Hope for heroes: New ranch south of Tucson opens new path to healing our heroes

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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

You've seen the numbers; at least 20 veterans commit suicide every single day. The only cause of death on the rise in America is suicide.

For many soldiers, veterans and first responders, it's been a long road, carrying the weight of their unseen scars.

Now a new 130-acre ranch in southern Arizona is opening a new path to healing our heroes.

Funded by a $10 million grant, private donors and patriots, Boulder Crest Retreat for military and veteran wellness is opening a second location in Sonoita in November. BCR Arizona will also help police, fire and other first responders.

Ret. Army Maj. Josh Mantz says his struggle with depression and suicide started when he died.

"I remember very distinctly the last moment of my life," Mantz said. "We were in Baghdad in 2007, engaged by an enemy sniper."

"At first I didn't know I was shot," he said.  "I consciously took my last breath, said my last thought, and died. I woke up about two days later in the green zone to learn I flat-lined for 15 minutes straight."

He was back fighting with his men less than five months later, but says it took him a decade to find purpose and meaning in his second life.

"One of the biggest barriers to people seeking treatment is internal; it's not even intentional," Mantz explained. "When we're living inside a deep depressive void and we can't understand or put our finger on where that void is coming from, how are we going to express it to anyone else?"

"The depth of the trauma I was experiencing was extremely covert," he continued. "It hides in the shadows and progressively brings you down over time. I hit this severe suicidal spiral. I believed that no one else could possibly understand the depths of what I was experiencing.

Retired Navy bomb tech Ken Falke has seen the scars of combat.

"Suicide is a disease, maybe an epidemic of hopelessness," he said. "And if we can create hope in somebody's life, then they're going to survive."

He lost plenty of brothers on the battlefield, but says we can all do more to help the hundreds of thousands who come home with deep, and often invisible, injuries.

"Nobody can tell me the system's working," Falke said. "PTSD is like driving a car with your foot on the gas and your foot on the brake at full capacity, looking in the rear-view mirror."

So he's looking out for their future. He co-founded Boulder Crest Retreat as a haven of healing for military and first-responder families.

"You don't get this type of beauty in a clinic," he said.

And you won't pay for it either.

The seven-day retreat is more than the typical ‘catch and release’ retreats that serve as effective interventions. Boulder Crest is the first in the nation to offer 18 months follow-up care for survivors and their families, fully funded by private donors.

One of the biggest barriers to people seeking treatment is internal; it's not even intentional. When we're living inside a deep depressive void and we can't understand or put our finger on where that void is coming from, how are we going to express it to anyone else?

Col. Wanda Wright runs Arizona’s Department of Veterans Services and got to see the ranch first-hand. 

"I know going there will help people," Wright said. 

For decades, pharmaceuticals and therapy have been the standard treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We hear the statistics all the time. Twenty suicides a day, right? Well, only six of those people were engaged in the VA system," Wright said. "That means 14 were not."

She says her team is determined to find new ways to connect with those who need help and find resources like Boulder Crest for others who might be ineligible for VA services.

"There's no way the state can take care of all that alone," Wright said. "Collaboration is the key to helping our veterans."  

Two years ago the Journal of the American Medical Association said we need a new and innovative approach to treating PTSD. 

Falke is hoping Boulder Crest’s Warrior PATHH (Progressive and Alternative Training for Healing Heroes) program will be the solution. 

And there is a lot of symbolism in the property he chose. 

The ranch in Sonoita is the original homestead that withstood the Apache wars in the late 1800s

"This is the original home of Thomas Gardner; he was a real warrior!" Falke said. "He was shot in the chest by Cochise here on the property and had a bullet lodged in his sternum for 10 years. This was a tough, tough guy."

BCR Arizona is the perfect place to bring our hurting heroes back to their warrior roots, using progressive, holistic and alternative therapies like yoga, archery, gardening, culinary classes, equine therapy, hiking and songwriting to triage the mental health crisis affecting so many families.

