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Battling PTSD: UC Alum Opens Retreat for Veterans

Communication alumna Lisa Dunster is the founder of the Compass Retreat Center, a local camp for soldiers and their families.

Date: 11/23/2010
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Lisa Dunster
Lisa Dunster never heard her husband approach her as she cut up vegetables in their Mason, Ohio home. When he surprised her by touching her shoulder, she automatically turned with the knife, braising his chin.

At the Compass Retreat Center, military veterans and their families participate in group activities to help them bond and communicate.
At the Compass Retreat Center, military veterans and their families participate in group activities to help them bond and communicate.

“I immediately dropped the knife and began crying. I had no idea that came home with me.”

Even though she returned from Saudi Arabia four years earlier, she realized the first Gulf War never really left her.  It became her first filter for every other experience.  

Her story aligns with those of her fellow veterans, from the vet who slept in a sleeping bag by his front door for months after returning from Afghanistan, or the soldiers who could barely drive upon their return, fearing trash on the side of roads was in fact IEDs.
According to remind.org, one in five military service members return home with a “hidden injury of war”—depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

“We believe every member returns with invisible wounds from war,” Dunster adds.

“When 9/11 happened, I told my friends ‘If we don’t start changing the paradigm about how we care for veterans when they come home, there will be even more problems,’” she says.

Lisa Dunster, seen here with her husband and two daughters, is a National Guard vet. She founded Compass as a way to help families rebuild after deployment.
Lisa Dunster, seen here with her husband and two daughters, is a National Guard vet. She founded Compass as a way to help families rebuild after deployment.

So the University of Cincinnati alumna (BA, Communication Arts, ’90) and Sycamore High School English teacher decided to do something about it. With support from relatives, friends, and a leadership workshop in New York sponsored by O, the Oprah Magazine, Dunster created the Compass Retreat Center.

The nonprofit organization operates free, five-day retreats for National Guard veterans and their families to support them as they renew their relationships after deployment. Thus far, donations from individuals have funded Compass.

“The American illusion is that you come home and once you’re home, everything is fine. But the reality is that it’s almost harder to come home,” Dunster says. “We believe that if we can get the family unified, then whatever stressors come their way can be better managed.”

1 in 5 veterans return home with a hidden injury of war.
1 in 5 veterans return home with a hidden injury of war.

Compass offers physical, psychological, spiritual and social guidance through family activities and small group sessions. Families participate in horseback riding, rock climbing, zip lining and other activities. Counselors, psychologists, chaplains and social workers are all on staff for assistance.

Dunster is already seeing great results, though longitudinal studies are in order to determine the retreat’s effectiveness.

Still, participants have loved their experiences so much that they are volunteering to help with future retreats.

“We have a full waiting list for 2011 already,” Dunster says. “It’s not hard to find families that want to come. There are a lot of feelings that this might be a difference maker with families.”

Dunster and her family are planning a move to Montana but will continue working with the Compass Retreat Center. Her goal, she says, is to create another program out west.

“We’ve got service members everywhere,” she says. “Our hope is to either find a facility that exists or create one that runs year-round. There are two million veterans and families in the U.S. and we’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of people to help. It’s needed now.”


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