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Minnesota woman creates oasis for veterans in pain

  • Article by: KIRSTI MAROHN
  • Associated Press
  • August 30, 2014 - 12:05 AM

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. — When you talk about budgets and broken promises and what's the most cost-effective way to help a veteran, it's to give them purpose, hope and love.

If you give them the tools, they'll help each other through the ugly, if they have a place that they know is safe and they are loved.

They call her Ma.

She's part house mother, part counselor, part drill sergeant. She holds their hand in the middle of the night when nightmares won't let them sleep. She answers her cellphone at any hour in case it's a depressed veteran who needs to talk. She calls their bluffs and regularly threatens to use her size 9 shoe to straighten them up, the St. Cloud Times (http://bit.ly/1BZ0gSO ) reported.

Melony Butler's mission to help veterans started when she was a child, sitting around a bonfire with her stepfather and his Vietnam battle buddies. He made her promise she would never let anyone forget the sacrifices they'd made.

She married a military man who served two tours in the National Guard, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Three of their four sons have served in the Guard. The oldest was deployed to Iraq, the middle son to Afghanistan.

Butler became an active volunteer at Camp Ripley near Little Falls and with the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign. When her husband's unit returned, she saw many military families struggling and falling apart.

After the oldest son returned from Iraq, he was depressed, his marriage in trouble. He called her one night to say goodbye. Frantic, she kept him on the phone and woke up his dad and brother. She kept talking to him until they found him and brought him home.

Butler called around to find him help, but the St. Cloud VA Health Care System told her they didn't have space for him. She called the adjutant general of the National Guard, who helped find an opening for her son to be placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold. By then, she was angry.

"It shouldn't be a matter of who you know," Butler said. "Those facilities are supposed to be there to help our veterans ... These veterans served our country, and we are losing another generation."

After her son came home from the hospital, he still wouldn't talk. The medications he was prescribed were a quick fix, but not a way to live.

Butler reached out to a local doctor who was also a Vietnam veteran. He recommended giving her son what he needed: the soldiers with whom he had served.

So Butler did. Her home filled up with veterans in crisis. She was answering phones, going to visit families. There were too many to help.

The adjutant general called to check how her son was doing. Butler thanked him, but she also let him know how angry she was.

"I told him that we were going to lose another generation, that they deserve better than what Vietnam got," she said. "And he said, 'Don't come to me with a problem. Come to me with a solution.'"

That was Sunday. By Monday, Butler was meeting with a college adviser and beginning the path to a degree in psychology.

"I called him and said, 'In four years, I will give our veterans a place to heal with honor,'" she said.

But four years was too long. Butler heard about the rising number of suicides among veterans, as many as 22 dying by their own hand every day in the United States.

"I was tired of being told by our veterans, by our families, that the resources that are there — they're being told they are full, or they can't get in, or they wait weeks or months for appointments," Butler said. "And they were taking their lives, and their families are being broken apart."

She began to talk to friends and colleagues about starting a small home with eight to 10 beds where veterans could find sanctuary and peace while they healed.

A veteran told her about a former juvenile prison in Sauk Centre on acres of rolling farmland dotted with stately but aging buildings in need of repair. Butler knew as soon as she saw it that it was the right place.

A group had tried to start something for veterans on the property but never got it going.

"People are always looking for that pot of gold, that handout to do something," Butler said. "I said, 'We can't wait for that. We can do this within ourselves.'"

She recruited volunteers, got a bank loan and a donation from an American Legion post. The volunteers started renovating two of the buildings and brought them up to code. Eagle's Healing Nest was born.

A year later, the Nest is home to 47 veterans, with more on a waiting list. They've served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea. Some stay a night or two. Others have been here for months and have no plans to leave.

Some struggle with substance abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder. Some tried to rejoin civilian society and failed miserably. Some found themselves in legal trouble or left behind troubled marriages.

"You hear that repeatedly, that they come back here, they can't function in the civilian world," Butler said. "They don't know how to act or react in their families."

Many say that without the Nest, they'd be dead. Maybe from alcohol or drugs, maybe by their own hand.

There are no rules about how long a veteran can stay. Butler considers that part of the red tape of insurance policies. Healing doesn't always take place on schedule.

"Some veterans can go years without understanding the negative effect or making the connection or being able to admit that they may have an issue, because they're trained not to do that," she said.

"PTSD is a lifetime. Recovery is a lifetime. They need to have a safe place to continue that."

Instead, the Nest provides layers of services for the veterans. They are offered peer-to-peer discussion groups, substance abuse counseling, art therapy, chiropractic treatment, spirituality and more.

"We give them a loving home, and they create their tactics in their world to complete their mission," Butler said. "There isn't a cure for PTSD. What works for one may not work for others. Some suffer from TBI (traumatic brain injury), some suffer from addiction. There's a whole host of things that they suffer from. We just put the tools in place, and they help each other through all of those issues."

Dianne Gates, a licensed alcohol and drug counselor with Sobriety First, works full time at the Nest. She offers chemical dependency counseling, as well as some mental health treatment, since many of the veterans at the Nest have both chemical dependency and PTSD.

The majority of the chemical dependency cases she sees are veterans who are self-medicating. The problem might have started when they were younger, Gates said. Then when they went to war, "it just kind of exacerbates things."

"And then they come home, and the government says, 'OK, here you go. You're home.' And they go, 'Um, I don't know how to function in this world anymore.' So they teach them a whole different mentality and a different way of survival."

Gates said the veterans often have been prescribed several medications, including drugs for pain relief, mood stabilization and to help them sleep. Abuse of the medications is common, and they often don't help the underlying problems, she said.

