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Patriot Hills - a return to Saranac Lake's roots

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A group in Saranac Lake is moving ahead with plans for a respite and reintegration center for active duty solders, veterans and their families.

The proposed residential center is called Patriot Hills. Supporters say it will draw on the village's long tradition as a healing community, by using innovative treatments to help soldiers settle back into civilian life after deployment to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Patriot Hills convened its first major public event this week, at the Trudeau Institute. On hand were top military brass, experts on post traumatic stress disorder, and Garry Trudeau, who has explored veterans issues in his Doonesbury cartoon. Chris Knight was there.

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Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

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As he spoke on Tuesday morning, Gary Trudeau stood at a podium below a portrait of his great-grandfather, Edward Livingston Trudeau, who put Saranac Lake on the map as a pioneering place for tuberculosis research and curing. Trudeau described how his great-grandfather came to the Adirondacks 140 years ago while suffering from tuberculosis and expecting he would die.

"Instead," said Trudeau, "he found hope, and healing, life and a mission in a place of soul-stirring peace and beauty. There's now a new generation who needs that kind of sanctuary--fellow countrymen and women who have served their nation well but have suffered grievous wounds and who deserve the healing power that this kind of fully committed community steeped in best practices can bring to bear."

Gary Trudeau played a key role in organizing Tuesday's Patriot Hills event. In researching veterans' issues over the years he's made connections to military leaders and experts in the field of post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other war trauma. He invited several of those people to Saranac Lake on Tuesday, all of whom pointed to a need for facilities like the one Patriot Hills is planning.

Major General Robert John Kasulke, commanding general for the army reserve medical command, said many reservists are returning home from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan and having difficulty finding access to mental health and other services that they need, particularly in rural areas.

"We need to bring these quality services, these organizations that provide these quality services, so it's easy to get to and will be used," Kasulke said.

Brigadier General Laurie Sutton, the highest ranking psychiatrist in the US army, said military leaders now understand that the psychological, moral and spiritual injuries of war are on par with the physical injuries. But she said it would take more than just treatment to cure the invisible wounds of PTSD.

"As important as treatment is, we cannot treat our way out of this problem. We must wage our own kind of insurgency, which is that of taking the existing order and turning it upside down--empowering individuals at a community level. And it's communities like Saranac Lake that truly we are going to meet that challenge," said Sutton.

Other presenters Laurie Leitch and Elaine Miller-Karas, co-founders of the Trauma Resource Institute, describe war trauma as a public health issue of epic proportions, noting the high rate of homelessness, divorce, and domestic violence among veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. They've developed a program that focuses on stabilizing the nervous system and increasing soldiers' resiliency. Leitch said their goal is to bring the program to large groups of people and community, not just therapists and service providers.

"Hopefully what you'll have in Saranac is how can we have a community speaking the same language about trauma and resilience so that once someone goes there's a really congruent and coherent system of care where people have a perspective that's shared," she said.

The model is just one of several that Patriot Hills organizers are looking to incorporate in their Saranac Lake-based respite and reintegration center for soldiers and veterans. Supporters have been building momentum for the project over the past year. Patriot Hill's executive director Susan Waters said Tuesday's event tells organizers that they're heading in the right direction.

"This day certainly encourages our local effort and it encourages those of us who have been working on it to really know we're on the right track and that there are huge possibilities and a great need here. I think it's also a very big vote of confidence for our community, for doing it in Saranac Lake."

Patriot Hills is seeking $7.2 million in federal funds over 3 years to lay the ground work for the approximately $30 million project. Organizers recently received word that the project is on a funding list supported by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as part of the 2011 federal budget.

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