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Sanctuary for soldiers

Mother of a slain soldier works to create healing haven for vets



In September 2001, Srikanth Rajagopalan was a Marine reservist training in his civilian life as a yoga instructor. He'd planned to teach clients the Eastern discipline -- instead, he wound up in Iraq using yoga to calm himself and, sometimes, fellow Marines.

Rajagopalan hasn't shown signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, but he has struggled to process his time in Iraq: "I was there, and I did carry a weapon, and I engaged in some good things and some not-so-good things."

Now he and several local people are working to establish Veterans' Village, a network of resources and retreats for ex-military personnel. Led by war mother and antiwar activist Nadia McCaffrey, the Village is supposed to be, in the words of its mission statement, an "oasis of healing" that would help veterans, particularly those with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, ease back into civilian society.

Ideally, McCaffrey wants two self-sustaining, sprawling retreats on each coast. Organizers have looked at land near Asheville and in Anson County northeast of Charlotte, says Brian Staton, a Huntersville man who's involved in the project.

McCaffrey acknowledges the $25 million retreat is a massive undertaking that could take years to open. While organizers are raising funds, they're also trying in several states to start centers where veterans could get counseling and referrals for a variety of aid. The financially strapped Veterans Administration can't meet the demand alone, says McCaffrey, a former hospice health worker.

On May 24, military officials testified before Congress that about 100,000 soldiers have already sought mental health care. Recent Department of Defense figures indicate that up to 40 percent of troops will report psychological concerns. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says that by June 2005, more than 400 veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have sought help from community-based homeless services providers (not the VA).

"This is heartbreaking. How could we let this happen?" she asks. "So right now we're focusing on any ways we can help the soldier."

McCaffrey's own loss provided inspiration for the project, after her son, Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey, was shot dead by Iraqis he'd been training. The Tracy, Calif., woman quickly found herself an anti-war activist when she invited media to Sacramento International Airport to document the return of her son's flag-draped coffin from Iraq.

She soon decided she wanted to help returning veterans, many whom she speaks to daily by phone. Though not as well-known as the controversial Cindy Sheehan, she's become one of the most well-known mothers against the war. (Sheehan was supposed to speak at an impeachment meeting in Dilworth last Friday before she announced, in a much-publicized letter, her retirement from public protest.)

Many of the people behind her effort are anti-war advocates. But McCaffrey says she's adamant the organization won't be tainted by politics and partisan stands. "If we have an agenda, we must leave it at the door," she says. "This is about nothing else besides helping the veterans. I'm going to make sure of this."

Regardless, the project's outlook likely won't appeal to more hawkish types. Its proposal includes a quote from a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh: "Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again."

McCaffrey says the retreat's programming won't be able to help everyone, but she believes it will save some veterans from long-term psychological problems. She's asking companies that have profited from the war, such as Halliburton and Bechtel, to donate to the Village. "Right now, they are looked at not as the bad guy but as people that have profited, period. If they would give something, they understand that would change their image," she says.

The group already has attained 501(c)3 nonprofit status for tax purposes. About 40,000 organizations do so each year, says Suzanne Coffman, director of communications for GuideStar, a nonprofit information clearinghouse.

Organizers been meeting with interested parties, including U.S. Rep. Mel Watt and his staff. "They were very positive about working with us," Staton says.

Rajagopalan believes the project has potential for cooperation regardless of one's political belief. "There's a lot of opportunity to look at it from a healing perspective," he says. "We look at it not just from ... deciding whether we need to be there or not. That's an important debate, but this is something broader that allows a lot of people to come together."