Malibu nonprofit brings troubled soldiers back from the edge

Save a warrior

In 2012, more U.S. service men and women committed suicide than were killed in battle – at the rate of almost one a day. Military suicides increased nearly 16 percent from 2011 to 2012, veterans beset with staggering PTSD and complicated adjustments to ‘normal life’ after the fog of war. But one Malibu organization is looking to help turn those alarming statistics around. 

Malibu local Ronald “Jake” Clark heads the nonprofit Save A Warrior, whose goal is to give hopeless and despairing vets a unique experience of mindful transformation, which quickly processes combat drama and gives a soldier the tools to embrace life again. 

“I began to see a lot of problems in 2008 with returning veterans,” Clark, who served with the Army, the Secret Service and the FBI, and did a stint in the National Guard, said. “I wanted to do something to help these guys who were coming back and didn’t see any answers.” 

What he did was design a “six-day war detox” based on transcendental meditation, education and motivation, and ran 10 strangers through it. All had served in the military and all had attempted suicide at least once. 

Housing the participants at Calamigos Ranch and Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu, Clark puts his cohorts through a weeklong experience of yoga, rope climbing, team-building, meditation, equine therapy, labyrinth-walking and, most importantly, Clark said, unconditional positive regard. 

“The combination of mindful meditation, conscious support and different therapies gives a safe feeling of no longer being isolated,” Clark said. “These guys show up on edge and have their minds blown. I had one kid show up taking 11 medications a day. By Tuesday night, he was able to go to sleep without taking any meds for the first time in years. Within 11 weeks, he was off meds completely.” 

Whatever the magic being employed, Clark’s war detox camp—Clark prefers to call it “The Project”—opened last November and has rendered scores of vets who claim their lives have been transformed. Even the LAPD is spreading the word, as many combat vets return to job opportunities in law enforcement. 

Jaren Scotto, an Army Specialist who served in Iraq and ended his military career in 2010, suffered from severe depression. When he heard about Clark’s program, he was “one hundred percent skeptical,” he said. 

“A lot of nonprofits are just frauds,” Scotto, of Save A Warrior’s 001st cohort, continued. “And most combat vets are not going to be open to TM (transcendental meditation). But Jake has a tough, no-BS approach to a bunch of tough, no-BS guys. It’s a week of grounding yourself and just, well, finding peace. The Project blew me away and I’ve recommended it to all my combat buddies.” 

Clark said the logistics of the program came together in “either a divinely inspired or totally delusional” way. Suzi Landolphi, clinical director at Malibu’s Big Heart Ranch, has facilitated equine (horse) therapy for years as a means to treat troubled youth and veterans with anxiety disorders. Clark says her therapy is an essential part of The Project’s success. 

“All I do is bring these guys to the animals and the horses do the rest,” Landolphi, who is a licensed therapist, said. “What happens is that all those coping mechanisms we use to fight others just melts. You have to be authentic to reach horses and it translates well into life.”

As part of their ‘camp’ activities, the group of men spends a week relaxing in the hills of Malibu, dining at local restaurants and attending top local entertainment. Cohorts have attended shows at the Mark Taper Forum, LACMA and Dodger games (where one cohort, Jonathan Hernandez, sang the National Anthem before a game). 

Clark combines team-building activities like wall climbing with mind-calming physical activity, such as walking labyrinths and mandalas, with a constant emphasis on brotherhood, connectivity and a commitment to paying it forward as a means to encouraging damaged men in a journey back to peace. Most arrive at The Project with little expectation. 

“Meditation?” Dave Thomas, who served 59 months in Iraq and Afghanistan before becoming a private military contractor, asked. “I’m from the country and we laugh at people who do that. But I saw complete changes in these guys’ faces from the first day of the program till a week later. Their actual features changed. They lost wrinkles. The Project just gets you to thinking differently. You’re calmer.”