"You have to deal with the issues first," Gates said. "It's fine to give them medication that will help bring them up a little bit so they can deal with the issues. But then the purpose of the medications is to get them off, not just give them more and more and more."

Eagle's Healing Nest leases two buildings on the campus. A third is being renovated with plans to add more rooms for veterans.

The veterans are responsible for taking care of the Nest. They cook, clean, do dishes, plan menus, do repairs and care for the animals, which include pigs, chickens, rabbits, a goat and horses.

"They take care of their own home," Butler said. "It's their home. It's their gift. It is giving them purpose."

The fee to stay at the Nest is $35 a day, but no one is turned away. They each have their own room, small but comfortable, decorated by volunteers.

There's a room for quiet mediation or study, with a computer for job searches or online classes and an overflowing bookshelf. There's a gathering room with stout leather chairs where support groups meet. Downstairs, there's a pool table, a workout room, a woodworking shop filled with tools.

Always, there is talking — in discussion groups, at the breakfast table, smoking on the front porch, around a bonfire at night.

"They keep picking each other up. They keep holding each other accountable," Butler said. "They don't leave anyone behind."

Among those who have found shelter at the Nest is 39-year-old Air Force veteran Todd Kuikka, an expert at explosives disposal who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After he was injured and medically discharged from the military, Kuikka had difficulty adjusting to civilian society.

"The military kind of hones you and hardens you to turn into a square peg," he said.

Kuikka struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder that made him unable to be in crowds. He wanted to attend the residential PTSD treatment program at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System, but he said he was denied entrance.

After moving back to his native Minnesota and getting married, Kuikka attended St. Cloud State University. He was finishing his senior thesis and close to graduating when the stress got to him, causing him to isolate himself and spiral out of control. He considered suicide.

Last August, Kuikka moved into the Eagle's Healing Nest. He stayed there for eight months until he felt stable enough to move back home with his wife, Erika, and their 14-month-old daughter Sisu. They recently moved into a new home through Operation Homefront, a Texas-based nonprofit that provides homes for wounded veterans.

Kuikka said the support and camaraderie at the Nest saved his life and helped him get back on his feet. He believes it should be a model for other programs around the country.

"If you don't have veterans who faced some problems and found a way out, then you're essentially setting up that next veteran to fail," Kuikka said.

Jamie Stowe served a year in Iraq with the Kansas National Guard. He provided personal security for agents of the criminal investigative services of all the military branches.

It was hard to return to his job as a carpenter. It didn't match the adrenaline rush of war. He became an instructor with the National Guard. Being around other soldiers helped, because they understood.

Stowe heard about the Nest from his mom, who had visited more than a year earlier with her Blue Star Mothers of America group. She suggested he come and volunteer. Finally he did, in August 2012. He helped fix a couple of rooms, did some carpentry work. He got to know Butler and told her he'd like to come back.

After his return home, Stowe began struggling with PTSD again. He went back to the Nest and has been there off and on for more than a year.

Now he's helping train a dog that he hopes will be the first service dog trained at the Nest. Butler's vision includes opening the Freedom Dog House, which will provide training for service dogs.

"I like to tell people she just goes out and gets the money so we can keep the lights on and the heat going," Stowe said. "It's us — we're the ones who do the cooking, we do the cleaning, shovel snow."

Felix Sanchez spent five years in the Marines special forces and served four overseas tours, including one in Iraq and three in Afghanistan.

After he left the military in 2011, coming home was hard. The New York native drifted around the country, teaching snowboarding in Utah, chopping wood in Oregon, flipping burgers in Idaho and baling hay in Montana.

Finally, Sanchez ended up in Mankato, and that's when problems began to arise. He began drinking heavily and got into legal problems.

Sanchez sought treatment at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System, where he underwent therapy for PTSD. There, he met another veteran who told him about the Eagle's Healing Nest. At first, he was hesitant. It seemed too good to be true.

But at the Nest, he found camaraderie among the other veterans, who kid each other and work together to build a home. Sanchez finds peace in the barn working with the horses and other farm animals.

"It's kind of re-instilling the whole band of brothers thing," Sanchez said. "It's really conducive to healthy growth here."

He plans to stay until he completes his bachelor's degree in computer science and takes care of his legal issues.

"I can see this place multiplying all over the country," Sanchez said.

The Nest has attracted nationwide attention and has been heralded as a model for future veterans' homes. It's been featured in local and national media. Butler has met with politicians including U.S. Sen. Al Franken and testified in front of legislative committees at the state Capitol.

Butler's vision is boundless. She intends to buy the Sauk Centre property and turn it over to a trust, which would be run by a hand-selected group of veterans. She also has plans to add a building for female veterans, as well as the training center for service dogs.

Eventually, Butler hopes to replicate the Nest model until there is one in every state.

Not everyone has embraced the concept. Butler had hoped that Stearns County would approve a group residential housing contract, which would allow the Nest to receive funding to care for low-income veterans with disabilities who qualify.

Until recently, county officials recommended against it, publicly stating that the St. Cloud VA is able to provide all the necessary services for veterans. But in July, the county board voted to approve the contract.

Privately, some have expressed concerns about the number of veterans from all over the country with a variety of needs staying at an unlicensed facility. Butler hasn't finished her college degree and isn't a licensed psychologist. Some of the residents may not have official veteran status because they've been dishonorably discharged or court-martialed.

None of that has deterred Butler.

"I don't like statistics. I don't like politics. I don't like any of those things," Butler said. "I was told, 'You're not in the know, you don't have the qualifications.' I'm a mom, and I know how to keep my family together, and I know how to fight."

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the St. Cloud Times

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