INTRO: Firearm deer season starts Friday. For some hunters, it’s a thrill just getting in touch with nature. Others do it to get in touch with themselves. That’s where the DNR and some non-profit groups are helping out. They’re building an outdoor recreation camp to heal injured veterans. They want it to be a national model. More from Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus.
They’re calling it Camp Liberty. But right now it’s just an old 140 acre farm in Jackson County. Retired Air Force major Rick Briggs is walking on it.
“We’re hoping to have five veteran homes here like the Ronald McDonald Houses where the families can come and stay with their troops. We want to get a community program center built over there where the corn is right now.”
Major Briggs and his friend Allen Lutes have spent about $300,000 so far. A couple days ago they were using a cordless drill to screw together 4×4 posts. They were trying to finish a deer blind for opening day… November 15. They’re taking advice and donations from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, The Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and Safari Club International. They’ll get work for veterans through the non-profit group called Zero-Day in Lansing.
Allen Lutes describes how their caring for the land.
“Native prairie grasses. Restoring an oak savanna. Doing some work along the river to restore a wetland area sedge area that endangered species in Michigan can use. We have a three-year conservation effort with thousands of dollars invested to make this a model for conservation and wildlife.”
Their real goal is to make it a national model for soldiers with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Major Briggs started the Brain Injury Association of Michigan 6 years ago.
“Being outdoors for 4 or 5 days is therapeutic. It has a significant impact on their psychological well being, their social interaction, their willingness to help others and their willingness to listen to others.”
Michigan has sent 22,000 military people to Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s since the 9/11 attacks. Nationally, 1.6 million soldiers have been deployed in those two wars. The University of Michigan published a study this April.
It shows how meditation can heal the wounds of war. The ones inside. But the wounded have to act fast.
“It’s a diminishing window of opportunity. When it comes to rehabilitation on a brain injury. You want to do it sooner closer behind a brain injury. You can’t wait 20 years. I have a lot of Vietnam vets come to my pheasant hunts and fishing trips. They say hey Rick I got a brain injury from an explosion back in Vietnam. Well after 45 years the brain is already set. There’s coping and compensation things that can be taught. But they need to get the rehab soon.”
Wounded people can have trouble relaxing and trusting. Briggs says American veterans commit 26 suicides a month. He served during the 1970’s and shed tears at the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, D.C.
“You look at the Vietnam Memorial and you think there’s another three or four walls of suicides since Vietnam. We can’t afford that. The killed in action is one thing. But the suicides are something that we as a society can help. These young men have to know we care. We have to be there for them and we have to provide them the services.”
Briggs is getting help from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Russ Mason heads the DNR Wildlife Division.
“For a long time we’ve relied on the federal government and the veteran’s administration to do right. And they try but they stumble often and many times in sizable ways,” Mason said.
The DNR already operates the Sharonville State Game Area nearby. They want to connect it to Camp Liberty so veterans do more recreation. Mason spoke from his office in Lansing.
“We have lots of people coming back from our cultural perpetual war. And they need help and they need to stay in Michigan. It’s our moral responsibility to do right. The governor has got that and every legislator that I’ve talked to is thrilled by the possibility.”
Both Major Briggs and Russ Mason insist that Camp Liberty won’t just give soldiers more chances to shoot guns.
“Firearms are just one part of this. A guy could be an archery hunter. He could be a target shooter. Or he could just want a walk in the woods. I’ve run into guys, Vietnam veterans for example, I’m about that age, and they want nothing to do with firearms. They’ve shot plenty of guns in their life and they’ve got zero interest in them. But they do like to archery hunt.”
All 49 other states spend more than Michigan on veterans’ affairs. That’s what the DNR’s Russ Mason tells state legislators when he asks them to approve funding for this project.
“Could you look anyone in the idea and say we want to do better for veterans. We want to capitalize on Michigan’s natural resources. Now you tell me that’s a bad idea. And while you’re doing that I’m going to take your picture because you’ll be the only guy in the midwest or nationally who thinks this is a bad idea.”
Camp Liberty has frontage on the River Raisin between the towns of Napolean and Manchester. They’ll have canoe launches and 5 miles of hunting trails for deer, turkey, pheasants and rabbits. Any disabled person can use the Sharonville property. Camp Liberty is for veterans and anyone with brain injuries.