SAUK CENTRE, MINN. – Some evenings, Melony Butler sees flames out the window and a solitary figure sitting alone by the community fire pit. A veteran in pain, alone in the night.
Then, one by one, other figures will walk out of the darkness and join the circle. Other veterans who saw the signal rolled out of their beds to help here at the Eagle’s Healing Nest, a nonprofit refuge for veterans in crisis.
Some days, there are more people hurting than helping.
Some days, when a veteran reaches out, someone reaches back.
Dan Klutenkamper served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He survived car bombs and RPG attacks and explosions that scarred his face, burned his limbs and injured his brain. He lost dozens of friends to the war and eight or nine more to suicide after they returned home.
“I don’t like Memorial Day weekend,” he said. “I appreciate it, but for some of us it’s — every day we remember. And when this holiday comes up, it’s like you’re forced to remember everything and that makes it rough. I’ve been extremely agitated. My temper’s next to nothing. Nightmares are through the roof.”
His support dog, Odie, a happy yellow Lab, padded over to his side, tail wagging. Klutenkamper smiled down at him.
“We were told it was a weakness to go seek help,” he said. “It’s not a weakness.”
One of the things he missed most about being in the service, Klutenkamper said, was being with the guys in his unit, making sure they were safe. Coming here, he said, gave him a new sense of purpose.
“Here, I get to be around them again. I get to fight for them, keep their heads above water,” he said.
There are 77 veterans living on the Sauk Centre campus and another 31 at a new facility in Anoka. Volunteers are rushing to repair and refurbish buildings to house the men and women on the waiting list.
“They ask me how I would gauge our success,” said Butler. “If I can save one life, that’s success, because life doesn’t have a price tag.”
She opened the Sauk Centre campus in 2012, on the grounds of an abandoned reform school for girls, but she’s been reaching out to veterans since she was a little girl, watching her stepfather search the faces of homeless people on the street, looking for men he served with in Vietnam.
“Our veterans are not a number. They’re not the last four of their Social, they’re not a diagnosis,” she said. “They’re our families.”
There are at least 20 million veterans in America. Places like the Eagle’s Nest can’t begin to help them all. The Department of Veterans Affairs — the second-largest agency in the federal government — can barely keep pace. The World War II and Korean War veterans are on waiting lists for nursing homes. The Vietnam vets are cashing Social Security checks. This latest war has been going on so long that kids who were in diapers when we first went into Afghanistan are almost old enough to enlist.
“I’d go [back on deployment] a million times over, knowing what I know now, just so somebody else didn’t have to,” said Klutenkamper, who waited two years to get his first appointment at the VA. He went in to get a refill on his meds recently and was told his doctor wouldn’t be in for another four months.
There are waiting lists to get into Minnesota’s nursing homes for veterans. Butler has taken in fragile World War II vets — one with a fresh incision on his chest from heart surgery and no shoes on his feet — who had nowhere else to go.
There are rolls of sleeping mats stacked against one wall at the Eagle’s Nest. A church group crocheted them out of old plastic grocery bags, and volunteers will hand them out to homeless veterans. A small act of kindness to slip between their bodies and the pavement.
If you look for those small kindnesses, you’ll find them. At the VA. At the VFW hall. In the plates of fresh-baked cookies that Sauk Centre nursing home residents walk down the road to share with their neighbors at the Nest.
“This place is an amazing place, doing good work,” said Jay Tschida, ruffling the fuzzy ears of Miss America, a roly-poly malamute puppy someone donated as an emotional support animal for the Nest. At three months old, she is already very good at her job.
Tschida’s old dog, who always seemed to know when the nightmares were getting bad, died in December. While he waits for a new puppy — maybe a Belgian Malinois, if he can find one — he’s sharing the campus with a menagerie that includes dogs, cats, horses, cows, goats, sheep and one very noisy peacock.
Volunteers donated many of the animals. Just like they repaired, repainted and furnished the buildings and filled each veteran’s bedroom with little gifts and encouraging notes.
This isn’t a story about Memorial Day barbecues. It’s not that I don’t want you to enjoy a nice holiday weekend. I do. It’s been a long hard winter and you deserve to grill some brats and watch the kids run through the sprinkler.
But maybe as you fire up the grill, spare a thought for that bonfire up in Sauk Centre.
Remember those we’ve lost and those we can still save.