Wounded Soldiers Retreat
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Renee DePriest, contributing writer
Howell County News
Nestled along the Norfork River in Ozark County, River of Life Farm hosted approximately 20 members of Fort Leonard Wood’s Warrior Transition Unit last week. The Warrior Transition Unit provides medical care necessary for soldiers to recover and return to their units or to prepare them for transition to civilian life. The WTU leaders, assisted by nurse case managers, primary care managers, behavior health specialists and physicians, work to mend not only the bodies, but also the minds and spirits of wounded, ill or injured soldiers.
Squad leader Sergeant first class John Nanney explained his duties as one of the WTU leaders on the trip. “We make sure everybody is safe and accounted for,” said Nanney.
The ROLF owners, Myron and Ann McKee, whose own son served in Iraq, enjoy helping soldiers. “Every year, we try to reach out to Fort Leonard Wood and offer hospitality, recreation and healing,” said Myron McKee. “Everyone attending this year is new, and they heard about it by word of mouth. We are a for-profit business, but we try to fit the soldiers in when we have availability,” explained McKee.
Along with members of Dora Family Life Church, American Traditional Bluegrass band, masseuse Linda Stoffel and others, the McKee work to provide healing to visiting soldiers.
The current group of soldiers learned about the McKees from civilian driver Jeremy Roach, who remembered a group going to ROLF in 2006. He mentioned the idea to others. Trip organizer Sergeant E-5 Twyla Gange called to make arrangements for this fall, but Myron called her back and said to go ahead and come immediately. “It was quite a scramble,” said Gange, who was injured by a fall while serving in Iraq. She hurt her back and her hip but continued to work for 14 months, walking on the fractured hip until it shattered.
Major Robert Stine stated the soldiers needed retreats like this to help the healing process. “The retreat is awesome. A lot of us, we won’t admit to it, but it’s stressful going through the healing process and knowing that you’re going to get medically discharged from the military,” said Stine. “I know it’s going to be a bad day in my life the day I have to hang it up for good after 29 years in the military.” Stine has had three major surgeries. “I had my spleen taken out and two more abdominal surgeries,” explained Stine. “It’s been good. I’ve had great care. The Columbia hospital is great.” The cancer center is good – top notch,” he added. “If you think you’re having a bad day, go sit in that waiting room for 20 minutes. You’ll walk out of there thinking ‘I don’t think I have any major medical problems.’”
E-4 Specialist Steve Hirstein, who looked for bombs on the side of the road and detonated them so that others traveling through would not get hurt, was injured three times in the line of duty, including a dislocated shoulder, separated AC joints, a knee hit by rebar, brain injuries and more. “This last time did me in,” said Hirstein. “I have two metal rods in my brain that keep my swelling and my migraines away.” Besides the injuries, he also suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and arthritis.
Many soldiers did not wish to discuss their injuries. Several shared descriptions of their military jobs and what they enjoyed about the retreat.
E-4 Specialist Shannon Lockhart was a veterinarian technician, who took care of military dogs in Afghanistan. “We donated dogs to the Afghanis and taught them how to use them,” explained Lockhart.
E-4 Specialist Joseph Neal has been a heavy equipment operator. He was born in Rolla, Mo., and graduated from Plato High School. “I operated anything from a Bobcat to grader,” said Neal. Neal said he and his fishing buddies Major Stine and E-2 Specialist Chancellor Crabtree, a military truck driver, loved fishing on Norfork River. “We waded up two miles and walked back down today,” said Neal. “That current was pretty swift.”
Staff Sgt. Robert Farnsworth recently returned home from his second deployment to Iraq. He did engineering recognizance in Baghdad. “Baghdad has become an urban development of the military base,” shared Farnsworth. “It’s become livable.” Farnsworth said he appreciated the opportunity to visit ROLF. “This is a great getaway,” said Farnsworth. “Jesus and two others, we commented, ‘It’s so quiet, calm, peaceful and a retreat from a hectic life.”
“It’s been stress free and relaxing,” added Sgt. Tasha Goodman. “We went on a long float trip with the kayaks. It reminds me of home in Puerto Rico. I experienced my first time doing kayaking on the river,” commented First Lieutenant Jesus Vega.
Sgt. Christina Garcia, who served as a military police officer, kayaked with Goodman, Farnsworth and Vega. “It was a big group of us that started out. We began to spread out as it went along. We sang some music that probably no one would want to hear,” laughed Garcia. “This place is incredible. We would like to come back here with some of our other friends, added Garcia. “There was really nothing to worry about and think about besides you. It really helps a lot with our therapy.”
Staff Sgt. Sean Westerman is another squad leader in the WTU. He also enjoyed the kayaking but had a spill or two.“I got rammed and knocked in the water,” admitted Westerman. “I tried to climb back in and fell back out a couple of times. The place has tranquility,” he added. “You can do whatever you want to do at your own pace.”
E-4 Specialist Charlotte Wilson, who was a cook in Kosovo and has been diagnosed with cancer, enjoyed the scenery. “I’m from the city, so I am enjoying the scenery,” said Wilson. “I’ve been relaxing.”
Military intelligence analyst Sgt. Barbara White, who suffered back injuries while in Iraq, agreed. “It’s beautiful here,” said White. “It’s a little piece of heaven.”
Stine wished to remind everyone how blessed the United States is, even if it’s going through a recession.
“They talk about the economy, but unless you’ve been overseas, you don’t realize how good you have it. Compared to other countries, we are way ahead of them. We have money. People drive their cars every day,” said Stine. “Besides, we’re Americans and we’re fighters – always have been, always will be. The veterans all the way back to World War I, World War II, Korean and Vietnam paved the way.”