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Program has unusual methods to help troops handle stress

OCEANSIDE — Farmer and marriage and family therapist Bob Bornt has a unique approach to helping active duty military cope with the post traumatic stress of war. Operation Recovery combines hands-on gardening and building projects with guided self-awareness to help troops recognize and change-stress related behavior.
“The majority of active duty have post traumatic stress disorder from combat operational stress,” Bornt said.
Bornt’s approach takes a look at stress triggers and the ways troops cope.
In the military, there is no room for emotional fallout. The military trains troops to hold up under extreme stress. “If you are a good Marine, you are capable,” Bornt said.
To survive on the battlefield, military troops build a culture of attachment. “They are bonded at a level civilians can’t ever appreciate,” Bornt said. “A man will say, ‘I’ll take your bullet.’” That high level of trust can seldom be replicated and creates a wall of distrust when therapists try to help.
When troops return to the U.S., society places its own stigmas on mental health issues, Bornt said. Troops risk being seen as weak if they admit to needing help. “They all have some concern about being exposed,” he added.
Bornt feels post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is underdiagnosed and the military bureaucratic system is overwhelmed in dealing with it when it is recognized in troops.
Bornt said common methods of therapy examine memories and give coping strategies that make things appear to be OK. “It looks like healing if you don’t know what you’re looking at,” Bornt said.
The danger in training people to think happy thoughts without recognizing emotional triggers is that they can keep crashing emotionally and become hopeless, according to Bornt.
Hopelessness can lead to suicide. Military troops want to stay in control and may reach a point where they would rather kill themselves before subjecting someone to the hopelessness they feel, Bornt said, and he works to reduce that risk.
Bornt helps patients self-examine neurological issues that trigger their behaviors.
Operation Recovery participants meet up at organic vegetable gardens at Mission San Luis Rey and Tierra Miguel Farms. Hands-on activities in a nonclinical setting build safety, trust and honest communication.
While working and interacting in the group, participants’ actions mirror underlying emotions and create an opportunity for Bornt to talk to troops about what is going on mentally.
“You have to be real to plant a tomato or notice you just stepped on something gooey,” Bornt said.
Simple reactions give Bornt an opportunity to ask questions and nudge troops to recognize their behaviors. It might be the sound of gunfire or a bag on the side of the road that triggers a deep emotional response.
“If we’re all sitting in the shade and a guy sits five feet away, what keeps him five feet over there?” Bornt said. “I can address it without exciting it.”
In the case of the man sitting apart from the group, Bornt works to build his comfort with inclusion. “I help him know the space and what it does to him,” Bornt said. In following sessions, the man sits progressively closer to the group. “If he moves three to four feet and freaks out, he can move back a bit,” Bornt said. The process keeps the participant’s attention on his actions and feelings. “The core begins to change,” Bornt said. “You learn you don’t have to have that level of reaction.”
“We’re designed to be in relationships,” Bornt said. Others give us a sense of who we are.
Operation Recovery has been in operation for two years and has served approximately 50 troops and their spouses. Groups usually meet weekly for eight-sessions, with additional meetings as needed.
Bornt hopes to find a large, permanent site for the program so he can offer longer, more intense sessions that can extend for a weekend or a month.
Bornt relies on private donations to keep the program operating. He invites people to see the therapeutic program in action, but does not ask participants to be spokespeople for Operation Recovery. “I can’t use them as a poster child, it’s not right,” Bornt said.
For more information on Operation Recovery, visit