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. And then they file out — some to jobs in town, some to the barn to feed the horses, some for a smoke on the porch or to the solitude of small, dorm-like rooms.
So begins another day for a special fraternity, residents of 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 the 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 — and 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. He shares his room with his loyal companion, Odie, a rambunctious yellow Lab — "the first living thing I cared about since Afghanistan."
Keith Castle, a former Navy man still harboring ugly memories of Vietnam a half-century ago, 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.
For now, they and dozens more — veterans of war and peacetime — share their meals, their lives and their longing for better days. For some, this is a place of last resort, the one door open to them. At the Nest, they can stay as long as they want and return if they want.
The men, who range from their 20s to their 70s, share more than invisible wounds and war stories.
"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. At the time, her husband, Blaine, then a Guardsman, was being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Three of her four sons also were in the Guard. One served in Afghanistan.
But when another son returned from Iraq, 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? She had no experience, but figured what she didn't know, she'd learn.
The idea didn't seem entirely far-fetched. Her husband recalls that many years ago while working as a waitress, she brought a customer, a Vietnam vet, home for dinner. He stayed for two months.
Butler 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. And two years ago, with personal savings, a $5,000 donation from a banker, $1,200 from a small American Legion post and other contributions, the Eagle's Healing Nest opened its doors on 124 acres of rolling farm fields.
Nathanial Mogensen was resident No. 1. A grueling Guard deployment to Iraq had left him consumed by anger and suicidal thoughts. "I just pretty much hated everybody and I didn't want to have anything to do with the outside world," he says.
Frustrated by delays in securing appointments with his local Veterans Affairs office, unhappy with a PTSD counseling group he'd been attending and aching after an argument with his wife, Mogensen took a buddy's advice and moved into the just-opened retreat.
"Every minute," he says, "was a positive experience. It's kind of like when you're a kid and you're at summer camp and you forget about everything else. This was my summer camp."
This was no institutional setting. There were horses to ride, an open-door policy that allowed him to see his wife occasionally, and work at Camp Ripley, where he could socialize with his battle buddies. Now 31, Mogensen says he learned to be more patient.
"If I ever get into a tight spot again, the Nest is the first place I'm going to turn," he says. "They seriously are like family to me."
Iraq veteran Tane Anderson spent two months at the retreat this spring and summer, following VA care for addiction to alcohol and pain killers and three years of mental health treatment. "I was just a zombie," he says.
The retreat's bucolic setting "calmed my spirit," says Anderson, now 44 and 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."
Anderson gradually started visiting his wife and two kids on weekends. "I slowly built back that trust," he says, "and my family decided I could come home and give it a shot."
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 funding is available for some men who can't afford to pay. Vets help with cooking, farm chores and odd jobs. The retreat also gets a big boost from Sauk Centre businesses: A grocery regularly donates food, a salon makes weekly visits offering free haircuts, a theater provides free movie passes.
The Nest is on a national veterans' registry and is licensed as a boarding house — 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, a chiropractor and art and massage therapists. There also are Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and Bible study.
Most vets still receive VA services, and have often come here after treatment at the agency's St. Cloud office. While the majority are Minnesota residents, vets have come from about 10 states, including Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin and Florida.
Dan Klutenkamper, who has lived at the Nest for more than a year, has become a familiar figure on the grounds in his flip-flops, camouflage shorts and baseball caps, walking his dog.
Though years have passed since he was at war, he hasn't forgotten the mortar attacks, the grenades, the roadside bombs — and the constant fear of death. In one three-week period in Afghanistan, he says, his outpost was attacked 56 times.
Klutenkamper, diagnosed with PTSD, turned to pot and booze back home, holing up in his parents' basement for 19 months. He eventually landed at the retreat, which he calls "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."
But his fallen buddies remain on his mind as he ticks off the names of those who died as they were about to become fathers. "Why them and not me?" he says. "I still ask that question."
What helps, he says, is the company of Vietnam vets and an attentive — but not overbearing — 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. ... This place had made me realize, one, I'm not alone and, two, I wasn't going crazy with everything that was going on in my head with survivor's guilt."
He adds: "It's us helping each other, for the most part. That's the way it was in the infantry. It's the brotherhood again, which is nice."
The Nest, though, isn't for everyone. Some vets' medical or psychological needs are too great.
It turned out to be the last stop for one Vietnam vet who'd arrived last year, homeless after heart surgery. He died in July after mowing the lawn, resisting entreaties not to exert himself. His hearse was driven around the grounds for one final tour. Staff members bought a Captain America T-shirt for his burial — he'd always liked retro T-shirts.
In other instances, vets unable to stay sober have been asked to leave or departed on their own. One young Iraq war vet with a drinking problem was found dead months later in his home.
"You can make choices, but you can fail as well," says Todd Westerbeck, a former Navy submariner and Butler's assistant.
Westerbeck, who'd arrived with alcohol problems, graduated to staff and has been clean more than a year. "I'm not just helping these guys," he says. "They're helping me stay sober."
Keith Castle, a silver-haired Vietnam vet in declining health — he has asthma and takes 28 pills a day — had been in and out of treatment for alcohol, anger and psychological problems for years before moving in this summer. 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 in a raspy voice, clutching an inhaler.
Rick Sorquist, another recent arrival, wants to get back on track, too.
He'd reluctantly quit the Air Force, ending a 12-year career, to be with his four kids following a bitter divorce. It was the start of a downward spiral. Old drinking problems resurfaced. Sorquist ended up being treated for alcoholism about six times in the last eight years.
He's leaning on the folks at the Nest to help 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."