In the heart of pheasant country three miles south of Parker, South Dakota, an annual disabled veterans hunt is shelling out extra these days.
“It’s a seed to be given, a breath of fresh air. That’s all this is,” said Sean Adams, Marine Corps veteran.
While opening day of hunting season has been called the “best day of the year,” this property, owned by Bruce Weller, is the year-round home to a hunting lodge dedicated to veterans.
“Through the generosity of Sanford Health and a lot of other organizations that have helped out as far as providing resources, this now has become a reality,” said Paul Weckman, Sanford Health director of Veteran and Military Affairs.
Introducing Wings of Valor Lodge
Wings of Valor Lodge opened in November. The nonprofit is 100% ADA compliant and designed by Adams.
“Feb. 10 of 2012, I stepped on a 25-pound, all plastic, no metallic IED. First U.S. force to step on one,” Adams said.
The lodge’s president, from Georgia, lost both of his legs during a tour in Afghanistan.
“I can’t serve alongside my brothers or sisters anymore, so I’m going to serve in a different manner. I’m going to help them come home,” Adams said.
Starting a conversation
Hunting is what draws veterans of all abilities and backgrounds to this place.
What happens during the moments in between is just as powerful. Important interactions take place everywhere but especially in a designated spirit area.
“I can bring any one of these veterans that are here today back here and stand and be quiet with them and the magic happens. Someone told me it’s not magic; it’s the grace of God,” said Weller, who is the Wings of Valor Lodge CEO.
Improving the mind, body and spirit with Mother Nature’s help – healing wounds you can see and others buried deep.
“I seriously have stood back here and cried with people in a way I don’t even understand but I know it’s a start for this young guy,” Weller said.
Young men and women in need of support or just camaraderie.
“’I lost brothers over there. I lost sisters over there. I’m still losing them today over here.’ That’s the part that gets me,” Weller said.
Finding a purpose
If Wings of Valor Lodge can make just one veteran feel worthy, it’s done its job.
“This is not a fix program for veterans. They’re not broken. We’re not broke. We just need to come home,” Adams said.
Home with a purpose.
“When these guys are conversating and they talk about it, the less they start to abuse alcohol, medications, themselves, their spouses. We train them to go to war but we don’t train them to come home,” Adams said.
To be a part of that welcome is the mission of Sanford Health’s department of veterans and military services. Weckman is an active volunteer at the lodge.
“It is a very high priority for Sanford Health,” Weckman said. “They come out just gleaming. You can just see how their whole attitude in life can be changed just because of what goes on here in this place.”
Laugh, cry, just do life
Adam Long is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and South Dakota Air National Guard.
“Man this place is great. This place is awesome,” Long said.
Long’s leg was crushed in a firefighting accident while on active duty.
“Laugh, joke, just let loose the way that we’re supposed to be. Let go of the politics and let go of all the drama in the world and just be humans to each other again and laugh, cry, hug, shake hands. Just do life.”
Thanks to surgeries to save his leg, some at Sanford Health, he says he’s a medical miracle and blessed to be sharing his story with fellow veterans.
He says it’s important to “see that we’re not alone. Oh hey, you feel that way too? I miss this. Everybody starts seeing that their feelings are normal.”
Sharing those feelings is OK.
“I know a lot of guys that live a dying death every day they wake up. If tomorrow don’t come, it’s ok. They don’t deserve that. None of us do,” Adams said.
Future goals for veterans’ lodge
Adams says with help, Wings of Valor Lodge can host 185 vets or more each year.
“Sanford was able to help us form the ground and a strong ground,” Adams said. “We fight for the common value of love. We love our country.”
Providing cover for the best among us to be themselves.
“We are not here to fix veterans. We are here to allow the veterans to understand that it’s OK to be vulnerable. It’s OK to allow that mental stress to release,” Adams said.
A release that hopefully can point to better days ahead.
Wings of Valor Lodge is also partnering with Sanford Health to provide both clinical care and curriculum for the support of the veterans.
Sanford Health prides itself on being a military-friendly employer. It recently earned the 2020 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, the highest U.S. government honor to employers for support of National Guard and Reserve employers.
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