by Rick Langenberg:
Local combat veterans Vanessa Valentine and Ryan Creel know too well about the plight fellow soldiers and airmen face in making the transition from the front-line battle lines overseas to the civilian arena.
The Woodland Park couple collectively served more than 30 years in the Army and Air Force as official combat photographers. Moreover, they conducted 3,000-plus missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, got shot at frequently, obtained emergency supplies for beaten-up women and other victims of the international conflicts and encountered many close calls. In the process, they endured their share of Post-traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) and bureaucratic struggles in seeking help, and at least for Creel, suffered from a painful period of homelessness. In many ways, they experienced some of the same problems in adjusting to civilian life that are depicted in the popular and controversial move, American Sniper, outlining the story of Chris Kyle.
“There is quite an adrenaline rush in combat. You see things differently,” related Valentine, in describing her experiences in Iraq. “There I was getting shot at every day and then I had to deal with a lot of ‘petty bs’ when I got back. It was very tough.” “It’s pretty scary,” admitted Creel, in describing the transformation into civilian live both physically and emotionally for many veterans, with an estimated 22 suicides a day. “It’s a terrible place to be,” he added, and one reason he attributes to so many veterans doing repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and other hotspots.
The two veterans, who are now medically retired, are putting their combat experiences to work by turning their spacious home in Woodland Park into a hub for injured and disabled veterans and other soldiers going through a tough transitional period. They have started a Wounded Warrior House retreat in Woodland Park by converting their six-bedroom, 7.5-acre residence into a prime hangout for veterans trying to make the adjustment.
Valentine and Creel are currently seeking funds to get the project off the ground and are making connections with local groups to find activities and events for recovering veterans. The two, who are married, have already formed a 501-C-3 nonprofit designation, making it eligible for tax deductible donations. The Wounded Warrior House project is part of a national organization that assists retiring veterans and especially those suffering from PTSD. “We want them to have a place to go,” said Creel, who was involved with a similar Wounded Warriors home in the Virginia Beach area. “There is no better place than the Pikes Peak area.”
The couple has lived in Woodland Park for a year and a half.
With their Wounded Warrior House in Woodland, they hope to set up fishing trips, skiing excursions, white water rafting, snow shoeing, four-wheeling, jaunts to Mueller State Park, and other recreational therapeutic activities, with the Pikes Peak/Teller County scenery as the backdrop. They also host special events and classes for veteran-based groups.
Since both Valentine and Creel are veterans themselves, they believe they offer a personal connection that fellow soldiers and military personnel understand. “A lot of veterans don’t like to ask for help. But they really appreciate help from fellow veterans. It brings the veterans back together,” said Creel. “You can’t get that therapy anywhere else,” added Valentine. “We want this to be their retreat.”
To date, the couple has received much support from the Woodland Park area, but still needs more assistance with certain items, such as bunk beds, and additional expenses, to make the project a success. “We are really surprised with the support of the veteran community. This is a very veteran-friendly community,” said Valentine.
The two also are strongly involved in the community, serving as co-owners of CR Chambers Studios and doing much video, photography and production work in the area. They have become familiar faces at functions hosted by the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce.
Recounting time in Iraq and Afghanistan
The two say their new Wounded Warrior House project represents their way of helping out. During their respective stints in Iraq and Afghanistan and other hotspot areas, the veterans had their share of horrific stories and close-calls, witnessing deadly shootings and bombings on a daily basis. “You see it, (many battle scenes on television and through media outlets) because we shot it,” said Valentine. They also recount many pleas for assistance.
Valentine got confronted by many Iraqi women, who wanted her to smuggle makeup and other supplies for them to hide the wounds they experienced from getting beaten by their spouses. And during one raid, she accidently stepped on a bomb. Meanwhile, Creel was involved in thousands of life and death combat missions and heard many pleas for assistance from Afghans. At the same time, he was mesmerized by the beauty of the country.
The two, who served in different units of the military (with Ryan serving in the Army and Vanessa in the Air Force), supported their respective missions and say they believe America’s role overseas played a positive role.
But Valentine and Creel, who refrain from outlining their political views in regards to the conflicts, admit some frustration with the poverty and suffering that many war-ravaged Iraqi and Afghanistan people underwent. “There was a sense of helplessness,” said Valentine, who recounted an Iraqi nation with many homeless people and “nomadic gypsies,” due to the strife their country experienced for decades.
With the Wounded Warrior House project, they believe they can make a big difference “We feel we can really help people,” said Valentine. Moreover, the two know what it’s like to experience the turmoil of PTSD and trying to get help. They both believe they were forced to medically retire from the military due to the fact they made inquiries about their health conditions. “There is still a stigma in the military about getting help,” said Creel. “I can personally relate to what a lot of veterans are going through.” On the upside, he believes that improvements are occurring within the Veterans Administration.
Besides the PTSD issue, a frequent subject in the media these days, they are familiar with many of the problems fellow soldiers encounter on the civilian front in obtaining employment, overcoming homelessness, dealing with suicidal thoughts and overcoming bouts of domestic turmoil. “It’s hard not to be affected by PTSD,” said Valentine. “You go through a lot of ‘what ifs.’” They hope to lend a helping hand to injured and disabled veterans in all facets of their lives.
But more than anything, the main purpose of the Wounded Warrior House in Woodland Park is to help fellow veterans have a good time during their adjustment back to normalcy. “These physical activities in the outdoors really help. They love their time out here,” said Creel.
During one recent outing, the veteran couple hosted more than 20 soldiers. They cited a sense of comradery that can’t be experienced elsewhere for wounded veterans. Besides their role with the Wounded Warrior House project, the two are also strongly involved with the Team Rubicon group, which does disaster mitigation for many communities in Colorado, including the Ute Pass. Both Valentine and Creel met during a Team Rubicon function and got married during a Home Depot event, sponsored by the Team Rubicon organization.
“We love helping people. It is a lifestyle for us,” said Valentine.