Veterans worked through traumatic experiences through nature-based activities.
Dozens of military veterans gathered on Siesta Key Beach last weekend for Gratitude America’s Military Support Retreat. It was the second retreat held in Sarasota that allowed veterans to reconnect with their closest friends through outdoor recreation.
With the exception of December, Gratitude America holds a four-day retreat every month at a different location. The retreats were formerly reserved for post-9/11 veterans but were opened to all combat veterans this year.
“It’s an immersive retreat for combat veterans from all eras to come with their support person,” said Chris Duke, the program director of Gratitude America. “Typically it’s a spouse, but whoever their closest person is, they come here to reconnect with them and themselves.”
Veterans who participated in the retreat enjoyed music, food and conversation Friday night just as the sun set on Siesta Key. Mike Cosentino, a resident on the Key, prepared dinner for participants just as he did for last year’s retreat.
Once participants arrived for the retreat; all other expenses were paid by Gratitude America. Lodging, food and recreation activities were all paid for, as the goal of Gratitude America has been to assist veterans with their traumatic experiences.
“For the veterans, it is specifically for them to learn the concepts of post-traumatic growth,” Duke said. “They learn how to use the struggles they’ve encountered, not just in combat but in everyday life, to find strength in those things. We want them to find the positives and negatives in those things and use them as strengths.”
Recreation activities focused on nature as part of a the therapeutic program. Retreats have been designed by psychologists and licensed social workers to create a memorable experience. Often times, veterans apply to attend more than one retreat.
Similar to the Military Support Retreats, Gratitude America has also offered a Warrior Path program, which was the first nonclinical program designed to cultivate post-traumatic growth in veterans. Warrior Path programs are extended, seven-day programs that also focus on nature-based activities.
“We’re a nonprofit based out of Fernandina Beach with employees kind of sporadically spread across Florida and Georgia,” Duke said. “We have small and large group discussions here, and it’s centered around nature-based recreation. The veterans don’t pay a penny once they arrive.”
Lewis Jordan worked in the airline industry for 49 years before he became the founder of Gratitude America in 2011. He once served as president and chief operating officer for Flying Tigers, the world’s largest international cargo and military transport airline.
Once he retired, Jordan and his wife, Joni, wanted to give back to their country and chose veterans’ trauma recovery due to combat stories from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as an alarming suicide rate among veterans.
“Our hearts have gone out to the news reports that we get every day of people who have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq and the alarming suicide rate among returning veterans,” Lewis Jordan said in a Gratitude America statement. “It seemed in my mind that veterans needed some additional attention.”
According to 2019 data from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs, more than 6,000 veterans die by suicide each year, and 42% of post-9/11 veterans said their mental health was negatively effected after returning from deployment.
Early in 2020, Joni Jordan died after a long battle with cancer. Gratitude America has continued its efforts toward helping veterans in her honor since, according to a statement on the Gratitude America website.
“We owe our military, our veterans, their families and families of the fallen a debt we can never fully repay,” Joni Jordan said in a Gratitude America statement. “The American people want to help but in some cases just don’t know how. Many of these heroes face physical and emotional wounds, unemployment and other hardships.”
Although Gratitude America has full-time employees, it has relied heavily on volunteers and donations. Opportunities to volunteer, donate or apply to attend a program can be found online at GratitudeAmerica.org.
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