SAUK CENTRE, Minn. — The vets, some yawning, others clutching packs of cigarettes, trickle into a sun-splashed room for morning meditation. Some survived war long ago, others have fresh memories of combat.
All have struggled. For some, it's been alcohol or pills. For others, it's post-traumatic stress disorder. Young or old, these vets have similar stories: Substance abuse. Failed marriages. Legal troubles.
"Do not feel bad about your weaknesses," one vet reads to the others. Then the men file out to jobs in town, to the barn to feed the horses or to the solitude of small, dorm-like rooms.
So begins another day at the Eagle's Healing Nest, the labor of love of a woman who is the daughter, wife and mother of military men. Down the winding road, past squawking chickens and statues of soldiers decorating the lawn, 47 vets who've stumbled in life are trying to regain their footing. The goal is to mend — then go home.
Behind every door here, there's a story.
Dan Klutenkamper has been haunted by survivor's guilt and feelings of hopelessness after three Army tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Keith Castle, a former Navy man still harboring ugly memories of Vietnam a half-century earlier, is hoping to stay sober and deal with anger that has tormented him for decades.
Rick Sorquist, an Air Force vet and medic in Afghanistan, is looking for a new start after the collapse of his marriage and end of his military career led him back to the bottle.
They and dozens more — veterans of war and peacetime — share their meals, their lives and their longing for better days.
"They have each other to turn to at a place and at a pace with people who understand what they've endured," says Melony Butler, the retreat's 47-year-old founder. "They hold each other accountable just like they did on the battlefield. This is their comfort zone."
Butler has been around vets all her life.
Her stepfather, Charles Pounds, never rebounded from the darkness of his days in Vietnam. He was hospitalized on and off for psychiatric problems. On Father's Day in 1996, he killed himself.
About a decade later, while working as a volunteer at a family readiness program for the Minnesota National Guard, Butler saw a new generation of soldiers coming home in turmoil. Around that time, her husband, Blaine, then a Guardsman, was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two sons also fought with the Guard. One served in Afghanistan, but it was when the other, who returned from Iraq. that the war's toll hit home. "He called me in the middle of the night and asked me to promise him to take care of his babies," she recalls. "He begged me to die."
Her son got help, she says, and is now recovering slowly. But his plight got Melony Butler thinking: What if she opened a small boarding house for vets, a place where they could heal?
Her plan grew more ambitious when she leased part of a closed state-run school in this quaint north-central Minnesota community, best known for its famous son, Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel Prize-winning author. Two years ago, with personal savings and some small donations, the Eagle's Healing Nest opened its doors on 124 acres of rolling farm fields.
Vets can ride horses, tend to farm chores, work if they want, then return at night.
Iraq veteran Tane Anderson, 44, spent two months there this year, following treatment by the Veterans Administration for addiction to alcohol and pain killers. He also had three years of mental health care.
The bucolic setting "calmed my spirit ...," says Anderson, now retired from the Army. "I could heal at my own pace. I had enough freedom where if I didn't discipline myself, I could have failed. I was free to fail on my own, but I was free to succeed on my own."
More than 250 vets, from 19 to 89, have passed through the Nest's doors. They've fought in conflicts from World War II to Afghanistan and Iraq or served in peacetime. Some have been medal winners, others received dishonorable discharges. Some stay a few nights, others longer.
All are asked to pay $35 a day but no one is turned away. State funds are available for some who can't afford to pay.
The men occupy two dorm-like buildings and a third will open for 19 more vets this month. Outside volunteers visit regularly, including mental health and addiction counselors. Many also still receive VA services.
Dan Klutenkamper, who recently marked his year anniversary there, calls the retreat "a godsend. ... If it wasn't for this place, I know I would have been back on the bottle and I probably would have killed myself about a year ago."
Klutenkamper, who was diagnosed with PTSD, turned to pot and booze when he came home. He holed up in his parents' basement for 19 months. Being at the Nest, he says, he finds comfort among Vietnam vets and an attentive staff.
"There are times when I'm dealing with certain things and you take a step or two back," he says. "People notice it. They'll ask you how things are going and they're — I'm not going to say prying — but they help break you out of that funk. ... It's the brotherhood again, which is nice."
Keith Castle, a silver-haired Vietnam vet in declining health — he has asthma and takes 28 pills a day — had been treated for alcohol, anger and psychological problems for decades before arriving. He says he hasn't had a drink since.
"My stress level went from the ceiling to the floor," the 67-year-old grandfather says, clutching an inhaler.
Rick Sorquist wants to get back on track, too.
He'd reluctantly quit the Air Force to be with his four kids following a bitter divorce. Old drinking problems resurfaced, resulting in him being treated for alcoholism several times in recent years.
Sorquist is leaning on the Nest until he finds his way.
"Somebody told me a long time ago, 'If you're not strong enough to hold on to hope, give it to somebody else to hold it for you'," he says. "That's what this place is doing for me."
Sharon Cohen, a Chicago-based national writer, can be reached at [email protected]