(NEW YORK) -- Since the 2010 death of her husband, a 32-year veteran Navy SEAL, Lynnette Bukowski has been working to fulfill a dream the pair shared: to create a space for returning military veterans to transition to civilian life.
“Over the years he [Steve] realized, after 9/11 and after we went to the war, that the need was greater to bring the men home and have them have a place to decompress,” said Bukowski, 55, of Virginia Beach, Virginia. “The pressure under which they work is so extreme.”
The Bukowskis’ dream is slowly becoming a reality. Landing Zone Grace Veterans Retreat just received its 501(c)(3) designated charity status and is expected to open in six months. The services will be entirely free for the veterans that attend.
L-Z Grace will be a haven for returning military to transition back into civilian life. It will initially be open for Special Forces personnel to recover from PTSD and any combat-related issues, before expanding to include any military veterans or those on active duty.
“I think that the thing that will set us apart at the end of the day is that this is a place they can rest and heal. They don’t have to go through hoops. There’s no graduation. There’s no necessary end result. They just have to find their own individual healing,” Bukowski said.
After investing thousands of her own money, starting a GoFundMe campaign that has so far raised $15,000 and receiving funding from an angel investor, Bukowski is now closing with the bank on a 4,000-square-foot house on a 35-acre property in the Pungo area of Virginia Beach that will serve as the retreat.
Twenty veterans will be able to participate at a time in seven- or 14-day retreats.
L-Z Grace will offer traditional and nontraditional methods of therapy. There will be equine therapy, a kennel for up to 10 service animals, chiropractors, yoga, guided medication, climbing, kayaking, and more. There will also be an assortment of mentors — up to six volunteer staff members at a time — to foster conversation and a therapeutic atmosphere.
Attending meals at the retreat will be mandatory. Bukowski hopes they will serve as a time for veterans to connect with each other and share their experiences. Many Special Ops veterans don’t talk about their time in combat because of their high security clearance. Bukowski hopes to work around this by only registering veterans with the same security clearance at one time.
“I want them to be able to talk about what they often can’t talk about,” she said.
There will be an application process within the military structure. Eventually veterans will be able to sign up to attend the retreat with their spouses, and their families.
“A huge problem among Special Ops is the high divorce rate, and it’s just not necessary,” Bukowski told ABC News.
According to a 2012 study by RAND Corporation, 14 percent of Army soldiers have reported symptoms of PTSD after deployments. The odds of divorce among deploying soldiers with PTSD symptoms are 50 percent to 90 percent higher than those without symptoms.
Bukowski experienced firsthand what combat missions did to her husband’s psyche.
“Steve practiced mediation when he came home from missions and deployment. It was something we unwillingly lived through for the 32 years we were married. He always needed a little time to isolate himself.”
Sean Evangelista, 40, of Ketchum, Idaho, a SEAL, has been in the Navy for the last 20 years. He has had more than 10 deployments in combat zones and suffers from a brain injury he received while in combat. His wife heard about L-Z Grace through Bukowski’s blog.
“I have some other war-related stressors that affected me after being exposed to war and conflict for extended periods of time,” Evangelista said. “There’s a dark cloud after a while....Everywhere you go memories come up, just little triggers.”
He and his wife, JoAnne, said they thought the retreat was not only a great idea but an entirely necessary one.
“[After combat] you’re almost extremely desensitized…So it’s [L-Z Grace] something that needs to be done to get people to bring it down a couple of notches before you go full steam ahead,” Evangelista said.
He hopes L-Z Grace will help his fellow veterans get the help they need before fully reintegrating themselves after deployments.
“What she’s doing, I think it’s right on target where you kind of want to go see your families and have a decompression time before you get fully integrated,” Evangelista said. “It can be a little bit of a shock coming from one extreme environment to another…you can be in combat and four days later you’re home in a restaurant and it’s just weird.”
Bukowski will continue to raise money for the retreat via the GoFundMe campaign until June 20.
“None of this is easy,” Bukowski said. “But there’s some understanding of what can be done to help these guys and then they can take those experiences back out to the world.”
To learn more about L-Z Grace: www.lz-grace.com
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