When veterans return home from service wounded, recovery doesn’t stop with physical needs. Many veterans feel isolated and struggle with a range of mental health effects from their experiences as well as frustrations from the effects of their injuries.
Project Odyssey, a no-cost 12 week mental health program that combines adventure-based learning and workshops to warriors facing a range of invisible wounds, aims to tackle these issues. The project helps veterans form enriching relationships, develop communication pathways and embrace new perspectives.
Focusing on the veteran’s needs, Project Odyssey is offered in multiple platforms with over 200 events a year. The program is available in all-male, all-female, co-ed, family or couple’s formats. Following a five day mental health retreat, veterans are provided another 11 weeks of collaborative work with the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) to continue developing their new skills and achieve their goals.
While Project Odyssey offers an assortment of activities such as hiking, rock climbing, skiing and rafting, swimming with the dolphins at the Dolphin Research Center in Marathon, Florida, is one activity that has been a dream come true for many warriors.
Ryan Kules, Combat Stress Recovery Program Director with WWP, has directed Project Odyssey for over seven years. Each year, he’s found the Dolphin Research Center a valuable partner in aiding veterans.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to use it as an activity to help teach our individuals that are on Project Odyssey, as well as our couples, coping and communication skills that are used at the research center and how they can take those skills and apply them to their daily lives when they return home,” Kules told American Military News.
An Army veteran who faced life-changing injury when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) while deployed in Iraq, Kules wanted to continue to serve after he retired as Captain in 2007.
“I was introduced to WWP relatively early on in my recovery process. Going through that experience and knowing some of the challenges that are associated with that, builds the framework for how I wanted to spend the time that I am lucky to have; being able to serve other folks and make sure that they have every opportunity to be successful in their recovery,” Kules said.
The whole-body approach is as effective as it is unique, Kules noted.
“We’ve been able to see on Project Odyssey, folks that come into the program and maybe aren’t ready to share some of the things that are going on, then find out there’s other individuals that have a similar path that they’ve had,” he added. “That bond, that understanding goes a long way. Knowing they’re not alone is a huge benefit for their recovery.”
Caryn Finch-Collier, an Army veteran with 36 years of combined active duty and reserves service, found healing through Project Odyssey, as well as a new calling as a peer mentor for others in the program.
Following her return from deployment that resulted in injuries and subsequent retirement, her first trip was with an all-female retreat that ended with Finch-Collier forming lasting friendships.
“I was able to do Centerstone and the Warrior Care Network, which really helped me in transitioning from being in the military, in a combat zone, to trying to reintegrate to a civilian sector,” Finch-Collier told American Military News. “I was able to go on my very first one, I believe it was in 2019, and the coolest thing about that was there were other female warriors that were in similar situations, similar experiences that I had. Obviously no experience is exactly the same, but similar situations. It was just reassuring to know that there were other female warriors out there that had gone through similar experiences and that I wasn’t alone. For me, it’s been a blessing.”
Finch-Collier remembers how, during the height of the pandemic, WWP continued programs via Zoom.
“It was just like, oh my goodness, there’s people that I can actually talk to. For me, it was so difficult, coming out of the military after so long and then trying to feel like I fit in with the civilian sector. So when we do these Project Odysseys there’s an instant rapport,” she said.
Prior to participating in Project Odyssey, warriors are screened to find programs that are a good fit for their specific needs, including physical challenges. WWP makes every attempt to accommodate each warrior’s needs so all eligible veterans can participate.
For some warriors, the dolphins housed at the Dolphin Research Center become a symbol of hope, as the dolphins are rescued from the wild with life-threatening medical concerns.
Interacting and swimming with the dolphins as they, too, navigate their new lives, bodies and abilities can feel like new possibilities.
The Wounded Warrior Project is a 501c charity. For information on joining WWP Project Odyssey or other events, please visit the Wounded Warrior Project Resource Center.