Healing, growing in northern Wisconsin

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In 2010, Stephen Parker – a 100-percent service-connected, combat injured U.S. Navy veteran – came to Camp American Legion in northern Wisconsin to help deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder. But the help he went seeking has now become the help he delivers to fellow veterans.

After his experience at the camp, Parker became a volunteer and has spent the past three summers serving as a boat captain and fishing guide at the 74-acre facility that delivers rehabilitation, recuperation and rest not only for Wisconsin veterans, but for their families, active-duty servicemembers and – in some cases – surviving families of fallen servicemembers.

"When I saw the other veterans here, I thought I could help them," Parker said as the 2013 camp season came to a close. "The thing about veterans is we are a family. Most veterans are very quiet about where they’ve been and what they’ve done. But when they sit around with other veterans and integrate with them, it helps them drop their guard.

"Combat is not a cool thing. No good comes out of it. Some of those feelings you get from what you’ve experienced never goes away. But when you can be around other veterans, you sort of feel safe. It’s about healing and growing, and this place offers that."

Camp American Legion has been providing that safety net since the department acquired the property in 1925. Originally open only to Wisconsin veterans and open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, demand has since changed that. This year, the camp opened May 6 – there still was ice on Big Carr Lake, where the camp is located – and closed Sept. 22.

Along with its season, the camp’s reach also has grown. Department of Wisconsin Commander Ken Rynes, a past chairman of the Camp American Legion Committee, felt a need existed to increase the camp’s target audience, resulting in expanding camp eligibility. Any Wisconsin veteran or active-duty servicemember with a physician-documented physical or psychological illness, injury or disability, active-duty military who have returned from a deployment within the past nine months, and any surviving family member of a servicemember killed in the past year are eligible to attend the camp. When a veteran or servicemember requires a caregiver, the caregiver also is eligible to attend.

The camp consists of:

• 22 fully furnished cabins (90 beds) complete with heat, air conditioning, full bath, sun rooms and decks;

• A complete dining facility that serves three full meals a day;

• A Health and Wellness Center;

• A craft shop;

• A chapel; and

• Laundry services and provided toiletries.

There are a variety of weeks – campers stay from 10 a.m. Monday to 10 a.m. Sunday – focusing on a specific condition or situation. This season, those themes included a week dedicated to families of fallen servicemembers, a week focusing on veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder/traumatic brain injuries, a week for blind or vision-impaired veterans, a week for veterans with diabetes, a week for homeless veterans, a women veterans week, a substance abuse week and a peer support week.

The camp also worked with an Army Wounded Warrior and Marine Wounded Warrior Regiment to put together a Wounded Warrior Week for severely wounded servicemembers injured during overseas operations since 9-11. Camp American Legion also has developed a collaborative relationship with the Wisconsin National Guard and reserve, Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities, and other veterans service organizations such as Dryhootch, the Center for Veterans Issues and Band of Brother & Sisters.

"The camp has a phenomenal history, and it’s a history that everyone should be very proud of," Camp Director Kevin Moshea said. "And over the past 3-4 years, the camp has gone through a reorganization that’s included some dynamic changes. We’ve shifted from just physical recovery to mental, psychological, emotional … even spiritual."

Moshea, who just finished his fifth summer as camp director, has deep ties to the camp. A member of Lake Tomahawk’s Legion Post 120 – which owns several rental cabins on the other side of County Road D across from Camp American Legion – Moshea used to stay in one of the rental cabins with his father. "I’ve been coming here since I was 10 years old," Moshea said. "Camp American Legion has been a part of my life for 50-some years."

It’s a labor of love for Moshea and his paid staff of five. Moshea works year-round at the camp – he actually lives in one of its cabins – while the other five staff positions start in April and end in October.

One of those staff members, cook Darrell Mittlesteadt, is one of two cooks responsible for providing three meals a day for a camp population that can at times include 90 campers, along with staff and volunteers. A veteran of the restaurant business, Mittlesteadt gets a lot of joy from his hard work. "It’s absolutely amazing how many campers come to the kitchen door and say, ‘Thank you. I had a great time,’" he said. "It’s nice to hear that, and it’s nice to be able to help them in some way."

The camp’s paid staff receives critical support from its many volunteers each season. "Camp would not be able to function at the high level it does without our volunteers," Moesha said. "On any given week we have five male and two female volunteers. All of our volunteers are veterans who came through the camp as campers. Something internal happens when they go through the camp to where now they want to be a part of things here. When they come here, they’re here to help someone else. It’s hard work, draining work. But we do it."

And being able to help a fellow veteran is worth it to volunteers like Parker. "That’s really the payoff – to be able to give back," he said. "We had a group this summer where 50 percent of the guys were in wheelchairs. One of the older gentlemen grabbed my arm and said ‘Thank you.’ I asked him ‘for what?’ and he told me that he was a Vietnam veteran, had no family and had been institutionalized. He was just happy to get away from that for awhile."

More than 1,000 campers went through Camp American Legion during 2013. None of them – or their families/caregivers – paid a cent to attend. The Department of Wisconsin allocates $250,000 a year for the camp; donations also account for 30 percent of its operating budget.

Posts, counties and districts "adopt" cabins and are responsible for the upkeep. Donations also are delivered in the form of pontoon boats, food – "all major capital investments," Rynes said.

The state of Wisconsin had contributed $10,000 yearly to the camp, but during an August visit to Camp American Legion by Wisconsin Secretary of Veterans Affairs John Scocos, the secretary presented the camp with a check for $50,000. "Camp American Legion provides a valuable service to Wisconsin veterans and their families in a relaxing and restful atmosphere," Scocos said in a press release. "I think we can all agree that veterans deserve the very best our state can offer. I am pleased to be able to provide this additional funding to Camp American Legion and the veterans and their families who come to enjoy this beautiful camp."

The huge increase in the sum of the grant spoke volumes, Rynes said. "We know we are on the right course," he said. "The state sees this as a privately run, efficient use of taxpayer dollars."

Rynes said he hopes the word continues to get out about what is a diamond among Department of Wisconsin Legionnaires. "It’s a serious source of provide, but also a bit of a source of frustration in a good way," he said. "People still don’t know about this place. We need to change that. This place has been growing by leaps and bounds, but it’s also still in its infancy."

Moshea agreed, noting that the camp always is looking toward the future – which could include a week dedicated to military children and one to a marriage program.

"Three or four years ago, when we started doing all these new programs, all of those were just a dream," Moshea said. "They’ve all become reality. Dreams do come true if you work hard enough."