The concept of the formation of Guardian Hills Veterans Healing Center began after the national tragedy on September 11, 2001. At that time, founding Board President Daniel Slawski, MD was in active practice as an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist. Prior to that, he had been a United States Air Force Medical Corps Major treating a wide variety of active-duty personnel, reservists, military dependents, retirees and former prisoners of war. With the onset of military action in Afghanistan, Iraq and other theaters of anti-terrorism operations, Dr. Slawski began to see more National Guard and Reserve members in his civilian practice who had been deployed, sometimes multiple times, and were returning with physical injuries as well as the signs of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). In addition, there were the tragic realities of combat deaths of local service members and veteran suicides. The stress on military families was obvious and palpable. These events compelled him to re-visit his own past. In addition to treating veterans of numerous conflicts, some of whom were dealing with the effects of PTS a half a century after the trauma, Dan’s own father was a World War II veteran who had lied about his age to enter the war at 14 years old. He survived the sinking of his ship in the North Atlantic by a German U-boat and endured Japanese kamikaze attacks off the coast of Okinawa, as well as other terrors, all before his 17th birthday. He returned from the war physically uninjured, but with the obvious behaviors common to PTS which would impact the family for decades. Further trauma would affect the family when Dan’s uncle, his father’s youngest brother, was killed in a U.S. Navy helicopter crash in 1964. Old wounds, as well as the new ones, were opened.
Christopher Lozano, another founding Board member and Dan’s long-time friend since school days, was also experiencing the impact of 9/11. A Marine, he began his career enlisted but would ultimately earn undergraduate and law degrees to return as a commissioned JAG and combat infantry officer. Chris deployed 3 times to Afghanistan and Iraq and experienced the realities of modern war and its physical and emotional injury first hand. After his final deployment, he retired as a lieutenant colonel and returned home to confront his own PTS and adjustment issues as well as those of young Marines in the St Louis area that he endeavored to assist.
Dan and Chris had remained in close contact through the years and after Chris’ return, they began to discuss what could be done to aid veterans returning with the weight of PTS and Moral Injury before it began to erode the fabric of their lives and families. Dan and his wife Jo had purchased a 750-acre farm in Northeast Missouri and the idea to somehow utilize this began to emerge. However, it was clear that a simple veterans outdoor activity or family recreation venue was not what was needed. Instead, a facility that would intervene and offer help and support to motivated veterans dealing with PTS and Moral Injury.
The use of recognized interventional modalities, progress tracking to learn how to develop more successful programs and seeking academic affiliations would broaden the scope of impact and knowledge. Accountability would be through local therapists, counselors and mentor support systems.
From researching, it became apparent that there were other existing short term, high impact residential PTS treatment facilities, but with limited availability for the Midwest. In discussions with these facilities, and with other professionals treating veterans with PTS, it became obvious that there is a significant need for more centers.
After extensive research to determine the financial feasibility of constructing and operating such a facility, Guardian Hills Veterans Healing Center was formed as a Missouri Not For Profit Corporation in 2018 and was granted Federal 501(c)(3) status in 2019.
Representatives from the Veterans Administration, nationally recognized experts in PTS treatment and regional therapists are assisting in the development of curriculum for the initial programs. Land for construction was deeded from the Northeast Missouri farm, with plans to donate further portions of the property to Guardian Hills as programs and services expand. Dr. Slawski fully retired from medical practice to devote his undivided time and efforts to making Guardian Hills a reality. Veterans John Glenn and Alexandria Harris, Ed.S., MSW, LCSW were added to the Board of Directors and bring substantial expertise in both veterans’ affairs and charitable fundraising. Private donations, spearheaded by a $1 million grant from The Veterans United Foundation, have allowed the project to move forward. The facility building site clearance was completed in August, 2021 with construction beginning in Spring 2022.
Barring any unforeseen delays, the initial program retreats are tentatively planned for Spring/Summer 2024. Guardian retreat application portals will be added to the website in the near future as the facility completion timeline is firmly established.