By Susan Green, Special Contributor…
RUSKIN, Fla.—Anne Hasler remembers the despair in her friend Kelly’s voice during a late-night phone call, and the simple words: “I’ve lost him.”
It was a call no mother wants to make that followed a call no mother ever wants to receive—the notification of her soldier son’s death in combat.
Three years later, Kelly Kowall has found some solace by piloting her boat through the sun, wind and spray of Tampa Bay, an experience she has shared with other grieving relatives of fallen troops.
Now she and Ms. Hasler, both members of South Shore United Methodist Church in Riverview, Fla., want to zero in on a group they say has been underserved—the military survivors who struggle with the aftermath of witnessing friends or fellows perish in battle.
“I realized they were still stuck in their grief,” Ms. Kowall said, adding that military traditions don’t encourage a lot of downtime to deal with emotional trauma.
“For some of the Vietnam veterans, it had been over 30 years, but in talking to them, you would think they just lost their brother in arms.”
She is starting Project Corregidor, named after a World War II battle her son, Corey, used to talk about before he grew up and joined the Army.
With community and faith-based support, Ms. Kowall acquired a 1.7-acre property on the Little Manatee River with two houses and some trailers and RV pads. Volunteers are sprucing it up to provide periodic weeklong programs of peer mentoring, rest and relaxation for veterans or active duty personnel who struggle with traumatic combat memories that experts say can lead to suicide, domestic violence, substance abuse and divorce.
Ms. Kowall hopes to open the facility, dubbed “My Warrior’s Place,” for its first sessions in December and eventually expand the program across the country.
Helping her in October were members of the UMC Early Response Team (ERT) based at Sun City Center UMC, including Ms. Hasler and Bob Paugh, who attends Hillsborough UMC, Tampa. Veterans groups, including Nam Knights members from two counties away, also turned out to help.
In addition to repairing damage from Tropical Storm Debby, the group painted and installed shelving in the boat shed. Ms. Kowall said she has received donations, a new roof for one building and volunteer labor from local businesses to remove garbage bins full of trash and debris. Another company supplied sand and shell to fill deep ruts in the roads.
Besides the physical repairs, the group is recruiting veterans or active duty members of the armed forces who have seen combat to go through a peer-mentoring training program that is similar to one pioneered by TAPS, a national organization that focuses on helping relatives of fallen soldiers cope with grief.
Ms. Kowall envisions a program of group sessions interspersed with boat or kayak trips, naps in hammocks by the river or long chats around the fire pit.
Volunteers from Nam Knights said they didn’t hesitate to help. They have no doubt the program will benefit today’s veterans and active duty personnel.
“Back in the ’60s, post-traumatic stress disorder was not a recognized symptom of returning veterans,” said Ski Romanowski of Hudson, who said he lost “a lot of friends” in combat during his Vietnam service.
“When you get in combat like that, and you get shell-shocked, you look for something to kill it and make it go away,” said Frenchy Faurote of Broward County, a Nam Knights member who also is senior vice commander of VFW Post 10167 in Holiday, Fla.
“A lot of guys turned to alcohol. . . . When I came back from Vietnam, I ended up in the hospital three times with alcohol poisoning.”
He and other veterans said government programs don’t offer the kind of support that My Warrior’s Place promises.
Gwynn Gall, whose husband, Earl, leads the Sun City Center ERT, said her son came back from Iraq and Kuwait four years ago.
“He lost a lot of buddies, and he had to kill somebody, which is what messed him up,” she said. Her son lives in California, and she’s hoping My Warrior’s Place will become successful enough to spread across the U.S.
Ms. Hasler said her marriage ended in domestic violence and divorce after her former husband returned from military service that included combat.
“If we can eliminate one suicide or keep a woman from being beaten or steer a family toward a better life, then these things are all better for society,” she said.
Ms. Kowall believes she has been called to start the program.
She said her son was killed in Afghanistan when a vehicle he was riding in flipped several times after the driver swerved, thinking he saw signs of a bomb in the road. Later, she said, lives were saved because others in the convoy turned back to check on the wreck and avoided a huge cache of hidden explosives.
About 1½ years ago she had started a nonprofit organization, FAVE Boating Expeditions, offering boat rides to family survivors of armed forces killed in action. After talking to troubled soldiers and veterans, she got the idea for a residential retreat program, but she knew it would be a lot of work.
“I jumped on a boat and I went to Beer Can Island in Apollo Beach,” she recalled, saying that had been a favorite place to visit with her son.
“I was crying, and I was talking to God, and I said, ‘This has been really hard, but if you want me to do it, I’ll do it. But I need a sign.’ Then something washed up [on shore]. It was a bullet between my feet. . . . I picked up the bullet, and I said, ‘OK.’”
Since then, the community support and ease with which she acquired the property have her convinced that she is doing God’s work, she said.
The program will use some mentor training techniques developed by Dr. Darcie Sims of Oregon, a grief counselor who has worked with TAPS and trained Ms. Kowall in peer-based mentoring.
The wife, mother and daughter of armed forces veterans, Dr. Sims said in a phone interview that she understands some of the challenges for servicemen and women encountering death, mostly because military tradition does not encourage open display of grief.
“‘Soldier on’ is the expression,” she said, noting that tradition demands a brief ceremony and then getting back to work as the best way to honor the dead.
“Grief is a part of you for the rest of your life. How you choose to deal with it as a part of your life is your choice,” Dr. Sims said.
“Grief will wait for you. It will wait 50 years for you until you run out of energy to keep it blocked.”
She said she and her husband, Tony, a veteran, plan to work with Ms. Kowall to get a training program in place and also to offer professional counseling in isolated cases where peer mentoring might not be enough.
“We are very excited about what Kelly is trying to do,” Dr. Sims said. “It will be a wonderful way for her to honor her son’s life.”
She and Ami Neiberger-Miller, a TAPS spokesperson, said they knew of some programs in Colorado and on the West Coast addressing similar needs, but nothing quite like My Warrior’s Place.
Ms. Green is editor of Florida Conference Connection, a publication of the UMC’s Florida Conference.