It's also a light pulling first responders out of dark places.

"I didn't have a resource like Boulder Crest available to me," said former undercover Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent Jay Dobyns.

I think we owe it to our soldiers and our first responders to take care of them. They take care of us and we can't pretend the mental and emotional trauma from the job is just a cost of doing business.

He infiltrated the Hells Angels and nearly lost everything, nine years ago.

"When my true identity was revealed, I started receiving death threats," Dobyns said. 

An arsonist set his home on fire while his wife and kids were sleeping inside.

"That was intended for me! That was targeting me," Dobyns said. 

He says the first responders who protect our families often put their own at risk.

"There's not a lot of people who will place themselves in harm's way for strangers and oftentimes strangers who don't like them," Dobyns said. "There was a contract out to videotape the gang rape of my wife. There were threats to kidnap and torture my kids."

He wound up in a court battle with ATF when the agency turned its back on him when he needed protection. 

"When people feel hopeless, they take very drastic measures," Dobyns said.

Diagnosed with depression and PTSD, he found himself on the brink. 

"I'd figured out how I was going to kill myself," he said. I'd worked it through in my head and I had a plan." 

Dobyns said a phone call from his kids saved him. 

Now he's speaking out to encourage others to speak up.

"I think we owe it to our soldiers and our first responders to take care of them," he said. "They take care of us and we can't pretend the mental and emotional trauma from the job is just a cost of doing business."

Mantz’s life has come full circle, walking the stone labyrinth at Boulder Crest where he will be a PATHH guide, helping others turn their struggles into strength.

"Even in the darkest throes of my depression, there was always someone who had the strength and courage to plant healing seeds," Mantz said. "Being in the presence of other veterans who've experienced the same things, you don't have to say everything. There's an energy, a common understanding that can fulfill the gap of that connection."

He hopes to show them that while they can't change the stories of their lives, they can make peace with their pasts and write their own endings.

"There’s nothing more powerful in overcoming trauma than the power of human connection," Mantz said. 

Boulder Crest has helped more than 3,000 veterans in the last four years through its original ranch in Bluemont, VA.   

Falke hopes to expand the Boulder Crest's PATTH program nationwide to help more veterans, first responders and their families. 

Being in the presence of other veterans who've experienced the same things, you don't have to say everything. There's an energy, a common understanding that can fulfill the gap of that connection.


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Nicole CritesNicole Crites anchors "Good Evening Arizona" weeknights 4 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on 3TV with Brandon Lee.

Click to learn more about Nicole.

Nicole Crites

The two- time Emmy award winner has been telling stories about Valley newsmakers and trends for more than a decade. Before joining 3TV's "Good Evening Arizona" team, she was the morning news anchor at KPHO-TV in Phoenix.

Nicole loves meeting new people every day and finding ways to bring context to news unfolding in our community and our world.

A wife and mother of two little ones, Nicole is always exploring Arizona to uncover exciting adventures to share. She grew up in a big family, one of six kids in Tucson.

She graduated from the University of Arizona. Work and early internships took her from Manhattan to Spokane, WA, back to Arizona, where she and her high school sweetheart settled to start a family.

Nicole loves to read and keep busy with community service and crafts, like quilting baby blankets, something her mom taught her in elementary school.  

Nicole's passion for storytelling and helping others is why she got into journalism.

She won an Emmy for her field anchoring of the deadly Tucson shooting and assassination attempt of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and another for her KPHO "Keeping the Promise" series on military struggles and success profiles.

She is an active board member for the nonprofit, Military Assistance Mission, supporting our Arizona military, their families and wounded warriors.

She believes everyone has a story and says the most interesting people she has interviewed weren't the actors or politicians who've been guests on the show over the years, but the "ordinary" people you'd never guess have overcome extreme odds and are doing extraordinary things every day

If you have a story you’d like to share with Nicole, click here to email her.

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