Melwood Veterans Services unveiled its new high ropes challenge course on Oct. 12, inviting recent graduates from its Operation Tohidu program for veterans recovering from service-related trauma to be among the first to use it.
“The high ropes course is the [program’s] peak activity,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Dave Blackledge, executive vice president of Melwood Veterans Services. “This is what we call the peak experience that [participants] have to really challenge themselves, reconnect with their inner warrior and really regain that confidence that in many cases they’ve lost.”
McCrea Equipment Company Inc. of Virginia donated $65,902 to construct the course, which will be used as the culminating event for participants in Operation Tohidu, a five-day retreat for retired and active-service military personnel who are struggling to recover from mental, physical and emotional trauma experienced during their service.
“Tohidu” is a Cherokee word that which means “peace of mind, body and spirit.”
“We use activities such as the ropes course to … get them out of their comfort zone but in a fun and controlled environment,” said Travis Hannon, Operation Tohidu’s director.
The new course includes a cargo net, “staple” ladder steps and a rock wall for climbing up, hanging logs and rope handles to cross and a zip line and arrested free-fall plunge to get back down. Participants clip on to safety lines and are guided by belays from the ground to ensure their safety throughout the course.
The course is located on Melwood’s 108-acre Nanjemoy campus, which also includes an equestrian facility, hiking trails, cabins for overnight stays and meeting spaces for corporate retreats.
Shane Lanhardt of McCrea said that every year the company designates a charity to receive the proceeds from its annual golf tournament fundraiser.
McCrea said he learned of Melwood and Operation Tohidu through George Watkins, the company’s accountant who also sits on Melwood’s board.
“We do a lot for veteran-based organizations,” Lanhardt said. “This one’s nice because it’s in our local community.”
Following the dedication and unveiling a plaque thanking McCrea and the Lanhardt family for making the ropes course possible, Melwood staff member Erica Smith demonstrated the course by climbing up the cargo net, traversing the hanging logs and riding the zip line down.
“It feels great,” said Smith after her rapid descent. “It’s a little scary standing up there, but once you get the air and you jump off, you feel yourself flying.”
Blackledge told the Maryland Independent that it has been his dream since joining Melwood two and a half years ago to have a “true world-class ropes course that has all kinds of opportunities to challenge the veterans in different ways.”
“The veterans that come through our program are all dealing with trauma that they’ve experienced in the military,” Blackledge said. “When we get them out here for the retreat, we start them off small, with small challenges [and] small risks, mentally, physically and emotionally and we build up to [bigger challenges] as the week progresses. We challenge them to get out of their comfort zone and do that. There’s something, a magic that happens psychologically when you’re being physically stressed and pushing yourself beyond what you thought.”
“The other thing that it does, frankly, for the warriors is it helps reconnect them to the fact that they are warriors and that they can do this,” Blackledge said. “We work a lot with goal-setting after they leave here. It’s like, ‘OK you did this, now how are you going to translate that kind of thing to your life? What kind of challenges are you going to push through in life?’”