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Compass Retreat Center Helps Families of Reservists

After National Guard veteran Lisa Dunster returned from her deployment to the Gulf War in 1999, she was angry — about her experiences in war, some of the things she saw and some of the things she had to do.

She was welcomed home by her civilian community. They were grateful for her service, but they had no concept of what she had endured.

Active-duty families living on base have access to hundreds of programs to help with the process of deploying, redeploying and re-integration. Reserve and Guard families, however, often live far from their assigned unit in towns that have no understanding of the pressures of wartime duty.

“I almost felt like there was an unwritten rule that we just didn’t talk about it afterward,” Dunster said. “It’s like the people around me just didn’t get it.”

Eventually, Dunster settled back into the civilian world, became an English teacher and started her family.

When thousands of National Guard and Reserve troops began deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Dunster knew she couldn’t let those families suffer the same lack of support she had.

She told her husband, “We’ve got to do something.”

It was then that her idea for the Compass Retreat Center began to take shape.

“The military does a good job with workshops for marriage or camps for kids, but I felt a piece was missing ... looking at the family as a whole,” Dunster said.

The first session of Compass Retreat Center’s camp was held in 2009 in Seymour, Ind. Six families participated in traditional outdoor activities such as ropes courses and kayaking to help them learn to depend on each other in ways they may never have before.

Families also attended counseling sessions and therapeutic activities.

Dunster’s mission is to get families out of their comfort zones and give them a neutral space to reconnect. She felt a mixture of the fun and physical, as well as talk time, was important for healing after deployment.

Partnering with existing camp facilities in the Midwest, Compass Retreat has since had two more sessions, each one doubling the number of families who attended. The volunteer staff includes a family therapist and a social worker.

During camp, families are given time to spend together and alone. The sessions schedule out the day with kid time, couple time and then family time.

Amy Allen, a former Guard soldier and Iraq veteran, attended Compass Retreat with her family and loved it.

Although the outdoor activities were fun, the idea of having a safe place to discuss the deployment was even more important.

“The high ropes activity was a real screamer,” Allen said. “But it was so great being around other people who truly understand what our entire family had been through, due to the deployments.”

Compass Retreat Center has many plans for future expansion, such as building a permanent facility of its own. But that’s just the beginning. Dunster hopes to open programs for military families across the country.

“We feel these camps are needed across the nation,” Dunster said.

For now, facilities in Ohio and Indiana are helping families heal, look at themselves differently and become whole again. And, according to the families who attend, it’s well worth the time.

Learn more about the program at

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