CROSS HILL, SC (AP) — Twenty veterans in the United States commit suicide every day. In South Carolina, the suicide rate among veterans is a staggering 38%.
Those numbers weigh heavily on Barry and Kim Gambrell. That’s part of the reason the couple started Tranquility Point Veterans Retreat at Lake Greenwood in Cross Hill.
It’s a place for reflectiveness, solitude and self-healing for veterans and others with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other mental health issues. Barry is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and Kim’s father is a Vietnam veteran. Running the nonprofit retreat is very personal for them. Barry also has PTSD.
The Gambrells are involved in a number of fundraising activities for the retreat, which is free to veterans and others who apply and are accepted. The site will include two cabins near the lake shoreline. One has already been constructed.
Eagle Scouts visited in May to pay tribute to veterans by placing dog tags on some of the nearly 30 evergreen trees that make up the Warrior Wall. People can make donations and get dog tags in the name of someone they know. Kim said area businesses have been helpful in donating supplies and services to their efforts.
In addition to providing a quiet place for people to decompress and heal, the Gambrells plan to offer activities such as fishing, kayaking, yoga and Tai Chi classes.
The couple recently moved from Texas to Cross Hill.
“This is something I wanted to do a long time ago,” said Barry, who taught Tai Chi classes in San Angelo, Texas. “I found out that I had World War II veterans there. I had Vietnam veterans there, and I had current, active-duty Air Force guys who attended the class. They all felt like it was very therapeutic and helpful to them. So, I began looking in Texas at a place. It was a ranch that I thought would be a great retreat for veterans. But, when that didn’t work out, we decided to move back here, and this kind of fell into our lap.”
Barry said he wanted to do something with the property he owned since 2003 at 70 Nye Drive, but he didn’t know what. He asked his wife a question: “What do you think about us doing a retreat here?”
She said, “I think that’s wonderful. That’s great. Let’s do it.”
The couple haven’t had guests yet, as they are still in the process of building the facility and clearing the property. The retreat would be an extension of what Veterans Affairs offers, the couple said.
“The VA started caring for people with PTSD years ago,” Barry said. “They used to call it shell shock and other names. It’s gone through a lot of evolutionary things. When I was in Texas, our senator came through and talked to the veterans one day and did a presentation, and he wasn’t satisfied because what he found is the VA’s answer is like, if you’re depressed, they will give you an antidepressant. If you are having trouble sleeping, they will give you something to make you sleep. If you’re having this other difficulty with anxiety, they will give you something for that. They ended up where the answer or solution for people suffering from PTSD was a cocktail of drugs.”
Still, the suicide rate keeps climbing.
“We’re gonna run out veterans at that rate, at some point in time,” Barry said.
He said his senator in Texas was not happy with how the VA was handling people with mental health issues. Barry began to think that there must be another way to treat people with more than just medications.
“The VA today is transforming,” Barry said. “And one of the things that’s very encouraging is they have a holistic approach to your health and wellbeing, and your fitness and diet.”
Kim said people living in a busy-town atmosphere have an even tougher time dealing with illnesses such as PTSD.
“They can get a little bit of tranquility (here) and reconnect and really think about what values they have,” Kim said.
The couple said “the doors have been opened” for them as they’ve worked toward making this dream a reality.
“Just today, a South Carolina Department of Veterans Affairs representative contacted me, and they were like, ‘Hey, we want you to work with us and maybe do this mentoring program that they have. And it will make me a better mentor to any guests here.’ There was a nurse that works for the VA, as she’s like, ‘We have so many people who are reclusive. They’re isolated. They, they’re just on the verge, just hanging by a thread to life. Literally.’”
The nurse told the Gambrells she could refer people to the Tranquility Point retreat.
“She was talking about approving us as a service provider of some nature with the VA,” Barry said. “But, short of that, Upstate Warrior Solutions in Greenville, they serve this whole area of the Upstate veterans. They’re another good resource.”
The Gambrells hope to be a lifeline for the veterans, helping them write resumes, get prepared for job interviews and more. But nothing heals quite like tranquility. Especially lakeside tranquility.
“When you suffer from PTSD, you don’t necessarily want a bunch of people around,” Kim said. “And they don’t want people to know it because they’re associated with anger, and that’s not true. I mean, it’s usually depression. They just need somebody to talk to and they need a reset. Sometimes their families don’t even understand.”
Barry hopes guests can get on a solid footing where they can take the next steps back into integrating their life.
‘Most of them are very, very isolated,’ he said. “They’ve alienated their family, their friends, their spouses or children. It’s a tough, tough road. It’s a very difficult thing. They can come here with their family or they can come here alone to have the opportunity just for the quietness … and maybe have that safe refuge.”
Kim said a lot of what the retreat focuses on is mending families back together.
“The kids sometimes ask mom, ‘Why is dad mad at us all the time or why does he not want to go to my ballgame?’ Gambrell said. “It helps us teach the family, also, what he’s dealing with. Like, he doesn’t like crowds. He’s hyper vigilant, you know, it just makes him really uncomfortable. So he doesn’t want to go.”
Kim said she and Barry visited a handful of nonprofit programs for veterans and attended VA classes to gain different tools and learn through experience.
“We just took what works and brought it back here to offer it here because this is such a rural community,” Kim said. “They don’t want to travel two hours to go to some of these places.”
Funding will be a key to when the retreat can begin accepting guests.
“You have to be around about two years before a lot of people want to donate a substantial amount of money,” Kim said. “So, everything we’ve done so far has been out of pocket, but you can only do so much and then you know you’re going through your retirement. So, we got this far and we’ve been reaching out writing grants, and we’ve done a couple Greenwood community events.”