By PENNY FLETCHER
Kelly Kowall, who founded and runs My Warrior’s Place in Ruskin, recently hosted Darcie Sims of Seattle, a certified grief management specialist. Kowall met her while training to help veterans and their families before opening My Warrior’s Place.
Kowall has been building the Ruskin retreat at 101 22nd St. N.W., off W. Shell Point Road, since a year after her son, Specialist Corey Kowall, 20, and a medic were killed Sept. 20, 2009, while en route to aid a location in Afghanistan where Improvised Explosive Devices had been detected.
Kowall began with a boating program; veterans could just come and paddle a canoe or kayak alone or with others; or just sit around and open up to people who had been through similar war experiences.
Kowall got the idea for the retreat while grieving alone on a boat trip to Beer Can Island where she stopped, and, while asking for a sign, what proved later to be a Vietnam-era bullet washed up right at her feet.
“It was as though God had spoken directly to me, and although I had no idea how such a thing could be accomplished, I knew there wasn’t anything anywhere for families suffering losses like this, and I had to be the one to put something in place,” she said.
“The military works very hard at death, and does it very well,” said Sims. “They do elaborate ceremonies, give real honor to the deceased. And then it’s over. It’s like those who have witnessed the tragedy must ‘soldier up’ again right away with no time to grieve. They may do death well, but they don’t do grief.”
Kowall studied under Sims at Fort Bragg before working with the veterans.
Sims said that her husband was in Vietnam when their son died, and she realized there was no support system for the families — either in the military or in civilian life.
So she switched from working as a clinical psychologist to specialize in grief counseling.
She has since become the national director for the TAPS program, or Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
Sims wrote the program for TAPS, which is what Kowall originally studied so she could open the retreat, which has since gained full tax-exempt status from the IRS.
Sims also can be credited with starting the Birdhouse Project, which is a hands-on “new start” given for people “stuck in a phase of grief.”
“They actually build a cardboard birdhouse as a foundation for their new life,” Sims said. She recently gave the program to a group of people in Brandon.
Kowall has been using Birdhouse in Project Corregidor Grief and Peer Mentoring Program, which is now a staple at My Warrior’s Place. But Sims and Kowall have since decided that Birdhouse could be used for people other than veterans, and offered it to a mixed group: parents who had lost children; veterans; people who had lost spouses and others at a workshop last week during Sims’ visit — the main reason she came at this time.
Sims and Kowall, along with Sims’ husband Tony and Cora Ruff, who lives in Sun City Center during winter, started the project together after brainstorming at the Comfort Inn after Kowall’s experience on Beer Can Island. When major changes seem to be needed, they get back together or converse by phone or by email.
Kowall learned when she took her training at Fort Bragg that there wasn’t anything set up to reintegrate veterans back into life after war.
“They just stuff their feelings,” Sims said. “Some people stay stuck in their grief for years.”
She should know. Not only is Sims a licensed grief clinical psychologist, her entire family has served in the military. “I’m a career military daughter, wife and mother,” she joked Feb. 4 in an interview at My Warrior’s Place. “My dad was Army, my husband was Navy, Air Force and Army.”
Most of the time, peer mentoring can be done by telephone, or even email, she said. “We do the matching, so that someone in New York could be matched with a mentor in California. It depends on what we’re trying to match. Location means nothing; in fact, most never meet their peer mentors face-to-face.”
Any soldier who doesn’t feel pain after seeing horrific things on the battlefield could become a sociopath, Sims said. “But they hesitate to talk about these feelings because of the responses people give. Most people just don’t want to hear it. But here, in a safe setting around others who have had similar experiences, or over the phone with a peer mentor, they can let it out and finally let it go.
“We try to match people with someone who has had a similar loss, like a mother who has lost a son with another mother who has lost a son, even in a similar way,” Sims said. “We’re not training counselors, we’re training listeners. People who can understand the kind of pain, even though it is different for everyone.”
They’re also in the process of planning a building so active duty personnel can learn to use peer mentors.
The mentors aren’t counselors or therapists. They’re trained to listen, and because they’re matched with others who have had common experiences, they can relate and make the person talking feel safe.
Sometimes, though, more than peer help is needed.
That’s why Kowall stays in touch with Heather Comfort, a practicing psychotherapist for 18 years,
“I’m on call if I’m needed,” Comfort said. “But I also go volunteer there, plant plants, help with landscaping and cleanup or special projects. It’s a healing place.”
Comfort has two local offices, one on Apollo Beach Boulevard and the other in Brandon.
She backed up what Sims and Kowall said. People who have been through trauma need to let it out but many hold onto it for days or years.
It’s not just veterans who need help after war, but their families as well. Especially Gold Star Mothers like Kowall and Lorrie Fleming who have lost children in battle.
Fleming, who lives in Polk City near Orlando, met Kowall at a Gold Star Mother’s meeting and has been coming to her retreat whenever she can get away ever since.
Fleming lost her son, Army Sgt. Terry Lisk, in 2006.
“The Gold Star Mothers are a sisterhood,” she said in a telephone interview Feb 6. “We are all different yet we are all alike. Being together, we can be ourselves because everyone has felt close to the same thing.”
Fleming said visiting Kowall’s retreat was very uplifting and that she has begun to help with the boating programs when she can.
“There were some soldiers there from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions and they all called me Mom. It was such a good feeling.”
The acre-and-a-half retreat on the Little Manatee River can use people, money, supplies, talent and ideas.
Kowall said anyone with a pet project they want to see happen is welcome to discuss it with her.
An Eagle Scout put in a relaxing waterfall pond in the front yard. Kaitlyn Arruda, to earn her Girl Scouts Gold Badge, planned a fire pit, which will be built Feb. 20 and 21 with the help of a Home Depot crew.
Pat Garland, a Sun City Center resident who can trace a family member through the service in every war since the American Revolution, has had family members from all over the country send money to install flagpoles, one for each branch of the service, and the American Legion Riders from Ellenton did the masonry work to install them.
“They just went in on Corey’s birthday, and I felt like it was his birthday present,” Kowall said.
It’s a quiet place where local veterans and their families can go, or people can come in from all over the country — and already have — for a few hours or days, up to four weeks.
Sims left South County Feb. 4 after five days working with Kowall. The two know they will meet again someday, as the programs continue to get tweaked.
Many church and civic groups now are working with Kowall, and Leadership Hillsborough has taken on her retreat as a project, but money is always needed to expand existing programs and events and train for and offer new ones.
For more information about My Warrior’s Place, visit www.mywarriorsplace.org or email Kowall at email@example.com.