Boswell-based Semper Fi Odyssey eases wounded warriors' transition
When Marine Gunnery Sgt. David Post threw down a challenge to Army Pfc. Kerry Cain during the physical portion of a program designed to ease their transition to life after war, Cain initially backed away.
“I'm afraid of heights,” he said, looking up the nearly 30-foot rope ladder leading to a gang plank-like board that he was supposed to jump to, then grab a metal bar as part of the “leap of faith” segment of an indoor obstacle course.
Post, 30, of Portsmouth, Va., who served in Iraq and lost part of a leg to an improvised explosive device during one of his two tours in Afghanistan, challenged Cain, who was wounded by an IED, to climb the ladder by placing his prosthetic leg atop the plank and vowing to “hobble around all day” until Cain retreived it.
“I completely expected him to do it, absolutely,” Post said.
For Cain, the climb was difficult. After reaching the top, he spent several minutes with his arms wrapped around a large post.
“Getting up there was hard. I never, ever would have thought I'd do that,” said Cain, 22, of St. Louis. He believes a lot of the weeklong program, at a former Boy Scout camp in Boswell, Somerset County, is about facing challenges.
“We may be broken, missing limbs or have head injuries, but this camp shows it doesn't matter,” he said. “Just keep going.”
Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Thomas S. Jones, a Vietnam veteran, came up with the idea of building a camp for at-risk kids while stationed in Saudi Arabia preparing for Operation Desert Storm. His wife, Nancy, grew up in Johnstown. The initial mission — to team kids with a mentor to help them succeed at school and in the community — has been expanded to include transition programs for wounded warriors, those who have lost limbs, suffered traumatic brain injuries or face post traumatic stress disorder and other “invisible” wounds.
When he retired, Jones transformed the camp into a multi-use educational facility and hosts the six-day holistic-transition program, dubbed Semper Fi Odyssey, six times a year. Since 2008, more than 1,300 combat Marines, sailors and soldiers have passed through.
“This week gives me a lot of fulfillment, because I'm here with people who stuck their hand in the air,” Jones told a roomful of Marines and camp leaders last month.
For today's soldiers, transitioning to a “new normal” can be a rough road, experts said.
While advancements in battlefield medicine and body armor mean a growing number of troops are surviving their injuries, some 266,000 service members suffered traumatic brain injuries between 2000 and 2012, according to the military. Estimates put the number of soldiers suffering from combat-related stress, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder at more than 400,000.
Visits to the camp are paid for by the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit established by a group of Marine Corps spouses nine years ago. The fund provides financial assistance and lifetime support for injured and critically ill veterans and their families through programs that provide adaptive housing and transportation, specialized equipment, education and career transition.
Since 2004, the fund has helped more than 11,000 veterans nationally with more than 67,000 grants totalling $84 million, said Susan Rocco, senior director of case management at the fund.
The numbers rise every year.
“People think the war is over, and there's no more need,” Rocco said. “With the reduction in forces, there's not as many injured, but we follow a service member through recovery.”
The Semper Fi Odyssey program includes 25 to 45 participants who are grouped into teams of three or four. Each team is assigned a leader, a volunteer professional who has successfully moved from the military to the civilian workplace.
In addition to developing a plan for their futures, participants do yoga, rope walking, wall climbing and ride zip lines.
“The activities help make them feel like a warrior again,” said Jones, a battled-hardened Marine who was skeptical of yoga at first but now sees its benefits.
It has become a key piece of the curriculum.
“Yoga can help with sleep, not an easy issue with wounded warriors,” said Annie Okerlin, founder of Yogani Studios in Tampa, who teaches at Semper Fi.
“Eight or nine months of high, high pressure can really confuse the chemical nature of the body … that fight-or-flight mode,” she said. “Balance issues are also huge for those suffering traumatic brain injuries.”
Through iRest Yoga Nidra, a protocol the military has adopted for use at more than 30 military facilities across the country, soldiers learn to relax while improving flexibility and strength through breathing and meditation.
“The idea of having a mental, secure space to go to is very important,” Okerlin said.
While the core of the program is communicating career goals, establishing high-profile contacts and establishing a network of resources for career advancement, the camp reinforces the significance of mental, physical, spiritual, emotional and social well-being.
Mock interviews for jobs or advanced education conclude the week.
“We try to make it as real as possible,” said Annie Julian, associate director of masters admissions at the Tepper School of Business, Carnegie Mellon University, who has been a mock interviewer at Semper Fi.
She got more than she gave, said Julian, 32, of Emsworth.
“They really are so inspiring. ... They've been through such challenging circumstances,” she said. “Even with their physical challenges, they have a great attitude.”
Camp officials want to see their program expand even further.
“We ultimately want to have what we do ... made available to all servicemen and -women (leaving) their branch of the service and have the program sustained within the VA,” said Dan Pultz, a former Marine Corps captain who has been involved in Semper Fi Odyssey for six years.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.