Rich and Stacey Lopez Co-founders
A ‘Safe Place’ for Returning
Written by: Sabrina Jones Federal Aviation Administration
The couple served for decades in the Air Force, completing tours in Saudi Arabia and Iraq before reuniting with their children. “When we came back, things were not the same for us,” recalled Ables-Lopez, a management and program assistant at the Los Angeles Tower. “For me, it was just like I was in a different place. It wasn’t home anymore.”
Unexplained outbursts of anger and other damaging behaviors strained their marriage. The family moved from their home in Las Vegas to central California. “My husband needed a drastic change. We went to a place we weren’t familiar with. It was very stressful.”
The challenges, punctuated by symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), recently inspired the couple to start a new nonprofit organization named Vet-REACH, https://www.vet-reach.org/ — an acronym for Veterans Reuniting and Coming Home —that aims to provide activities, counseling, and other support to veterans and their families. The co-founders are preparing to launch a fundraising campaign to raise $50,000 through private donations and individual and corporate sponsorships in 50 days to support 50 families, providing them an all-expense paid stay of three days and two nights at The Retreat on Charleston Peak, a mountainous Nevada resort.
their families,” Ables-Lopez said, adding that the experience is designed to give service members a “new outlook on life.”
“We felt we could offer veterans a safe place to come to reconnect with
That new outlook includes addressing persistent risks involving the mental health of veterans. The nonprofit’s third co-founder, Sharon Walling, a family friend, lost her husband following his return from Vietnam in 1967. Three years after returning home, he committed suicide.
Such tragedies are not uncommon. The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimated that there were more than 6,000 suicides committed by veterans each year from 2008 to 2016, according to a VA report, https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/mentalhealth/suicide_prevention/data.asp. About 20 veterans commit suicide per day, according to VA estimates. The department’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA) established a national hotline in 2007 to support veterans.
Ables-Lopez is no stranger to being in need of such assistance. “People are reaching the end of their rope,” she said. “They’re in despair. It’s a very dark place. I’ve been in that dark place.” She served for 10 years in the Air Force, including six months in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. After later working at the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Justice, she joined the FAA in September 2018.
Her husband, a 20-year Air Force veteran, also worked for the FAA as a controller in California after his military retirement in 2006. After his return home from Iraq, he turned to alcohol to cope with psychological pressures. Although he attended a post-deployment reunion briefing, he was still unprepared for the traumatic aftermath of his time in a war zone.
“After I got back from Iraq in 2006, things were kind of strange there for a while,” Rich Lopez said. He recounted going to a party in Nevada days after he had spent time in an evacuation tent with wounded soldiers. “No one was interested in what was going on over there. Things piled up. I ended up having to go to anger management training.”
He encourages other veterans to share their stories and the struggles they face. “The stigma surrounding mental health is real. It’s good to get treatment for your symptoms. It’s good to talk to somebody and to get it off your chest.”
There will be mental health professionals and other experts on hand during Vet-REACH’s programs to offer classes to guests, their spouses, and children. In addition, the resort plans to offer a special menu to guests and their families. “They will be treated like kings and queens, to quote the owner of the hotel,” Lopez said.
The organization is centered in southern Nevada where they were both stationed at Nellis Air Force Base. “We’re familiar with the Air Force,” Ables-Lopez said. “That’s where we’re starting — We’re starting small.”
The relationships formed with other veterans should also be long-lasting, she added. “We hope to stay in contact with people. We want to reach out and see how people are doing.
“We want to be a good statistic.”