View Full Version : Retreats help vets, spouses reconnect

02-26-08, 05:25 AM
Published: 02.26.2008
Retreats help vets, spouses reconnect
By Joe Vargo

During intense retreats that combine counseling, massage and American Indian rituals, returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are learning to reconnect with their spouses after months of unrelenting combat.
Dubbed the Phoenix Project, the no-cost weeklong retreats unaffiliated with the military have attracted about 500 veterans and their spouses since beginning three years ago.
The program has been hailed by therapists, veterans' advocates and returning soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as a godsend that has helped save dozens of marriages strained by long and repeated deployments.
Now, a Twentynine Palms, Calif., man is leading efforts to bring the Phoenix Project to the High Desert. The region is home to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, one of the country's largest Marines bases.
"War presents individuals with rather unusual and unpleasant circumstances they have to deal with," Steven Brown said. "You have to learn how to live with what you've gone through."
Brown, 47, said he got involved in the project to honor his son. Kieran Spence, 23, was a cowboy on a ranch where a Phoenix Project retreat was taking place when he died in an accident in 2006.
Brown has no connection to the military. He runs a magazine dedicated to the High Desert arts community.
His son's best friend was the son of Phoenix Project founder Teresa Goforth, and he was the same age as many of those Iraq veterans who take part in Phoenix Project retreats. Brown said he had to get involved.
Brown invited Goforth to speak to civic groups around Twentynine Palms and organized a fund-raiser that was held Feb. 16. The program is funded by private donations and grants.
Brown said that even though it will be months or longer before a West Coast retreat can be held, he has fielded a dozen calls from interested service members and their spouses.
Goforth, of Dallas, said she founded the Phoenix Project because she doesn't want the violence and abuse that ended her marriage to befall another generation of military spouses.
Goforth said her former husband's frequent flashbacks and bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of his Vietnam War service, plagued their marriage. Goforth, a former flight attendant, helped shuttle soldiers to Vietnam more than 30 years ago and to Kuwait for service in Iraq.
"The person who comes back from war is a different person than the one who left," Goforth said.
Many veterans turn to the confidential Phoenix Project because they don't want to bring their marriage problems to their commanders, fearing doing so could harm their chances for promotion, Goforth said.
Sessions start at 7 a.m. and last until 10 p.m. All staff members are veterans.
Rayna Johnston, 40, who supervises the massage therapists during Phoenix Project retreats, said couples range from their early 20s to their 50s. Many veterans have completed three and four combat tours.
For many couples, the change in attitude from the time they arrive to when they leave is astounding, Johnston said.
"They come in not talking to each other, glaring at one another," said Johnston, who served in the first Iraq war. "Within two or three days, they are laughing and giggling."
Johnston said a powerful ceremony takes place when the veterans slather red mud over their hands, which are then washed by their spouses — symbolically removing the blood of war. Modeled after American Indian cleansing rituals, Johnston said, the ritual often leaves couples emotionally spent but ready to look ahead.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Aaron Childs said he went to two retreats in Texas, one after each deployment supporting the war in Iraq as an F-15 Eagle crew chief. The first time, he and his wife, Mellissa, went as clients. The second go-around, they served as mentors.
Childs, 29, who serves at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C., said the first retreat taught him the value of communicating honestly with his wife. One can't shield loved ones from the horrors of war, not with 24-hour news stations reporting from Iraq constantly, he was told.
Childs said the Phoenix Project differs from the military debriefing all servicemen and servicewomen receive before going on leave after deployments. Those are mandatory and often suggest that angry and frustrated veterans speak with chaplains or trusted commanders or seek medical or mental health treatment. Those briefings are delivered when combat veterans just want to go home, he said.
Phoenix Project retreats are voluntary, more comprehensive and confidential.