DUMMERSTON, Vt. — It wasn’t an easy childhood for Aaron Phillips. Nor was it an easy war — the First Gulf War, when he deployed twice with the U.S. Marines. And it wasn’t easy dealing with some of the souvenirs he dragged back from that war — night terrors, hyper-vigilance and a very short fuse.
But he’s able to face that past because of what he calls a transformative experience in 2014 when he participated in an innovative program called The Warrior Connection. The Dummerston nonprofit organization offers one-week retreats to help veterans address their post-traumatic stress. He’s now the program’s executive director, and a man on a mission — to see the program expand, to raise additional funding and support from both this region and nationally, and, hopefully, to establish an official relationship as a preferred provider of services for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I wear a lot of hats,” says the engaging 44-year-old native Californian. “I’m the executive director, the program director, the marketing director and the fundraiser, all in one.” It’s easy to see how he has the energy to perform all these roles, as he’s a fit, trim, 6-foot, 196-pound vegan who exudes vitality and salesmanship.
The Warrior Connection is the brainchild of Anne Black, a Dummerston psychologist who for years has helped people deal with grief, trauma and loss. Phillips works closely with Black, who is the primary facilitator and trainer at the retreat, which is starting its eighth year on 11 acres Black owns on Park Laughton Road. More than 400 people have matriculated through the one-week program, he says, with six to eight sessions hosted every year.
The participants are almost all veterans, men and women, with occasional spouses of veterans who suffer from PTSD.
“The common denominator of those who participate is suffering,” he says.
Phillips says the job seems to be custom-fit for him. Black couldn’t agree more.
“Aaron was the answer to my dreams,” Black says. “Here, we are meeting on that bridge, veterans and civilians. He has the energy and passion for this work and goes well above and beyond the call of duty. He’s very concerned about veterans and their families.”
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the program is to describe Phillips’ own story, leading to where he is now.
He was born in Santa Cruz, Calif., but his mother and father separated when he was very young. It was a tumultuous parting of ways, he says.
He moved with his mother to Colorado, where he had behavioral problems and frequently got into trouble. By age 13, he’d been delivered home by the police three times.
“The last incident convinced her to send me away to live with my father,” a policeman in Salinas, Calif. “I was 13 years old, and when I got off the plane, my father said he wasn’t going to carry my bags.”
It wasn’t a good environment for him. “I was not welcome in the house,” he says, mainly because of his father’s wife — his mother’s former best friend.
“On my 17th birthday, he said to me that in 364 days, I wouldn’t be there; I’d be on my own. I didn’t fit in. I was trying to figure out how I could get by, how I was going to support myself.”
He met with a recruiter for the Marines. “I was looking for a sense of belonging, and his pitch was pretty clear.”
He signed on.
After basic training at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, Phillips was eventually deployed to the Persian Gulf, where he served two tours as a communications specialist with a reconnaissance brigade. “We were the bait in the trap; we pinned them down,” he explains. His division acted as a feint to fool Saddam Hussein’s troops into moving in one direction while the primary coalition forces were moving in from the opposite direction in a successful pincer movement.
In all, he served six years in the Marines, and two years in the Marine Reserves.
When he returned to civilian life, he attended the police academy in California and worked at Home Depot in the evenings. “Home Depot kept promoting me,” he says, and he enjoyed working in retail, leaving a possible career in law enforcement behind.
He rose through the ranks at Home Depot, then switched jobs to Circuit City, where he also climbed the ladder. “It was through working in retail that I got my business acumen,” he notes.
At the time, he would not have characterized himself as suffering from PTSD. Nevertheless, he was displaying its symptoms; he just didn’t realize it. He was angry, with a flash temper. And there were night terrors, too, where he’d awaken shaking and sweating. He also experienced what’s called hyper-vigilance, an anxiety spawned by the constant readiness needed on the battlefield.
He quit his job at Circuit City. “I was tired of retail.”
He then spent six years with the firm Equinox, a high-end national fitness and training company. His specialty was designing wellness programs for Fortune 500 companies like Facebook and Wells Fargo.
Through this job, he found himself at a leadership dinner hosted by Google. There, he fell into conversation with a former F-18 pilot who had also served in the Gulf. “He told me I should meet Anne Black. He said she was working with veterans suffering from PTSD,” he recalls.
“I just shut down, right there. I said to myself, ‘I’m not broken. I don’t need help. I’m not interested.’ ”
On the battlefield, Phillips explains, no one wants to appear to be the weakling — everyone’s in the same boat, and you deal with it. But back in civilian life, it doesn’t work that way. The transition can be rocky and isolating.
Phillips says he never filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs for service-related injuries. “A lot of the guys getting out were making false claims, and I told myself I wasn’t going to take advantage of the system.”
Still, he suspected he was suffering from something. With the encouragement of others — specifically, a girlfriend at the time and his father, who was by then living in Ohio — he decided maybe he should seek help. He contacted Black.
“Anne called me. She has the compassion of a saint. She’s able to make you feel safe, and in a very short time, I was opening up to her. She invited me to visit. I kept making excuses, but she called me again two weeks before a retreat and asked me to be a participant. I said I’d go, and I booked my plane ticket that night.”
He didn’t have any expectations that the retreat would be worth his time.
But “it was nothing short of a transformational experience,” he says. “I found out that the common denominator was broken relationships in my life. That was me. That week made a big difference; that week allowed me to face myself.”
Phillips says his PTSD symptoms, though exacerbated by battlefield experience, were really part of a lifelong quilt of traumas that started in early childhood.
“Oftentimes, it’s experiences from life; it’s not always PTSD from a war zone. There are other stressors on your life. Seventy percent of those with PTSD have traumatic childhood experiences,” he says. “What we do is help vets restructure those things that have kept us in the corner, that those experiences can be turned around to be the things that bring you back into the light.”
After his own retreat experience, he became a mentor for future groups, working as a facilitator leading some retreats and eventually becoming The Warrior Connection’s executive director. The organization includes some paid positions, as well as volunteers and a board of directors.
Phillips spends from April to October in Dummerston, then returns to his wife, Colette, and young daughter Elle in San Jose, Calif., for the rest of the year.
Potential retreat participants are screened before they’re approved for enrollment, according to Phillips, and pay only $150. “It costs approximately $2,500 for us to run one vet through the program,” he says, making the case that they need more funding sources to continue.
Phillips explains that when veterans go to the VA for PTSD treatment, what often happens is they’re given prescriptions for medications, and the root causes of the condition aren’t addressed. Not so at the retreat, he says, where the issues are treated holistically.
“I know I’ve found life’s purpose in this work,” he says. “Truly, I get so much from those that I serve, watching the light come back into their eyes. I do this because it feels so damn good.”