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Authors Interview: Struggle Well – Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma (Part II)

Last month I had the absolute pleasure of talking with Ken Falke, the chairman and founder of Boulder Crest, an organization focused on the teachings of post traumatic growth and Author of the new book Struggle Well. We had so much material that I broke up our interview into two posts.  Ken discusses some of his struggles and how those struggles helped develop him into the man he is today. Using his Boulder Crest retreat he is able to take service members struggling with PTSD and help them find meaning, purpose, and growth through their struggle. Whether you are a combat vet or live a suburban lifestyle, this book will help you find meaning in those struggles.


John: How did you go from EOD tech into the healing profession? What drew you into that?

Ken: The first business I started out of the Navy was AT solutions and at that time the first severely wounded EOD guy came back to Walter Reed Hospital. A friend of mine was his Command Sergeant Major who was deployed in Iraq. He asked me if I would go meet the family at the hospital and talk with them. When I got to the hospital there was no family there, because it was early in the war and the Government wasn’t paying for families to travel yet. My wife and I ended up paying for the family to come, figuring like most, the war would be over in 3-4 months and it would be the first and last time I saw or did that. In fact, it wasn’t, I did that 11 more times that year, 2004.

The following year I hired a lady to work at AT solutions whose only job was to take care of severely wounded EOD guys. This was funded from AT solutions. A year later, in 2006, we applied to start a foundation which started as the Wounded EOD warrior foundation, ultimately that was merged with the EOD memorial scholarship fund to create the EOD Warrior Foundation. That occurred about four years ago. So I’ve been working with severely wounded EOD guys since 2004 in one way or another.

The worst years in Afghanistan came between about 2010 and 2013. We had about 71 amputees over that period and 4 back to back triple amputees, one from every service; Andrew S. from the Navy, Joseph L. from the Airforce, Chris W. from the Army, Tim B. from the Marine Corps. You know I didn’t think it could get any worse they guys losing 3 limbs, then BANG incomes Taylor Morris. who lost all four. That was the turning point for me. I got really close to Taylor and his family. I wanted to really understand how a young man like that was going to live the rest of his life with no limbs. What could I do to help make his life better? What I realized through spending time with Taylor and other severely injured guys was that the guys with the severe physical injury didn’t have the challenges of the guys coming back with the mild traumatic brain injuries and PTSD concerns. That’s when my focus shifted and I wanted to understand more about PTSD and the invisible wounds of war.

What I realized was the at the medical community is as Fucked up as they could be on the mental health side, and there’s no innovation. I kept hearing from psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health therapists that the treatment for PTSD wasn’t working. I remember asking one professional from San Francisco,

“if it’s not working why keep doing it?”

His answer was, well it’s all I have that’s approved by the DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental health disorders) and its the only thing insurance companies will reimburse for. Then he asked why I was interested in this, I told him the same story I just told you adding that I come from a profession where we don’t get the chance to make mistakes twice. There’s no way that I can watch my brothers and sisters, some of these guys are young enough to be my sons or daughters suffer like this knowing that the mental health community can’t take care of them. So that’s how it all happened and led me to where I am today.

 

John: So now that I understand the background, How did you develop the philosophy of the warrior path?

Ken: When we built Boulder Crest, my wife and I started having families of severely wounded soldiers out to our property, 200 acres in the beautiful mountains of Virginia. We saw the joy in getting them out of the hospital in the early phases of recovery. As these soldiers heal and become healthy again there are lots of retreats and things people were doing for them, hunting, fishing, Disneyland, etc. However, in their early healing, there was nothing, near DC, to give these guys a break. So we donated 37 acres of land and build the retreat.

Our thought was that this would be a place of respite, where families could come and take a break from the craziness of the hospital system. So I decide to do this holistically and not mess around with drugs. So I took my health care basically into my own hands. My success made me think there has to be holistic things we can do to help these guys. I started reading about it and found examples of successful treatments for migraines with chiropractic care and insomnia using acupuncture. So I started bring practitioners in to see what they could do to help the soldiers who were staying at the retreat. What I realized was that there were great alternative solutions but that no one had ever put a program together around them.

 

John: Is that when you found the UNC Post Traumatic Growth Group with Dr. Richard G. Tedeschi?

Ken: Exactly, bought a plane ticket and literally went around the country; Harvard, University of Chicago, University of San Francisco, a program in Napa Valley called Pathways Home, San Diego, UCSD, back up to UCLA and USC. I talked to some of the top psychologists and psychiatrists and that’s when I found that guy who said “this just isn’t working.”

Dr Tedeschi coined the term post-traumatic growth about 35 years ago. It really intrigued me and seemed really positive so I asked to see him and met him at UNC Charlotte. It related to me because he had studied bereaved parents, those who had lost children to cancer primarily. To watch them go beyond the death of their children and do some really remarkable things with they wouldn’t have done had their children been alive- not as though any of them wouldn’t have given up anything including their own lives to get them back.

