Bluemont will soon be home to sanctuary for wounded soldiers

Nestled among lush, rolling hills in the quiet village of Bluemont, a 37-acre parcel — now mostly bare — will soon be the site of what its founders are calling the nation’s first rural retreat dedicated to serving wounded soldiers and veterans.

Boulder Crest Retreat for Wounded Warriors began as the vision of Bluemont residents Ken and Julia Falke, who decided in 2010 that they wanted to use part of their 200-acre property as a peaceful sanctuary for soldiers receiving outpatient care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.

The $10 million project will be officially launched with a groundbreaking Friday, but much has already been done to lay the foundation for the retreat, Ken Falke said. Since the land was rezoned last year, the preliminary steps came together smoothly: A gravel road winds around the perimeter of the grounds, much of the property has been graded, and the site has power and a well, Falke said.

Falke, a former U.S. Navy bomb disposal expert who retired in 2002 after 22 years of service, has spent years working with injured soldiers and their families. He understands the profound toll of the recovery process for all involved, and how, for soldiers grappling with amputation, post- traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury, every day poses a new challenge.

“Their days are grueling and regimented, going from appointment to appointment,” Falke said. “It’s very tough.”

For many, the stress and despair are compounded by abruptly finding themselves in an unfamiliar setting, he said.

“The majority of soldiers and their families come from rural America. Then they get injured, and we put them in Bethesda,” Falke said.

Boulder Crest Retreat, a nonprofit organization, will offer those soldiers and their families an escape from their bustling surroundings at no cost. Here, they will be able to relax, take walks, take classes in yoga or meditation and have access to a number of off-site activities, including fishing, kayaking, swimming and golf. Falke also plans to offer educational and professional resources to help soldiers make the transition to civilian life.

Ken and Julie Falke first started offering care and support to injured bomb disposal soldiers and their families in 2004, using their own money. Ken Falke had started a successful counterintelligence consulting company after he retired from the military, he said.

In 2007, the couple founded the Wounded EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] Warrior Foundation, which focuses on serving injured soldiers who specialized in explosive ordnance disposal.

“I felt like I was the only guy who had retired in the D.C. area who had a real passion for the [EOD] community,” Falke said.

Boulder Crest Retreat, which will be open to all wounded soldiers, was a natural extension of the foundation, he said. Although there are comparable facilities available to recovering soldiers, none is in a rural setting or is exclusively intended to cater to wounded warriors, Falke said.

“Basically, what we’re building here is a free retreat and a bed- and-breakfast for military personnel,” he said.

The idea for the retreat began to form in 2010, when the Falkes invited a recovering soldier and his family members to stay with them for a night at their historic stone house, perched high on a hill overlooking their property.

“The next morning at breakfast, they were just smiling ear to ear,” Falke said. “They said, ‘This was exactly what we needed.’ ”

He hopes that many other families will soon share that feeling. The four cabins will eventually host a total of 20 overnight guests, who can stay for up to 14 nights, Falke said. The retreat will be available to soldiers and their families on a first-come, first-served basis, with priority given to those receiving outpatient care at Walter Reed.

If all goes according to plan, the retreat will open next May, Falke said.

That means finding another $6.5 million in funding through corporate sponsorships, as well as donations from family foundations and individuals, Falke said. So far, the project has raised $3.5 million of the $10 million needed to fund construction and operating costs. He said that $5 million will go toward funding construction of the retreat, including four handicapped-accessible cabins, a barn that will serve as a communal meeting place, a walled organic garden, a pond and bird sanctuary, and a workshop that will also house live-in maintenance and security staff members.

The other $5 million will fund the first few years of the retreat’s operational costs, Falke said, until it can become self-sustainable.

“We are going to create our own organic brand — we’ll have fresh vegetables, honey, coffee,” he said. “We’d like to become sort of a mini-Newman’s Own.”

Less than a week before the official groundbreaking, Falke said he was eager to see the project take the symbolic step forward.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” he said. “The Department of the Defense and the [Department of Veteran’s Affairs] — they do all they can do. But without nonprofits like us, it’s hard for the soldiers, the Marines, the airmen, to get all of their needs met. . . . We’re honored and blessed that we can help, and we hope we’ll keep finding more people who can help us keep it going.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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