Thursday, November 1, 2012

Project Odyssey Retreat

    Last week, Aaron and I had the pleasure of attending a Project Odyssey Couples Retreat provided by Wounded Warrior Project at Jordan Ranch in Schulenburg, TX. We flew into the San Antonio airport and right away began connecting with the staff of WWP and couples that had already arrived. Mike, Kevin and Robyn with WWP were full of enthusiasm for what we were about to embark on. Little did we know what they had planned for us. They didn't tell us about no TV for the entire week! I'll explain why later on. Once everyone arrived we were whisked away to the ranch. The drivers were so helpful that I didn't carry one bag, which is something I appreciated since we had luggage for myself, Aaron and our service dog.
     When we arrived at the ranch, we checked in, had some down time and then assembled for a delicious  "supper" courtesy of Mik. He's an amazing character, full of passion for life and God. Mik informed us that it's called "supper" not dinner. Whatever you want to call it, he made delicious creations for us all week. BBQ'd pizza, fresh salsa,  marinated pork chops, scrambled eggs & sausage, biscuits & gravy....yummy!
     Immediately after supper, (oops, almost said dinner) we gathered upstairs for a rundown of the week's activities and what we could expect to gain from Project Odyssey. We were scheduled for classroom time intermixed with outside activites like skeet shooting, zipline, date night, a ride in the "love mobile" and  what I call "dress up the warrior." I mentioned no TV earlier in the post, but that wasn't due to it being off limits. The ranch purposely doesn't provide TV anywhere on site so we would be present in the time we spent at the ranch instead of distracted by all the chaos going on in the world. I have to say that it was odd not to know what was happening in the outside world, yet at the same time I didn't miss it.
     I won't give you an hour by hour run down of what we did all week, because that would put you to sleep, but I'll tell you about what impacted me the most. Don't think that you can go to a WWP retreat and come back unchanged. You will be impacted in some way & that is relative to how much you put into it.
     Ziplining (is that a verb?) was the scariest thing I encountered. Before we walked down to the zipline, I was full of anticipation and sure that I was going to jump off the platform without hesitation. I climbed up the pole with strength, but as I stood waiting to be connected to the zipline, I started to second guess this whole idea of jumping and fear set in. I could feel the platform shaking from the wind or maybe that was me shaking. It's all a blur. I did jump after a minute or two of true fear though and the thrill was worth it. Since Aaron wasn't able to climb up the pole, they used a swing device to secure him in and then the guys pulled him all the way to the top. When they let him go, he was laughing like I haven't heard in a long time. Typical to soldiers, they had to outdo themselves and take Aaron up higher the second and third time. They had to be sure that he touched the bottom of the platform. Looking back, isn't that how life is? We fear so many things, but once we let go of fear and allow ourselves to experience the unkown we realize we'll survive it.
     The following day we shot skeet. Before Aaron's paralysis, he shot skeet regularly and had taught me how to shoot as well, but we had only shot skeet once since then. We divided into 2 teams of soldiers and spouses. Kevin and Geza made a bet that the losing team had to jump into the pool with their clothes on. Game on! My team had some great shooters on it and we deligently kept score. Aaron originally got side tracked talking to someone on the other team, but I was told to go get him and bring him back. Word had gotten' out that he was a good shooter. After 3 hours of shooting in the Texas sun, we proudly boasted our score only to find out that Kevin had never even kept track. He must have known we were beating his team. Luckily, he forfeited and kept his word to jump in the pool that night after dinner. Wish I had a photo of that.
     On the 4th day we had  break-out sessions so the soldiers could talk amongst themselves and the spouses could do the same. It's always good to hear that you're not alone in the way that you feel or think and encouraging to hear of someone who's successfully navigating this tough journey. When I speak to others that don't have an injured military loved one, they can give empathy but they don't truly get it. Only those that are in similar situations can fully grasp what a typical day is. For example: dealing with the VA, accessibility issues, PTSD and or TBI, medications, isolation, sleep issues, caregiving responsibilities and more. These break-out sessions allowed Aaron to relate to other soldiers and when we came home he said, "I realized for the first time that I'm not as unique as I thought I was in the way I feel." He had many break throughs during the week and I can see how they've changed his perspective for the better.
     Finally, we did an activity that I'm calling "Dress Up the Warrior." Two tables were set out with craft items such as plastic cups, colored markers, paper, hand cuffs, felt twist ties, pom poms, paper plates, duct tape in multiple patterns, puzzle pieces, etc. The soldiers had to dress up their warrior using the craft items in a way that explained how they protected others from their injury and/or how they felt because of their injury. The spouses had to do the same but using the items to express how we protected ourselves from their injury. I chose handcuffs and said, "I need the key to unlock your worries so that we can focus on the future instead of the past." I also chose a pink heart and said, "I chose this heart to show that I have to have a big heart so that I don't get hurt or become hardened to what you're going through." Some people chose paper plates to create a shield to protect themselves from their spouse's outburst or pom-poms to represent being a cheerleader when their soldier is feeling depressed.  You can see from the below photo that there was quite a bit of creativity. Although this activity was fun, it was also an eye-opener for those of us on the other side. I was able to understand a little better what an injured soldier feels about themself. I can never say that I get it, but I can always have respect for what they've endured for our freedom.
     I wish I could describe all the great memories that were created this past week, but it would take pages. What I can say is that I came back a changed person with a better appreciation for what Aaron has experienced. I saw pride, courage, selflessness and compassion in every person that attended this retreat. It takes a lot to let your guard down, speak honestly about your feelings, let others help you and press onward when life gets difficult, but I saw it happen all week long. Thank you WWP for a memorable experience.

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