterans and their families for free through its Family Rest & Reconnection Retreats and PATHH programs. PATHH, an acronym by Boulder Crest, stands for Progressive and Alternative Therapies for Healing Heroes.

"It's a band of their own"

Boulder Crest sits on 37 acres surrounded by mountains on three sides. Its extensive facilities are handicapped-accessible and cost about $10 million to construct, Goldberg said.

“Whether you’re walking through the labyrinth or doing archery or equine therapy, it’s designed to bring that peace of mind and clarity and how you’re going to get there,” he said.

Boulder Crest aims to have a staff consisting of one “guide” per participant. For its Warrior PATHH program it has six to eight guides, or providers, including two therapists, a couple of life coaches, and several military mentors, some of which have combat stress themselves.

Participants at Boulder Crest do not have to be clinically diagnosed with PTSD, though Goldberg noted that most would qualify for the diagnosis.

“What we don’t talk about are diagnoses and disability [ratings] because those aren’t constructive for creating confidence and enabling someone to do what they want to do,” he added.

Individuals who either have a more severe psychological disorder like schizophrenia or who are coping with a major substance abuse problem at the time of application are not eligible for Boulder Crest’s programs, but the staff refers those who don’t qualify elsewhere to receive treatment.

“We’ve actually had people who were detoxing, maybe from alcohol or they had maybe more complex trauma, and they were still able to get a lot out of this,” Rachel Erwin, lead therapist at Boulder Crest, who received her master’s degree in psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, Calif., told “But what can happen is that sort of takes the attention away from the larger community of the other people who are here.”

Participants in the Warrior PATHH program take an entry survey that queries them on their experience in the military and their mental health state and results in a PCL score, which is a standard rating for PTSD in the U.S. military. At the end of the program and in three intervals up to a year after the program, participants complete a similar survey.

Boulder Crest’s staff said it has seen a 25 percent reduction in overall PCL scores from PATHH participants. The organization has also reported a 71 percent improvement in its participants believing they have a meaningful and applicable plan for the future, and a 47 percent improvement in participants feeling they are able to manage stress moving forward.

At the end of participants’ stay, Boulder Crest’s staff helps them identify resources in their hometowns so they can continue to engage in the activities they resonated with most strongly during the retreat.

Staff and volunteers involved at Boulder Crest acknowledge the lack of independent scientific evidence that proves Boulder Crest’s programs are effective from a clinical standpoint, but they say that isn’t the point.

“We’ve taken the clinical part out of it,” Erwin said. “I think medicine can be useful if someone is in an acute state, and I think there’s a place for that. The problem is ultimately if you don’t get into those various things that have gotten stuck in someone, like a state of fear or anxiety or depression, and if you don’t get into that physiological part of a person and [you do] medicate it, you’re freezing the part of the person.”

Dr. Bret Moore, a board-certified clinical psychologist, volunteers with Boulder Crest, helping the staff refine programs, which are not meant to replace traditional health care services but to act as a supplement for those who have not responded well to medication or psychotherapy.

Moore— who served as an active-duty psychologist in the Army from 2003 to 2008, during which he did a 14-month tour in Iraq— said he has seen Boulder Crest’s model work.

“It’s not one hour of therapy a week like you traditionally get in the health care system. It’s therapy throughout the day that is not only provided by trained professionals but also by their fellow service members,” he said. “Think about how military service works: It’s a band of their own, and that’s what’s unique about Boulder Crest. People are able to open up more and form bonds more as opposed to sitting in traditional therapy.”

“It’s one of the most important factors,” Moore added. “It’s one of those factors that the traditional health care system is trying to maximize and cash out on. Because of the way our traditional health care system is set up, it’s too costly.”

"We’ve gotta change this stigma"

Boulder Crest is working on expanding beyond its single location to 10 different areas in the U.S., with early interest in Michigan, Texas, California and Washington state. More immediately, the nonprofit is creating a technology platform that will help participants of PATHH stay connected with and accountable for each other as well as their mentors and therapists from the program long after they have left the retreat.

Mike King, 35, who has been in the U.S. Army Reserve for 14 years, stays in touch with four or five of the men in his cohort from the Warrior PATHH program he participated in last March.

King had tried for years to suppress his PTSD symptoms until an Army assessment survey revealed the truth: He was diagnosed with PTSD.

“I carried on, and said, ‘I’m OK, and now I’ve got this excuse to be a mean, gruff sergeant,” King told He eventually became dependent on alcohol. “This past January, I looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t recognize who I was looking at.”

After learning about Boulder Crest, he was skeptical but now says he would “go so far as to say it saved my life.”

“They basically told me it’s OK to have this stress in your life. It’s normal,” King said. “But, like, nobody really told us that … it was just, ‘Hey, you went to war, come on, you’re in the Army Reserve, you’re just young, you’re drinking too much.’”

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Following the program, King continues to practice Transcendental Meditation, sees a therapist regularly, and has been sober eight months— no longer taking any drugs or drinking alcohol— as he works as a land surveyor for a construction company in Ashburn, Va., where he, his wife, Monika, and their 3-year-old daughter, Margaret, live.

“We’ve gotta change the view of people and this stigma with mental health issues in the military,” he said. “We’ve gotta get these guys in there to programs like this. We’ve gotta heal them and let them be themselves again.”

Kaufmann, one of the other Warrior PATHH participants, said yoga effected the biggest change in his sense of well-being. Since leaving Boulder Crest, he practices yoga regularly, and he’s now volunteering at a horse ranch that does equine therapy for children.

Two months after his stay, Kaufmann recalled two art therapy sessions with four other participants at Boulder Crest—one at the beginning of his program and one at the end.

At the beginning, he said, “Mine was stop signs and grave markers and death and pain, and at the end of it, it was a tree— the five of us had been there with a river in front and mountains in the back.”