About seven years ago he and some colleagues studied prisoners of war from Vietnam. What he found was that 30% of veterans came home with PTSD but only around 4% of the Prisoners of War came back with PTSD. Reason being, Training.

Well, now I was getting excited, if I was an expert in anything it was training. Thats what I did well in the Navy, and that’s what I do in the civilian world I understand scaling I understand training. At the height of the war my company was training 45000 deploying soldiers a year.

What if we could train people the same way Stockdale did and these prison Camps did to live a productive and meaningful life in the aftermath of trauma. Tedeschi said that sounds like a great idea so we hired him on as a consultant. We went to the drawing board and started putting a curriculum together based on everything we’ve learned and basically that’s where we are now.

 

John: So can you describe a little bit more about that warrior path? I understand traditional therapy, I hurt my back, I go to the doctor, I get Motrin. Why does that not work for PTSD?

Ken: You must first look at the scientific outcomes of PTSD. And from a scientific point of view the current treatments for PTSD often make  patients worse rather than better.

So I started listening.  What I kept hearing was soldiers saying they are going to treatments but the therapist wasn’t listing so I walked out. Or they are walking around like zombies because they are on xanax zoloft and ambien and all the other drugs these guys are prescribed. We had a young Navy EOD guy, 29 years old, he was on 13 different medications for PTSD. He reached out to me and we brought him here and put him through the program.  He’s off all his medications, he’s kicking ass and taking names. I said WOW this could really work! So then we got a big grant to formalize our curriculum, and we studied the program results for 18 months. We just finished that on June 30.

Now, while we are still analyzing data, our initial results show that our program is three times more effective in reduction of symptoms when compared to traditional medical treatment. However, we aren’t just measuring symptom reduction. We are measuring post-traumatic growth. I want you to grow through this experience not just survive.

What this shows is that I can take a guy that saw some horrible things in combat and turn them around to enable them to live a meaningful and productive life in the aftermath of that trauma by following a few simple rules:

  1. Don’t self medicate
  2. Don’t take no for an answer – If a doctor tells you that is as far as he can take you look elsewhere. Go on your own journey and look for other alternatives.
  3. Don’t ask “why me?” – One trait that is very common of those that grow through trauma is they do not have a “why me?” mentality. Because once you ask that question you become the victim; you end up on a downward spiral of medication and treatment which do little more than mask the symptoms.

John: Ken I really appreciate all your information. How can I help out or get involved?

Ken: That is a great question. There are two main ways to help out. First, spread the word. Let your buddies know  that there are ways for you to live a meaningful and productive life in the aftermath of trauma. We need to let our soldiers know that there are options besides traditional therapy and medication.

The second way is to get involved with an organization and volunteer. I talk about this all the time, and I truly believe this generation is at a turning point. This generation is on the road to become the most entitled generation or the most gifted generation, and the only way we will become the greatest generation is if we don’t come home and fall victim to an ego driven life and entitlement.

The third way is to open your wallet. Some of you guys have become very successful, and your contributions can make tremendous difference in our organization and the lives of our service members.  Even if you are in the military and you don’t have a lot of money you can still contribute. The military has a great program called the Combined Federal Campaign. And although I’m not a religious man I do believe you need to do something for somebody other than yourself  Because if you don’t, if you don’t dig deep down into your soul and your heart, really what drives your life is your ego.


Ken is a 21-year combat veteran of the U.S. Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) community and retired Master Chief Petty Officer. Ken is highly respected around the world as an innovative and forward thinking leader on the subjects of wounded warrior care, military and veteran transition, counterterrorism, military training, and innovative technology development.

Ken’s passion is taking care of his fellow combat veterans and their family members, and he is chairman and founder of Boulder Crest, an organization focused on the teachings of posttraumatic growth, and the EOD Warrior Foundation. Ken spends the majority of his time educating the public and private sectors on the issues surrounding the long-term care of our returning military personnel and their families from the last 16 years of war.

Ken is a serial entrepreneur. He was the Founder and CEO of A-T Solutions, which is a recognized international expert and valuable global asset in combating the war on terrorism. At the forefront of providing training and consulting services in the Anti- and Counter-Terrorism industry, A-T Solutions was named four consecutive years to the Annual Inc. 500 fastest growing privately held companies in the U.S. Also recognized in Entrepreneur Magazines’ Hot 500 List, the Washington Technology “Fast 50”, Smart CEO’s “Future 50”, and the winner of the very prestigious Greater Washington Area Government Contractor Award in the category of companies $75M-$100M. In 2010, Ken was named as the Entrepreneur of the Year for the Fredericksburg, Virginia Regional Chamber of Commerce and selected as a finalist in the prestigious Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year program.

Ken also founded Shoulder 2 Shoulder, Inc. a multimedia technology company and prior to selling his share of the company, he served as the CEO for six years.

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