Merritt Center Helps Veterans Return To 'Life As Usual'

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It has been called shell shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it's well known that sometimes after veterans have been in the fire of combat, they have difficulty coming back to "life as usual."

The Returning Veterans Program at the Merritt Center speaks to this issue and, with veterans as mentors, is available to any veteran for free.

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The Merritt Center and Lodge is a nonprofit retreat center in Star Valley, founded in 1987 by Betty Merritt.

Veterans from any war or conflict may come home and bury their feelings, only to have them resurface at stressful times in their lives. Some veterans have nightmares and sleep disorders that cause them to wake up to "check the perimeter" of their homes several times a night. Some feel anger and rage, others say "I feel nothing."

"Turning off the switch is not that easy." said Anthony, a Purple Heart and Vietnam veteran, who was first a participant, and now acts as a mentor in this vet program at the Center.

The Merritt Center and Lodge is a nonprofit retreat center in Star Valley, founded in 1987 by Betty Merritt for individual or group renewal and empowerment. Workshops and retreats conducted there over the years have provided an atmosphere conducive to personal growth.

The 13-acre Merritt Center offers a home-like, simple retreat in a rural area of Star Valley near Payson that allows the participants the freedom of forest exploration, a family-like setting for meals and small, but welcoming, accommodations.

In talking about the Returning Veterans Program, Betty said, "This is a unique resource because we provide a safe space and provide a place for trust to develop quickly." All the people who work in this program are volunteers -- from the people who conduct the daily programs, to those who facilitate the groups and cook the meals.

Betty learned from the vets that, "Combat is nasty stuff," and with the help of veterans, she started the program because, for her, and others, "War hurts my heart."

One Marine combat vet who served two tours in Vietnam played a part in the early development of the program. He said," I was encouraging and supportive of Betty's wish to help our returning brothers and sisters of these current conflicts." He thinks it is important to help the returning veteran early by those who have "been there," rather than deny the trauma of PTSD and the effect it has on others.

Betty's energy is boundless. She conducts the programs and often cooks healthy home-style meals herself. In her empowerment programs, she teaches what she calls the Cycle of Life. During the sessions, the participants ask themselves three questions. Who am I? Why am I here? What do I value? She teaches, "We do not have to be a victim. We can dream to create a new structure."

This retreat attempts to help the veteran create a new structure by addressing four areas, the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual in a four-weekend program. There is time to talk, walk around the grounds and in the forest, relax in the hammocks, eat healthy snacks anytime and learn exercises and techniques to help them at home. When they leave they have phone numbers of the veteran mentors and others from the program that they can call 24 hours a day.

Time to walk in the forest

For the physical sessions, they take walks in the forest and learn Trauma Release Exercises (TRE). David Berceli developed the TRE tools and has years of experience in trauma intervention. He has conducted post-deployment training in combat operational stress for the military.

David conducted the TRE for the first Vet program at the Merritt center and trained one of the veterans to continue. Berceli, as well as others who work with trauma victims, believes the body stores memory. These exercises elicit mild tremors that release deep chronic tension in the body to assist the individual in the trauma healing process.

"With the mental, you learn how the mind tricks you and plays with you." said Anthony, one of the vets who started in the program and is now a mentor. He listens to the CD by psychologist Belleruth Nasparstek, called Healing Trauma, that the Center offers the participants to take home with them to use in times of stress. They also have a session to discuss non-violent communications.

Another technique the vets learn is called "Tapping." It addresses the emotional component of the stress. If an event triggers a recurrence of the trauma, they start tapping certain points on the face, hands or body. When the trigger occurs the brain goes into a "fight or flight" mode. One either gets angry, ready to fight, or withdraws and cuts off all feeling. Tapping interrupts the emotion with a task. "You are then no longer a victim of this trigger," said Betty.

With the spiritual focus, the participants look at what brings them solace. All faiths are honored. As the Marine combat vet said, "I believe the spiritual energy of this place (the Center) allows the veterans to feel safer and willing to risk sharing the horrors of combat."

The veterans tell us that during combat, they have a band of brothers or sisters to "cover their back." When they get home, this band is dissolved. One way they recreate this "band of brothers" is to sit in a circle and talk while holding a talking stick. They can say anything and not be interrupted. At first, some say very little, but by the end of the weekend, "You can't shut them up," offered one of the group. "It's because they feel a sense of trust here."

During the weekend, the participants are asked to go into the forest and pick out a walking stick. One of the men, who shares his love of music with the vets, was watching them sitting relaxed, outside at the picnic table cleaning their walking sticks. He said, "It looks like they are cleaning their weapons." This activity brings them together. This is a retreat, not a therapy session. It's voluntary.

The Returning Veterans Program, costs the Merritt Center about $150 for each participant, each weekend. With the help of the many volunteers and private donations, the retreat remains free to any returning combat veteran of any war. There is a new women's veterans group that has started that will include wives of the military.

The vet mentors for the program want to reach the Iraq group. A combat veteran said, "When we came back from Vietnam, there was nothing." They want these current returning combat vets to know this retreat is here for them. "We want them to know they are never forgotten. Here, you are building this brotherhood and you are not alone anymore."

On Saturday, Oct. 20 there will be an Octoberfest fund-raiser at the Merritt Center to make this retreat available to many more veterans. For information call 928-474-4268.

To learn more see the Web site www.merrittcenter.org.

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