On a quiet dirt road just outside the village of Putney, Dr. Anne Black is transforming the way we think about taking care of veterans. She shares her home with The Warrior Connection (TWC), a non-profit she started ten years ago. The organization hosts residential retreats using individual mentoring, group coaching, spirituality, expressive arts, nature activities, and mindfulness to create an intimate and immersive experience for veterans and their families.
Today, Black is visiting with Aaron Phillips, a Marine Corps veteran and TWC’s executive director, and Kyle Aines, a TWC graduate, Army veteran, and CCV’s veterans service coordinator.
Within moments of stepping out of the car and onto the porch of Anne’s butter-yellow house, two things are clear: the camaraderie between Anne, Aaron, and Kyle, and the feeling of the place itself. It’s calm, warm, green. Essential Vermont. But there is something else, too. A stillness. A feeling of safety, like an invitation. The house and barn—where retreats are held and where participants stay—are modest and welcoming. Behind the buildings, the land rises into sunny woods webbed with walking paths and quiet sitting spots.
“I knew there was something that was to happen here,” Black says later. She wasn’t envisioning The Warrior Connection when she and her husband started their renovations more than a decade prior. She didn’t know that her home would become a sanctuary not just for her and her family but for strangers from across the country. Anne is tidy and fit, a petite woman who lives in a house full of art. Her two cats, Spirit and Ajax, supervise our visit, never letting her too far out of sight. “I know this property is to be used. I feel like I’m the steward of it,” she says. “This is grace’s property, and I’m trusting the process—I don’t let myself go too far down the road because it’s all unknown.”
As a veteran, Kyle’s been here before, so he organized today’s visit. He seems restored to a more casual self, gathered with old friends—the three of them laugh easily, hug, and reminisce. But within the first five minutes of conversation, he reveals that the only other time he’s spent with Anne and Aaron was when he participated in one of the week-long retreats. “You want to know why?” Anne asks. “It’s because when we’re here, we’re incredibly vulnerable with each other. We get to know each other. It’s an authentic connection.”
Kyle admits that when he first learned about the retreat, he wasn’t sure it would be a good fit for him. He served on active duty for five years before retiring from the military in 2008. He came home, got married, and started a family. He started working at CCV. “When I was talking to Anne I was like, ‘I don’t know, I’m in a really good spot now, I don’t know if this is necessarily for me…’ [but] I wanted to do it so that I could talk to CCV students about the experience. So when I came here my expectation was that I was going to enjoy it, and have a good time, and have some good material to talk to CCV students about. And that did happen. What I didn’t expect was the impact it actually was going to have on me, and it was profound.”
For Aaron, who first came to TWC as a retreat participant in 2014, the experience was similar. “I made excuses about why I couldn’t go,” he says, but eventually his family encouraged him to try it. Still, he went into the retreat reluctantly. Like Kyle, he was surprised by the impact. “I had nothing short of a life-changing epiphany. Several life-changing epiphanies that I witnessed in myself but also that I witnessed in the rest of my retreat group.” That inspired him to return to TWC, first as a mentor, later as a facilitator, and now as a member of the leadership team. “I’m a firm believer that we all deserve the chance at a vibrant future. Especially our veterans, who oftentimes have sacrificed so much personally.”
Aaron asks Kyle how it felt when he arrived at TWC, and Kyle immediately jumps into recalling the events of the first day of his own retreat. Aaron interrupts him: “But how did it feel?” he asks, touching his hand to his chest.
“I think I was nervous about the unknown,” says Kyle. “Not knowing exactly what this was going to be, being away from my wife and son for that long. It wasn’t until we came here, and [retreat facilitator] Joe started speaking, and when he spoke, and I started to cry, I thought, ‘son of a gun, this is gonna be a long week.’ So that was when it went from not knowing, to knowing exactly that this was going to be impactful; that I’m a full participant now, and this is going to be a journey.”
Part of that journey was being open to reaching out. “We always say ‘call me if something’s going on,’ but we don’t,” Kyle says of his peers from the service. “But now I’m comfortable calling somebody and having those conversations, and I’ve seen them now calling me to say ‘just not feeling it today, I’ve had a bad day, this is going on’ and opening up a little bit more. I got that ability to be able to talk more—and to cultivate that in others—here.”
Anne says launching TWC wasn’t something she planned on. “I don’t come from a military background, at all,” she explains. “[In] 1968, I was the Pennsylvania State Dairy Princess. So for that whole year, I am promoting milk throughout the state, while men my age are going off to Vietnam. I mean talk about opposites.” She pauses to run her fingers through Spirit’s fur. “It’s like two totally different worlds…For many of us, when we look back over our lives, we can see how everything is a stepping stone in preparation…in my case, for this.” She holds a Ph.D. in community psychology and thanatology, and worked in school and hospital settings using expressive arts as therapy for much of her career. It was that experience she relied on as she was developing the model for TWC.
After hosting roughly two dozen week-long retreats, Anne is still very much aware of a persistent cultural gap. “There is a huge gulf between the civilian world and the veteran world,” she says. “I can attest to that. I was one of those. I didn’t understand this population. I didn’t understand this culture, because I had no exposure to it.” Aaron says creating a feeling of inclusion is one of TWC’s primary goals. “What we want veterans to take away from this experience is that sense that they are part of the community, and that the civilian community is also accepting of them and their journey. At the end of the day, we need a nation that includes warriors.”
One way TWC is bridging the gap is by inviting civilians to prepare meals during retreats. “We put the food on the counter, we stand in a big circle together and the veterans introduce themselves to the cooks,” says Anne. “Many times when [the cooks] leave, they’re in tears, they’re so touched and so grateful for the experience. This is a concrete way they can say thank you.”
Kyle says this tradition means a lot to the veterans. “Breaking bread with somebody, and cooking something to nourish them, is kind of an intimate experience. It’s very impactful to be here, and to receive that at the end of every day. You go through this incredibly powerful experience and emotional roller coaster, and at the end you come here, you gather not just with the people you’ve been with for the last ten hours but some outside involvement, and some outside interest and dedication and commitment. It’s very impactful.”
Aaron, Anne, and Kyle invite CCV veteran and military students to attend a retreat at The Warrior Connection. Veterans of all eras are welcome, and retreats are available for men, women, and spouses and families. A full schedule can be found on TWC’s website. “There’s a lot of different programs for veterans…but holistically, this is treatment,” says Kyle. “And there’s really nothing out there like it. And it’s here in our backyard of Vermont, and it’s affordable.” Participants are asked only to provide a $150 commitment fee; all other costs are waived. CCV is also offering a Veteran Student Wellness Scholarship, which covers the TWC commitment fee and provides a $25 gas card and a $350 stipend upon completion of the retreat.
Kyle will be back himself for the October 15th-20th retreat, this time as a mentor, and he encourages CCV students to join him. “They’ll have somebody they can come talk to about it that’s been through it and is going through it still,” he says. “I’m going to be by their side as we do it together.”
For more information about TWC and the Wellness Scholarship, please contact Kyle at 802-786-5185 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to The Warrior Connection directly at 866-278-3155 or email@example.com.