DEER LAKE, Washington – In a field on the shores of this idyllic Stevens County lake on Friday, Ted Bookless and 13 other men paired up for a series of exercises that paled in comparison to what each had faced in combat.
But this was a different kind of challenge. Bookless, 55, stood across from a fellow veteran three decades his junior and the two men leaned forward, palms together, forming a bridge with their arms in a sort of mutual trust fall.
It was the start of a four-day retreat organized by Veterans Community Response, a Spokane Valley-based nonprofit dedicated to helping military veterans readjust to civilian life.
Most of the veterans there were first-timers, but for Bookless, who served for 25 years in the Army Special Forces before retiring in Coeur d’Alene, it was the fifth time attending what he said are life-changing events.
“Without a doubt, this saved my life,” he said. “I was so depressed, I was contemplating checking out.”
After returning to civilian life in 2010, Bookless said, he felt isolated and couldn’t relate to people who hadn’t experienced the things he had.
The weekend’s “modern-day warrior” retreat was intended for men who served in conflicts from Operation Desert Storm to the war in Afghanistan, said Kelly Kiki, a Coast Guard veteran and member of the group’s board, but other retreats serve veterans of all ages.
Veterans Community Response also is organizing its first retreat for female combat veterans later this year. In addition to the multi-day events, which are free to participants, Kiki said the group organizes volunteer opportunities and is hosting a charity golf tournament at the Esmeralda Golf Course on July 24.
During the four days at Deer Lake, the group’s board members and counselors from the Spokane Vet Center lead activities based around three pillars, said Dante Rumore, a readjustment therapist and Marine Corps veteran who has worked with the group since its inception in 2009.
The first pillar is community, Rumore said, built throughout the weekend of activities like yoga, trap shooting and kayaking.
The second is psychology and mental health. “A lot of them have been back from combat for a decade or more, but that doesn’t mean the challenges are gone,” Rumore said.
The third pillar of the retreat is spirituality, centered around a sweat lodge ceremony led by Roger Vielle, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe who served in the Army from 1974 to 1978.
“It opens up that spiritual portal for healing,” Vielle said of the event that usually lasts several hours. “We laugh, we pray, we scream, we cry.”
After the veterans build the lodge as a group, Vielle sings songs of healing and the veterans go around the circle and pray, aloud or silently, as water is poured over hot stones and fills the pitch-black enclosure with steam.
The ceremony includes four rounds, Vielle said: for the children, for the women, for all living things and, finally, for the warriors.
Trust was a major theme as the retreat kicked off and several veterans talked about struggling to readjust to civilian life.
“I’ve questioned the value of developing trust,” one veteran said, “but I do appreciate being the one someone trusts.”
“Even at church, I still don’t trust them like I do when I’m with veterans,” another said.
On the other hand, an Iraq War veteran said, some combat experiences made them feel like they can’t be trusted themselves.
But Bookless said the retreats provide a lifeline, especially after a year of pandemic-induced isolation.
“You come in not knowing anybody,” he said, “and you leave with, like, 15 friends.”
Each year’s retreat honors a member of the military who lost their life in combat. This year, the event was dedicated to Darrel Morris, a Ferris High School graduate killed in Iraq in 2007.
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