We asked Ken Falke, Founder and Chairman of the Boulder Crest Foundation, to share some insights on his organization’s work in developing and delivering transformative programs that ensure our nation’s veterans have the tools they need to thrive in the aftermath of service-related trauma. The Rumsfeld Foundation has been proud to support the unique and important efforts of the Boulder Crest Foundation since 2015 and we are delighted to release this “Service Series” interview offering Ken’s perspective on Boulder Crest’s mission, operations, the field of Posttraumatic Growth and more.
1. Please tell us briefly about Boulder Crest’s mission and founding.
I spent 21 years in the Navy as an EOD operator. EOD is explosive ordnance disposal, or bomb disposal. In 2004, my wife and I founded the Wounded EOD Warrior Foundation and worked during the height of the war with the families of severely injured EOD personnel. From 2010-2013, we hosted many families at our home in Bluemont, VA, which was a 200-acre estate. The time spent with these families, and the clear positive impact that time had on them, inspired us to donate 37 acres of our property and $1 million to kick off a $10 million fundraising effort to build Boulder Crest Virginia. We opened our doors at Boulder Crest Virginia in September of 2013 with an initial mission of providing respite to the families at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital and hosting smaller nonprofits who delivered innovative mental health programming. Knowing that the mental health issues of PTSD, depression and anxiety were very challenging for our veteran community and likely to grow over time, we launched our own programming to address these challenges in early 2015 and have been very pleased with the outcomes we have measured and the lives that have been changed.
Our primary mission at Boulder Crest is to develop, deliver and scale transformative posttraumatic growth programs to ensure that these remarkable men and women transform struggle into strength and lifelong growth, so they can live the great lives they deserve. More broadly, we are working to improve outcomes for veterans and first responders through training that teaches individuals how to live healthy and fulfilling lives. Today, Boulder Crest Foundation owns and operates two Posttraumatic Growth Academies in Bluemont, VA and Sonoita, AZ. In addition, we have the Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth.
2. Boulder Crest is known as a leader in the field of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG). Can you define PTG for our readers who may not be familiar with it?
Posttraumatic Growth (PTG) describes the ways in which the struggle that follows traumatic events can often serve as a catalyst for growth and transformation. PTG is both a process that people go through to make sense of their life post-trauma, and an outcome that is experienced in five areas of life: New Possibilities, Deeper Relationships, Personal Strength, Appreciation for Life, and Spiritual-Existential Change.
The best practical example I can give you is undoubtedly the greatest story of PTG — that of the 591 men who were Prisoners of War in North Vietnam for between 2.5 months to 8.5 years. While mental health experts anticipated that the men would return home psychotic and destined to live their lives in institutions, the truth was very different. Only 4% of these men would struggle with PTSD (compared to 30% of all Vietnam veterans), while 80% would end up better off because of their experiences. The military tracks these men to this day, and versus a comparable group of Naval aviators that were not shot down, the POWs live better lives on every measure of life — from physical health to emotional health, from the quality of their relationships to their sense of life satisfaction.
3. Why has becoming a pioneer for PTG become a cornerstone of your work?
The mainstream mental health system has codified the problematic notion that times of trauma and struggle are permanently diminishing. Those struggling are taught that they should learn to live with their “new normal” and rely on pharmaceuticals to feel less badly. This is anathema to what is understood about successful approaches, and the importance of a growth mindset, as noted in a May 2017 Journal of the American Medical Association editorial: “...what is clear is that instilling a growth mindset in patients about their belief in the capacity to change is an important precursor to health and healing.” PTG restores a sense of hope and agency to the lives of those struggling and provides them with an incentive to do the hard work of making sense of their post-trauma life – because it could be better and more meaningful than before. I can’t think of a better reason to build on this cornerstone.
