When Wilderness Boot Camps Take Tough Love Too Far

“Every time I’d have a seizure, they’d punish me for it,” he says. “I woke up one day outside in the dirt with a terrible headache, and I asked one of the other students, ‘Why am I in the dirt? Why am I hurting so bad?’ And he said that I’d had a seizure, and one of the staff members told me to stop faking or he was going to kick me in the head. I was having a seizure, and I wasn’t coherent, so he came and kicked me in the head. I was still having a seizure, so he decided to throw me off the porch. They would also punish me by giving me up-down exercises, and circuits, which means an hour of straight running and other exercises. They wouldn’t let me sleep, either, because I snore, and they gave my roommate permission to dump a pitcher of water on me every time I snored.”

Carlsen now suffers from chronic epilepsy and is considered officially disabled, something he says wouldn’t have happened if he had been treated when he first started exhibiting symptoms.

“My condition has worsened to the point where I have them all the time,” he says. “I’m not allowed to drive or have a normal job. I couldn’t join the military like I had wanted to. In fact, I can’t do about 80 percent of the things I want to do, because it’s too much of a liability. If I had been taken to a doctor, or fed better food and not worked like a slave, things would be different.”

Scott Chandler has not responded to three emails and three phone calls asking for comment over the course of several months.

Neglect and abuse at wilderness programs have sometimes proven to be fatal. Cynthia Harvey, who is now a board member at ASART, lost her daughter Erica in 2002 when she was sent to the Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Program, which was closed in 2012. Harvey says Erica died because she was denied water and shelter from the heat of the Nevada desert.

“After we got the autopsy results … we finally understood that she had been exhibiting signs of hyperthermia for many hours before she died, and they ignored her or told her she was being defiant,” says Harvey. “There was this cascading series of incompetence about her death. After she went down, the counselors didn’t touch her or try to help her. They observed her for something like an hour when they finally realized she was basically in her death throes, after which they tried to perform CPR … the only reason we got this information is because we sued. It was probably two to three years before we had a clear understanding of the actual sequence of events. They came out through depositions.”

Although there was an investigation, no criminal charges were ultimately filed against the program, just as in the Tierra Blanca case.

“From what I understand … this information has gone all the way up to the governor of New Mexico, to the State Police,” says Carla Moffat, Bruce’s mother. “There was a special investigative unit formed—and they continue to say there isn’t enough information to do anything about it.”

New Mexico State Police denied requests for comment.

*  *  *

The Bobcats, an all-female group of students at Redcliff Ascent, sit under a tarp at their campsite to escape the heat. They’re grubby-faced and streaked with dirt, but the mood is light-hearted. Some of the girls are working on their fire-making equipment, while one of them practices making a coal with her bow and spindle. She’s overjoyed when she manages to produce a single glowing ember.

“That’s my fourth fire,” she says. “Now I get honey.”

The students earn honey, as well as spices and other food, after meeting fire-making quotas. Fires also allow them to move up in the phases of Redcliff’s therapy, which is how they progress towards graduation.

“Most days, we hike,” says Maddy, one of the girls. All of them preferred not to use their last names to protect their privacy. “We wake up, do the breakfast process, which involves cleaning our hands faces and feet; then we cook breakfast on our little stoves. Then once that’s done, we pack up all of our stuff and do our camp chores, and make it look like nobody’s ever been here. Then we put our packs on our backs and hike, anywhere from three to 15 miles … and at first, we don’t even have the real packs. You have to earn those, so when you first get here, you have a tarp, and you put all your stuff in it and roll it up into a ball that has straps, and that’s what we carry.”

“Doesn’t matter if we’re sick,” one of the other girls says. “If we’re puking, if we have diarrhea, we still hike.”

Brandi Heiner, a Redcliff counselor, rolls her eyes. “It’s not that dramatic. If you guys are really sick, we send you on a med run.”

Later, Nicole, a new addition to the Bobcats, talks quietly in a clearing a few feet away from the campsite. Her hair is fashioned into two long braids, and she’s wearing a red jumpsuit with the sleeves rolled up to reveal dozens of horizontal scars on her arms.

“I’m in a red suit because I overreacted,” she says. “I told them I was going to hang myself with a pack cord. I didn’t really mean it; I just wanted them to send me to the hospital, because I’d rather be anywhere but here … but I’m really disappointed that I did this to myself. I put myself here. No one else did. My mom did it because she cared. I’m not saying it’s a bad place here, but it’s not a place you want to be.”

After the sun sinks over the mountains, three of the girls who have been at Redcliff longer sit cross-legged in a circle. Asked what brought them there, they all flash sheepish smiles.

“I started smoking weed a long time ago, when I was 14, and it kind of just progressed into other things,” one says. “I hung around kids who were doing heroin, and I tried it once myself. All my friends were doing meth and smack, and they weren’t good people to be around. I wasn’t going to school, and I just didn’t have any direction in my life.”

The two others have similar stories, and they say despite their initial dislike of the program, Redcliff has taught them how to live more meaningful, responsible lives.

“I never really focused on life … now I’m noticing the little things that I do in the present,” says Penny, another senior Bobcat. “It just makes me think how much time I wasted on the outs.”

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Sulome Anderson

Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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