As thousands of battle-weary combat veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, they and their families now have a place to go to relax, enjoy themselves and find that new normalcy in their lives after experiencing war.
Bruce and Jen Billington, of Crosslake, and Laurie Dally, Pillager, are three of the main founders of Project New Hope, which provides free weekend retreats for military families. The camps are designed for all combat veterans and their families and is free, including meals, for everyone in the family. The camps are designed to be low key and offer assistance as requested by the families to restore family life after a tour of duty. Counselors are available 24 hours a day at the camps. All sessions are paced according to the veterans' wishes and may include a variety of topics about things the veterans and their families may wish to talk about, said Bruce Billington.
"If the family came and all they did was fish and sat around the campfire, perfect," said Billington, a Persian Gulf era veteran. "Let them enjoy themselves and enjoy the weekend as a family and get some of that normalcy back. Counselors are there 24/7 but a hard part of the work is campfire sessions, where they're sitting around and just talking to each other. That peer-to-peer interaction is really strong. Those are people who have been there and done that."
The camps, held for the first time at Camp New Hope in McGregor last fall, also plan to be held at Camp Friendship, Annandale, and Eden Wood Center, Eden Prairie.
A camp for Vietnam combat veterans is now being planned for March 14-16 at Camp New Hope in McGregor. As of Thursday there were five veterans and their families signed up for this special camp, said Billington. Billington said they'd like to have about 10-15 Vietnam veterans and their families attend this free retreat. He said they're hoping that some of these vets will enjoy the experience so much that they'll return as volunteers to help those veterans returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. There will be two or three counselors at this retreat to help lead breakout sessions and give short presentations.
Billington, who is active on the local and district levels of the Lions Club and earned the Melvin Jones Fellowship, said the 69 Lions Clubs in District 5M9 adopted Project New Hope as one of its projects to support at its midwinter conference. He said the project relies solely on private donations and there have been donations through many Lions Clubs, American Legion Clubs and VFW clubs. He said one American Legion commander has adopted this project and the VFW at the state level has adopted Project New Hope.
Billington and Dally serve on the steering committee for Project New Hope. Billington's wife, Jen, is volunteer coordinator. Those who would like to volunteer for an hour or the entire weekend may e-mail her at email@example.com.
Any counselors who work with veterans who are interested in a free weekend helping veterans at Camp New Hope may e-mail Billington at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Being a vet, I wanted to give all that I could," Billington said, when asked why he helped found this program. "I didn't ever serve in combat, I was a vet, but this was my opportunity to give and an opportunity for others to give as well. You don't have to be a vet to reach out and lend a hand."
According to research provided by Project New Hope, post traumatic stress disorder claims have increased by 300 percent for combat vets since 2001 and PTSD claims for Vietnam vets have increased by 50 percent. Suicide rates for soldiers ages 20-24 are 400 percent than their civilian counterparts. In a recent study it was found that 75 percent of vet suicides are the result of a failed relationship once the soldier returns home from combat.
Camp New Hope will host a military family retreat some time in June for combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more information on Project New Hope, visit the Web site, www.projectnewhope.net.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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