Shawn Alderman motions out the picture window of the spacious waiting room of Magnus Veterans Foundation, the organization he founded last year after three decades in the Army and countless overseas deployments with Special Forces.
The view is serene: 37 acres of grassy hills on the shores of Diamond Lake in a rural section of Dayton in the Twin Cities' northwest suburbs, a farmhouse with a fitness area, a greenhouse with a koi pond and a duck pond with a gazebo.
If you look hard enough, between the medical exam rooms and the therapy room and what soon will be a yoga studio, you'll see hints of how this startup nonprofit founded its veterans oasis on this $4 million estate. Over here, a poster of Big Bird and over there, a picture of Oscar the Grouch in what seem odd touches for an outpatient clinic that provides free holistic medical care to veterans and their families.
"What built this place originally was 'Sesame Street Live,' " Alderman said.
Quick history lesson: Vincent Egan, a Minneapolis native, bought this farmland a half-century ago. In the 1970s, he did marketing for the Ice Follies, a touring ice show. He brainstormed an idea about a live Sesame Street show, got buy-in from Muppets creator Jim Henson, and made his fortune with "Sesame Street Live," a stage show that toured the world. Egan died in 2016. His widow, Sue Rawlings, continued to live on the Dayton estate, which had morphed from a modest farmhouse to a massive compound.
Rawlings is Alderman's aunt. Alderman retired a few years ago from the Army where he was a surgeon and lieutenant colonel. He returned to the Twin Cities to work as a family practice physician, and about the same time, his aunt was downsizing.
Alderman had an idea. He remembered so many stories of soldiers and veterans struggling with overseas deployments and its after-effects, from PTSD to marital strife. He remembered hearing young enlisted soldiers, hungry for combat and praying for war.
"What I tell them is, 'Be careful what you pray for,' " he said. "I want them to be ready. But at the same time, I know what comes on the other side of that. It's not always dark. It's just life-changing."
He came up with the idea for Magnus, whose philosophy borrows from a Special Forces philosophy of focusing on the mind, body and spirit of soldiers.
In addition, Alderman wants it to become a veterans community.
"True healing occurs when the veteran shares their story, and then all of society, all the tribe, shoulders that story," he said. "And that's something we've gotten away from."
The facility and land were free, but Magnus still must pay for its growing operation, which officially opened last year. It now has about 100 members — veterans and families who come for medical care and other services — but it aims to scale up to 5,000 members in five years. Local Lions Clubs have given support, as have veterans' organizations like American Legion and VFW chapters. Alderman's employer, M Health Fairview, donated medical equipment, and Life Fitness donated fitness equipment. Magnus is hosting a festival on Aug. 20 as a fundraiser.
Alderman looked toward the lake. On the shore was a donated canoe rack. A donated fishing boat would soon arrive.
"Not too many medical clinics where you can go fishing afterwards," said Lori Colt, who works at Magnus.
It's no secret that veteran suicides are an intractable problem; 100 Minnesota veterans die by suicide annually. Beneath all of Alderman's grand plans is that singular drive to care for the veterans' whole health.
"You've done your time keeping us safe," said Jay Calhoun, the organization's executive director. "Now we get to keep you safe."