Veterans return to help a couple that helped them heal

Jason Nark, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Lifestyles

They came to split and stack wood, to weed the garden and wrangle goats, a simple way to give thanks to a couple that gave them hope again.

Todd Gladfelter watched the workers, mostly men who served in the military and suffered afterward, from his wheelchair on a Sunday afternoon in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.

Gladfelter, 63, had slipped off a nearby shed on Black Friday in 2021 and broke three vertebrae in his neck. The fall left him paralyzed on the right side with only partial movement on the left. Gladfelter was a master woodsman, a chainsaw-carving artist more at home under the stars than a roof, and the fall broke his spirit too.

Cindy Ross, his wife and lifelong hiking partner, made him rebuild the broken things he could fix, though.

“She made me work,” Gladfelter, 63, said on this Sunday in April. “She makes me work every day.”

In 2014, Gladfelter and Ross founded River House, a nonprofit that helps take veterans into nature for healing through hiking, biking, kayaking, and camping. Three years ago, Ross authored a book, Walking Toward Peace: Veterans Healing on America’s Trails , that tells the stories of 25 veterans searching for solace in the outdoors.


Since Gladfelter’s fall, some of those same veterans have returned to the couple’s cabin in the woods to clear brush, mow the lawn, or simply have meals and laugh together.

“It helps me not to be alone. I spent a lot of time in inpatient treatment at the VA and when I left, I was all by myself again. There was like nobody that understood me, anywhere,” said Mike Peterman, 41, a bomb technician who served in Afghanistan with the Army. “Then I came here and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not just me.’ It’s helpful and makes it easy to come back. I’m helping because they made it easier for me.”

Veteran Ramon Madrid, 39, piled logs high into a wheelbarrow, back and forth from a pickup truck to a woodshed behind the cabin. Madrid served in the Army, doing two tours in Iraq before being assigned to a security and cleanup detail in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“That had its own challenges, because I grew up there, and you have to transition from a combat zone,” he said.


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