HOMER — Tomorrow, America celebrates Veterans Day with parades and ceremonies honoring those who have served in the armed forces. A Kachemak Bay family took the celebration one step further last month to help a handful of veterans from the Lower 48.
For several days in October, a Duluth, Minnesota veterans organization, 23rd Veteran, brought 11 veterans who had experienced some kind of trauma to the Kilcher family homestead and the Kachemak Bay wilderness. There, they gained something more than recognition: healing.
Taking its name from the 2012 Veterans Administration study that found 22 veterans who used VA services died from suicide every day, 23rd Veteran aims to help those who served the country rewire their brains so they can enjoy civilian life without the stress caused by trauma from combat, injury, sexual assault, the loss of friends and other incidents, Michael Waldron, the founder of 23rd Veteran said in a phone interview. The 14-week program begins with a one-week outdoor adventure and is followed by weekly group meetings that include physical training, hikes and talks.
“They go out into the wilderness,” Waldron said.“They have to rely on each other for food and shelter and reconnect with the wilderness. They relearn to trust each other like they did in the military.”
Waldron served with the U.S. Marines in the Iraq War and founded 23rd Veteran in 2015 after dealing with his own trauma from war.
Through a friend, Waldron connected with Catkin Kilcher Burton, a 31-year retired colonel with the U.S. Marine Corps, and Atz Kilcher, a U.S. Army combat veteran who served in Vietnam from 1967-68. A musician and storyteller, Kilcher is one of the stars of the reality TV show set on the Kilcher homestead, “Alaska: The Last Frontier.”
Kilcher Burton and Kilcher offered 23rd Veteran the use of the homestead for the veterans to camp on at the start and end of their wilderness week. The 23rd Veteran group also stayed at the cabins and land of siblings Mossy Kilcher and Fay Graham. Stellavera Kilcher held a talk and workshop on transcendental meditation and yoga.
“The 23rd Veterans of Minnesota really resonated with Atz and I,” Kilcher Burton said. “… With many veterans there is a disconnect. With many veterans when they’re transitioning from their military service, where spending time in nature they can gain some peace and healing.”
Waldron visited Homer last summer and came up in early October to visit while the 23rd Veteran group was out in the Kachemak Bay wilderness. The trip began with an orientation session on the homestead. Working with a civilian leader and outdoor education guide, the group hiked along the beach to Swift Creek, then to the Fox River Flats, to the Eastland area and back to the homestead. Atz Kilcher joined them for a campfire, storytelling and songs at Fox River.
“There’s definitely something magical about Alaska and something magical about Homer and the fit with the Kilcher family and homestead,” Waldron said.
Atz Kilcher said that when he came back from Vietnam to Homer, getting back to nature helped him recover.
“As I looked back at what has healed me the most, what I learned during my hard times of recovering from trauma, it was always those peaceful, healing, serene moments in nature,” he said.
Visiting with the veterans and singing helped him as much as he said he hoped it helped them.
“I got a lot of good out of it,” he said. “For me, it was a very rare, very special experience. I got some good feedback from some people, just singing two or three songs to veterans who had a whole lot going on.”
Stellavera Kilcher taught the group some meditation techniques and did a nutrition class. With her husband, Michael Olmstead, a dental surgeon, they provide health care and instruction in a variety of disciplines.
“We were able to give them some simple things to do every day when they wake up — basic things they may not know to do,” Kilcher said, citing meditation practice and nutrition.
The 23rd Veteran program has some basic rules participants are asked to follow, Waldron said. Participants cannot drink or use drugs for the duration of the 14-week program. They also can’t watch news.
“There’s no war stories,” he said.
The outdoor adventure also has another aspect: challenging the veterans. They have to face adversities, like finding water or scrambling up bluffs when they misjudge the rising tide.
“We like to send them to a place they’re uncomfortable with. They have to rely on each other. It makes the camaraderie a lot easier,” Waldron said.
After the initial outdoor adventure, the group returns to their home town. Most of the sessions have been in Duluth for people in the area, but they’ve also gathered veterans from other communities. The 23rd Veteran participants receive a playbook with guidelines. They meet for two hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Veterans of all ages have participated, from their 20s to older than 60, both men and women. The Homer group included men and women from their late 20s to early 50s.
“Veterans go from being completely isolated, not wanting to be in society, thinking they’re not working again,”Waldron said. “After going through the program, they’re working again. … They’re seeing their kids more often. … It’s super fulfilling to see that.”
Kilcher Burton met with the 23rd Veteran group after they returned from their wilderness adventure.
“When they came back you could see the transformation that had taken place with them. They were very much bonded as a crew,” she said.
Having done similar wilderness retreats to help her deal with her own trauma as a veteran, Kilcher Burton said she saw those programs lacking what the 23rd Veteran offers: continued follow-up and reinforcement.
“The structure of it is so perfect in my mind,” Stellavera Kilcher said. “… Their follow up to their wellness and their PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) — they can maintain it and keep contacts. They’re really mindful of that to make sure there’s continuity.”
The Kilchers all said they saw something else come out of being hosts to 23rd Veteran: a continuation of the dream of their parents, Ruth and Yule Kilcher, in making the family homestead a place of learning. One of the group meetings was held in the octagon, a cabin built decades ago as a retreat where classes could be held.
“I think that’s always been a vision both of mother and father for the homestead to be a place of transformation, healing and community,” Kilcher Burton said.
Hosting 23rd Veteran helped the family resurrect that vision, Stellavera Kilcher said.
“This is what this veterans thing signifies in some many ways,” she said. “It kind of typifies what our parents wanted to do: learning to survive, living on the land, collaboration.”
“I couldn’t help but think about my dad, that something positive was happening with that land,” Atz Kilcher said.
Stellavera Kilcher said she found working with the veterans fulfilling.
“Each person, when you looked in their eyes, you could tell there was a huge world and story,” she said. “… I told them, ‘Each one of you has done so much for our country. You have faced challenges I’ll never know. We’ll do anything we can to support you.’”
Waldron said he would like to return to Homer and do more sessions with 23rd Veteran groups. He’d also like to meet with other Alaska organizations that know trails and wilderness areas. He’d also be open to helping Alaska veterans in a 23rd Veteran program here. For more information, visit www.23rdveteran.org.