4. Can you share one of the most inspiring moments or milestones from Boulder Crest’s work since your founding?
Since opening, we have hosted over 6,000 participants at Boulder Crest. They all leave us with very positive memories and there is one I always love to share. We have a labyrinth onsite. In one of our programs, Warrior PATHH, we walk this twice. Labyrinths are a form of mobile mindfulness meditation that have been used since medieval times. On the second walk of the program, our staff lines a long sidewalk leading to the labyrinth and as the participants exit their second walk, they are greeted by a staff member every 6 feet or so along this sidewalk. One guy came out of his walk and shook the hand of our lead instructor and in his hand was a .45 caliber bullet. Our instructor knew what it was, but asked the participant to explain while clinching his hand. The participant said, “this was my next stop if this program didn’t work for me.” He was talking about shooting himself. That happened over five years ago and that Warrior is still with us.
5. Tell us a bit about the book you and Josh Goldberg co-authored, Struggle Well. What does “struggle well” mean to you and what led you to write the book?
Josh and I speak a lot on the work we do at Boulder Crest. Two questions we get all the time – 1) how can we help more folks that are suffering? ; and 2) will what we do for veterans and first responders work for civilians? We believe the answer to number 2 is YES and we thought the only way to get to the larger population would be to write the book. The book, Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma, is an overview of what we do in our Warrior PATHH program and we also weave in our personal stories. The book is selling very well and the feedback we are getting is amazing.
6. What does service mean to you and your team at Boulder Crest?
Our mantra here at Boulder Crest is to help combat veterans be as productive here at home as they were on the battlefield. Military service is not enough. We tell everyone that your military service cannot be the last great thing you do. As much as we hate the word, HERO, we have adopted a Greek and Roman definition that ensures that our service to our nation never ends. “A HERO is an ordinary person who endures an extraordinary experience and returns to share the lessons they learned so they can enrich the lives of others.” Our second emphasis on service is what our staff at Boulder Crest provide. We are committed to making our facility and our service a five-star experience for everyone that visits. I hope that all those reading this get to experience Boulder Crest.
7. What would you say has been the key driver of the success and impressive growth that Boulder Crest has experienced as an organization?
I think first and foremost, our service and our culture have helped us create an amazing following. Next, I think our investors, participants and followers really believe, like we do, that what we do changes lives. Finally, we own two beautiful properties whose impact is clear — tangible experiences are much easier to understand.
8. Apart from your focus on PTG, what else makes Boulder Crest stand out among the many military and veteran serving organizations (VSOs) operating today?
Posttraumatic Growth has certainly gotten us recognized as have our beautiful facilities. I never think of us as “standing out.” I think I actually think of us as an enigma. Our goal is to fix the way veterans are treated with PTSD. The current system doesn’t work! We have to do better and I strongly believe we are doing much better than the status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo doesn’t agree with us…yet!
9. As someone who has now been in the VSO community for many years, what changes or shifts would you like to see in the space more broadly?
Broadly speaking, I would love to see some consolidation between veteran nonprofits. I think there are so many organizations doing similar things that we could all be more effective working together than apart. I come from the for-profit world and as a former CEO, I know the value of mergers and acquisitions and feel strongly the veteran nonprofit community could benefit from them.
10. Looking ahead, what should we expect from Boulder Crest in the next decade?
A decade is seven years further than I like to look. Our strategic planning process goes out three years and although I know we can’t control tomorrow, we certainly can shape it. Our Warrior PATHH program is currently scaling nationwide. In 2021 alone, we will deliver, as a network, more Warrior PATHH programs than Boulder Crest has delivered since opening. This is scaling and I am very proud of our staff for making this a reality. I am hopeful for a few things: 1) The American people don’t forget about our warriors and their families just because the wars are winding down. None of these wartime injuries get better with age and we will always need your support. 2) Our goal is to have 10 nonprofit partners delivering our Warrior PATHH program nationwide; 3) That the VA and the insurance companies will see our approach as “relevant” and start to provide funding and reimbursement; and 4) That we can show society that there is a way to thrive in the aftermath of trauma.
Ken Falke is Founder and Chairman of Boulder Crest Foundation and the author of "Struggle Well, Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma." He 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. He is also a serial entrepreneur and former Founder and CEO of A-T Solutions, which is a recognized international expert and valuable global asset in combating the war on terrorism. Continue reading his full bio here.
Learn more about Boulder Crest and consider supporting their work by visiting: https://bouldercrest.org/.