NEWARK — Matthew Dowling used to cover his face with dark sunglasses and a beard, the epitome of what he called a “big, bad veteran.”
He didn’t want people to look at him. He was in his 30s, with a wife and two kids. But despite the 17 medications he was on, he was nearing a decision that too many veterans consider: suicide.
Two years later, the 37-year-old Newark resident sits and laughs among the people who saved his life. And as he watches his son fishing on the lake, he says he can’t believe he ever thought he was beyond help.
According to a study released in June by the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans choose suicide every day.
Save a Warrior, a nonprofit organization aimed at saving the lives of veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, wants to change that. The group runs “war-detox” programs that have saved hundreds of lives, it says. Now it’s planting roots at a new facility in Licking County.
The retreat center, which previously served as a horse farm and vacation home, is the first and only facility that the organization owns. The program also operates in Malibu, California, but Save a Warrior rents that space.
The new center in Newark, called “Warrior Village,” provides many new opportunities in Ohio, which has the sixth-largest veteran population in the United States, said Adam Carr, executive director.
“It’s a very patriotic and philanthropic state,” Carr, who went through the program himself before joining the staff, said of Ohio. “People here really support veterans, which is important.”
In the past six years, 607 people have gone through the five-day program in California, led by people who have gone through the program themselves. Save a Warrior has a heavy focus on mindfulness, meditation and learning to cope with trauma and depression, with support from other veterans.
Dowling said daily meditation was his big takeaway from the program and said it has helped him cope with stress in everyday life.
“Every day of my life gets better. I don’t want that to sound generic, but it truly does,” Dowling said. “I thought I was alone. It changed my whole world, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it.”
Anyone who feels they are in need of help can sign up on Save a Warrior’s website and a staff member will reach out within 48 hours to discuss aligning schedules with the program. There are about 300 people on the waiting list, but for many, Save a Warrior CEO Keith Ritz said, waiting isn’t an option.
Between Malibu and the new program in Newark, the organization will be able to accommodate nearly the same number of people in 18 months as it had in the past six years combined. The first Save a Warrior program in Newark will begin at the end of August and there will be five programs in the fall. For 2019, 14 are planned, including an all-women’s program.
The program, which costs about $3,500 per person, is funded by donors and free to those who go through the application process. Transportation is not included.
Central Ohio is the perfect location for the new facility, Carr said, because a majority of the country can reach Newark in a day’s drive.
The organization allotted a $1.5 million budget for the space and renovations in Newark. It purchased the 47-acre plot of land in December 2017, which includes a pond and several furnished buildings, for $787,000. The group plans to build a stone labyrinth, to be used for self-reflection, and a ropes course that allows for team building. The organization also will be working with PBJ Connections, an equine-therapy center in Pataskala, on the war-detox programs.
According to surveys collected prior to and following the program, symptoms of depression and PTSD decreased for participants. One of the people helped by Save a Warrior was Patrick Atkinson, who now works with development and finance for the organization.
His wife, Nichelle Atkinson, was pregnant with twins when Patrick left to complete the program in Malibu. She said he returned much happier with a renewed sense of life.
“He came back a whole new person,” said Nichelle Atkinson, who now serves as the director of development. “It was perfect timing. Bringing two new kids into the world, I needed a whole person.”
Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 5, 2018.