On March 18, 2018, a helicopter carrying seven National Guard members crashed in western Iraq near the Syrian border. Everyone died, including four guardsmen from the 106th Rescue Wing, based in Westhampton Beach, New York. It’s the closest military installation to our family’s home in Shelter Island, not quite 35 miles away. In fact, after Joe was killed, he was brought home through Westhampton. As you can imagine, our connection to the 106th runs deep.
We always want to do everything we can for veterans and active personnel from any part of the country, but this tragedy struck especially close. Unlike other branches of the military, the National Guard doesn’t move its members around every few years. Everyone affected by the helicopter crash has longtime roots in the Long Island region. Our region. Our home. We knew we wanted to help.
Working with Melissa Mako, the wonderful mental health director at Westhampton, our efforts came to fruition in February, when we welcomed ten members of the 106th at Strongpoint Theinert Ranch for a five-day retreat. It was our first retreat in which all attendees came from the same unit, and such a tightly knit group definitely created a distinct feel from other retreats. There was no ice-breaking, no filling in of backstories. We were able to get straight to our main purpose: giving them space to talk and reflect in the beautiful New Mexico mountains, away from all technology and obligations of daily life.
They had a lot to process. A few had witnessed the crash in real time. Others who worked in intelligence had watched a livestream of the crash and in the following weeks re-lived it each time they presented the footage up the chain of command. As always, we had Casey Monroe, our licensed clinical social worker, on hand. A veteran Marine himself, Casey understands the unique nature of military trauma and how to get guys to open up in their own way, in their own time. We never force anyone to talk, but we provide tons of opportunities to do so, and always stress the importance of mental health. The retreat was actually the first time the 106th had addressed the accident as a group. “After experiencing loss or tragedy, many people don’t want to speak of the event or the person/people involved, because it brings up too many painful feelings,” one participant told us afterward. “However, the ranch program made me realize a few things that I think many other veterans feel: You’re not alone in feeling angry, guilty, lost, etc. Bonds cemented during deployments don’t end because you’re back on U.S. soil, and outward expressions of strength can only get you so far.”
As on every retreat, we completed a work project. Working together, outdoors, with a common purpose: these are ingrained military habits. For its project, the 106th arranged small stones into the shape of two large footprints–the “green feet” logo of combat rescue work. The footprints now serve as a navigational aid at the ranch (“turn left at the feet”), a meaningful marker of the group that created them.
On the last day, we took our legacy hike up the mountain. This is often one of the most powerful parts of a retreat, when members reflect on their service and what they want their legacies to be. This time, we read excerpts from Tim O’Brien’s book of Vietnam War stories, “The Things They Carried,” and asked the participants what they were carrying that they’d like to put down and leave on the mountain. We’ll honor the privacy of that conversation, but we can tell you that when people talk about the heavy stuff that doesn’t usually get talked about, the unburdening is something to behold. When we said our goodbyes, everyone felt lighter and less alone. As one participant told us afterward, “The combination of physical exertion and activities, along with the mental and emotional therapy and ability to cleanse my mind and soul on the mountain side, has been life changing for me. I was all in for the retreat and went with an open mind. But never expected it to work the way it did. I truly came home with a different outlook, less stress, and a plan.” Said another: “There is an inner peace I felt from working hard on team-building projects and then sharing food and free time with people. It is like the best parts of a deployment but without the nonsense and danger.”