It was a warm summer evening and Lisa Dunster and her husband Sean were hosting a dinner party at their suburban Cincinnati home. Lisa was peeling some vegetables with a knife in the kitchen when Sean came inside to see how Lisa was doing. She didn’t hear him enter, and when he walked up behind her, he startled her. That was the moment life changed.
Lisa instinctively spun and swung the knife. It grazed Sean on the chin. After a moment of sheer terror, she returned to her senses and dropped the knife. As she stood there, motionless, reality began to set in—the reality of what she almost did to her husband and the reality that the person she had once been was still alive inside her.
Early in their marriage, Lisa had what she laughingly calls a “sick romance with the military.” She joined the National Guard and was sent to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Her deployment only lasted six months, but six months of war is more than enough.
“I knew I wasn’t the same person,” she says. “I knew too much. I saw too much. The innocent girl who went over there was gone. The entire flight home I kept worrying, ‘What if my family doesn’t love the girl I’ve become?’ ”
She came home and changed careers. She earned her MEd in 1997 and spent the next 14 years teaching. But what she couldn’t change was the dark side of war that comes home with veterans.
“There’s an unwritten code that you don’t talk about war,” she says. “That’s wrong. That’s why the Vietnam vets ended up the way they did. So when Sept. 11 happened, I looked at Sean and told him I had to do something or we were going to have an even bigger problem than in Vietnam.”
It took a while, but in 2008 Dunster left teaching and started the Compass Retreat Center, a nonprofit business that helps vets and their families readjust to life at home.
“Having worked in education, I was familiar with the ripple effect that problems at home can have on children,” Dunster says. “So our niche is that we bring them to camp as families. And it works.”
It’s also free. Dunster says the vets already paid their dues and charging them to attend would not be fair. It’s a financial challenge, but she’s not backing down. “There’s more than enough need,” she says. “We could run the camp year round.”