On a September morning, in a grassy field nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, hundreds of spectators turned their faces skyward. High above them, a U.S. flag held by two military skydivers was fluttering to earth from a cloudless sky, its arrival greeted by a chorus of cheers and whistles.
Dozens of wounded veterans, including the skydivers, were among the many who gathered to celebrate the grand opening Friday of Boulder Crest Retreat for Wounded Warriors in Bluemont, a rural sanctuary in Loudoun County, 55 miles west and a world away from the massive medical center in Bethesda that serves as a second home for injured men and women in the military.
The opening celebration was a moment that Loudoun residents Ken and Julia Falke had been working toward for nearly three years, since the couple decided to use part of their 200-acre property to create the nation’s first rural retreat for injured soldiers, a place where they could escape their grueling treatment schedules and find solace outside the hectic setting of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
At the start of the day-long celebration of the facility’s opening, Boulder Crest Retreat co-founder Fred Malek told the crowd that Ken and Julia Falke had spent most of their time in recent years “thinking about and doing things to help wounded warriors.”
After Ken Falke, a retired U.S. Navy bomb-disposal expert, sold his consulting firm several years ago, he and his wife “could have lived a life of leisure,” Malek said, “but they decided to do something different.”
To the Falkes, “something different” meant raising more than $6 million in less than two years and establishing a detailed plan for the nonprofit project they envisioned. The retreat — which includes four wheelchair-accessible cabins, a communal meeting lodge, a walled organic garden, a playground, a pond and a nature trail — is a place where wounded military members can simply relax and spend time with family members or participate in a number of support programs and therapeutic recreational activities.
At the opening, Ken Falke approached the podium amid tireless applause — and, with typical humility, quickly shifted the focus from himself to a long list of people and businesses that had made the project possible.
“Our entire community is here supporting this event,” he said. “We couldn’t do this without your support. . . . Welcome to the grand opening, finally, of Boulder Crest Retreat.”
The facility has been championed not only by many in the surrounding community but at the highest levels of the military. Among the event’s speakers was Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the assembled crowd that he had arrived by helicopter that morning.
“If you think this place is beautiful on the ground, you’ve got to see it from up there,” he said.
Organizations such as Boulder Crest are vital, Winnefeld said, because military recruits deserve the assurance that they will receive the best possible care in return for their service and sacrifice.
“If we want to continue to attract the best and brightest . . . we have to keep doing things like this,” Winnefeld said.
The $10 million retreat is the only facility of its kind in the country, Falke has said. It is aimed at providing a peaceful, pastoral setting, where military members can recover from their injuries and reconnect with loved ones. Most military veterans did not grow up in cities, Falke said, making the process of undergoing months or years of treatment in the Washington area especially stressful.
Johnny Jones, 27, a Marine veteran who lost his legs above the knees after he was injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010, understands that feeling. Jones, who grew up in north Georgia, said his family was overwhelmed by the hectic bustle and aggressive traffic that surrounds Walter Reed.
“I became the person who had to calm everyone down and be there for everyone else while I was recovering myself,” he said. “If we’d had somewhere like Boulder Crest to go once a month during my recovery, the growing pains would not have been nearly as severe.”
Jones, who works as a legislative assistant for the Veterans Affairs Committee and attends Georgetown University, said Boulder Crest will provide a much-needed resource for combat-injured military members who might otherwise feel insecure or unsafe in the world outside their homes or hospital rooms.
“The opportunity to go do something where you feel independent, but you still have the helping hands you need, that’s few and far between,” Jones said. “Even the trips organized by [the hospital] can still make you feel like you’re being herded like cattle, or you’re a second-grader on a field trip. But at Boulder Crest, you’re in charge of your day. You have family there. You can go learn to walk down a grassy hill without worrying if people are going to stare at you or what will happen if you fall.”
Jones had the opportunity to visit Boulder Crest last month, he said, when the facility was almost ready but had not yet officially opened. He went with friends to celebrate his “Alive Day,” he said — the third anniversary of the day he was critically wounded, but not killed, by the IED.
That recent visit “really drove home to me how amazing Boulder Crest was,” he said. “You really have to be there to understand why it’s so special. And so, for the grand opening, it’s so nice to see everyone see what it really is . . . to see everyone experience a small part of it.”