Since 2007, a Colorado-based nonprofit called Project Sanctuary has provided therapy and Rocky Mountain recreational retreats to help military families reconnect.
In 2016, Brian Walton, a combat veteran from Illinois who had participated in a Project Sanctuary retreat, died by suicide. That prompted Project Sanctuary to develop something new: a peer mentorship program known as Walton’s Warriors that focuses on preventing suicide among veterans.
With 20 vets a day dying by suicide, it’s extraordinary that Walton’s was her first suicide. But Project Sanctuary founder and chief executive Heather Ehle did not rest on her accomplishments.
“We can always do more. We can always do better,” she told me. “Because we’ve got to.”
Ehle has no military experience. She told me she “didn’t get the memo” that said only military can help military. Neither did Melanie Kline, the western Colorado jeweler who founded the vets-support project I write about in my book “Home of the Brave.” Like Kline, Ehle has forged a strong civilian-military alliance to provide much-needed services. Ehle’s started on her path to helping veterans when she adopted a brother and sister. The boy had been abused and when Ehle read that the rates of child abuse and neglect increase when a parent is deployed she was moved to found Project Sanctuary.
From my work on “Home of the Brave,” I know veterans respond well to their peers. There’s good thinking behind Walton’s Warriors. And extraordinary people, as I came to know when I wrote about the project for Colorado Politics.
Walton’s widow Bonnie has helped train the Warriors, sharing her story with the volunteer mentors as a testament to both the impact of suicide and the possibility of resiliency.
“I want my kids to know that when something terrible happens to you, you find a way to keep it from happening to someone else. It helps you heal,” Bonnie told me. She was raising four sons with Brian.
“You can move forward and have something positive come from your grief,” she said.
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