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Eagle Oak Retreat holds ribbon cutting ceremony, to serve first responders and veterans

By CHARITY FITCH (charity@waxahachiesun.com)


Facing cold wind and rain, more than 70 people gathered in Italy, Texas, to celebrate a ribbon cutting ceremony for Eagle Oak Retreat, a space for combat veterans and first responders to overcome posttraumatic stress, on Friday, Feb. 24.


Eagle Oak Retreat is the first location in Texas to offer Warrior PATHH, a peer-based program created by Boulder Crest Foundation that teaches vital skills for posttraumatic growth, and the 10th Warrior PATHH location in the United States.


Randall Blakeslee, executive director, described Eagle Oak as a “wellness sanctuary.”


“We offer community support and holistic and posttraumatic growth opportunities for our combat veterans, first responders and their families,” Blakeslee said.


Located on 11 acres of a 65-acre ranch, Eagle Oak Retreat is fully ADA-accessible and includes two 3,500-square foot bunk houses for Warrior PATHH participants and staff, a 3,800-square foot dining hall, a 3,800-square foot Round Up building for classes, meetings and staff offices, a labyrinth, an outdoor archery range, and more.


Following a presentation of colors by Ellis County Detachment of the Marine Corps League, development officer Dennise Watanabe shared her family’s journey from Hawaii to Eagle Oak.


As founders Lillian and Steve Watanabe neared retirement in Hawaii, they decided they needed to do something to help take care of veterans and first responders, so they purchased a ranch in Italy, Texas.

In 2021, they were chosen as a site for Warrior PATHH. In May 2022, they broke ground and began construction. Lillian and Steve lived out of an RV on the ranch, “enduring this crazy Texas weather.”

“During this process, as a family, we learned to struggle well,” Dennise said. “We learned a lot about open and honest communication under intense pressure and extreme fatigue. We experienced firsthand the power of purpose and hope. Through this journey, we, as a family, now truly understand the saying that freedom isn’t free. It is an honor to know that we now have a place to serve those who have served our country so proudly – both the military and our first responder community.”


While there are still some finishing touches to be made, the retreat will host its first Warrior PATHH class at the end of March, with Dennise reporting the first class is already full. Classes in April and May are almost full as well.


Josh Goldberg, CEO of Boulder Crest Foundation, explained how they spent the last six years looking for a Warrior PATHH location in Texas. In October 2020, he received what he thought was a potential “spam email” from Hawaiian, Lillian Watanabe, who wanted to build something in Texas.


“Rarely do you meet people like Lillian and Steve who not only do what they say they’re going to do but do it with heart and with passion and with kindness and with love and with energy,” Goldberg said.


Andrew Cox, retired U.S. Army captain and PATHH graduate, shared his personal experience in the Warrior PATHH program. He spent 13 years in the army and was a volunteer firefighter for several years.


“Capt. Charlie Plumb was a prisoner of war … for over six years, and he said prison was not the 8 feet between the walls, but the 8 inches between my ears,” Cox said. “Much like Capt. Plumb, I wasn’t stuck in a hole. I was stuck in my own head.”


Two of the hardest days of his life fell on Oct. 24, he said.


On his ninth birthday, Cox’s father flew the family on a small plane to Six Flags in Arlington to celebrate. Almost a month later, his father died in that same plane.


“I can remember almost every detail of that day,” he said. “Many people came by the house to pay their respects … they told me I needed to stay strong and help with my little brother and sister. That’s what I did. I buried my problems, and I stayed strong. That choice, that attitude and those actions would follow me for 37 years.”


In 2003, Cox was stationed in Samarra, Iraq, and led as a mortar platoon leader for his battalion. After staying up all night, he went to bed the morning of Oct. 24. A few hours later, he woke up to the sound of mortars leaving the area. He was told they were returning fire after an attack killed two of their soldiers. The mortars did not hit the intended destination but hit a residential area, injuring and killing women and children.


For years, Cox has carried the heavy weight of those two days. He “worked himself sick” to avoid thinking about it and lashed out verbally to those around him, he said.

He attended Warrior PATHH in September 2022 and left that weight behind during the labyrinth portion of the program.


“I picked up the two biggest rocks I could from that pile – one for each of those days,” Cox said. “I carried them, shed a few tears on them, and I tried to take all those thoughts – the guilt and shame – and transferred them to the core of those stones. When I got to the center of the labyrinth, I threw those rocks down as hard as I could, and I left it all there.”


Warrior PATHH is a free 90-day program that begins on a ranch. Six to eight participants will spend one week on the ranch, learning and growing together. Their classes and sessions then continue in a virtual format for the rest of the program. Once their program is finished, they can connect with other program graduates through an app called myPATHH and support one another.

Both male and female combat veterans and first responders involved in a critical incident are eligible to apply to the program.


Goldberg said they began building Warrior PATHH in 2014 based on the science of posttraumatic growth.

“We needed to create a new program that allowed folks not simply to better endure their suffering, to feel less bad, to manage their symptoms, to cope with life, to just survive,” Goldberg said. “We needed to create a program that was accessible, effective over the long haul and would allow members of these communities to live great lives.”


Every “key personnel” at Eagle Oak Retreat has attended Warrior PATHH themselves, Blakeslee said.

Avalon Action Alliance, a nonprofit that helps veterans and first responders navigate mental health battles, presented a $3 million check to the retreat at the ribbon cutting ceremony to help provide Warrior PATHH for the next five years.

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