A UMNS Report
By Heidi Robinson*
(Click Here to See the UMTV Video Report)
BUCKHEAD, Ga.--“Next time, I want to ride on that thing with my kids,” shouts retired Col. Bob Quinn as a sleek boat pulls six grinning children on an inflatable toy across the green surface of Lake Oconee.
The summertime living is easy along this lake about an hour east of Atlanta. And that is a good thing for wounded military veterans and their families enjoying a weekend of fun at the United Methodist camp Collinswood of Aldersgate Homes.
The retreat was the result of a partnership between veterans and officials at Collinswood searching for ways to assist soldiers returning home from service, particularly those among the more than 30,000 wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The United Methodist Church cares about these families,” says Becky Bocian, executive director of Collinswood. “We honor their service and we want them to have a place to heal, to experience acceptance and to use a facility that offers them the opportunity to enjoy recreational time with their family again, no matter their physical limitations from their tours of duties.”
Bocian and a team of veterans from the American Legion in Alpharetta, Ga., who organized the weekend, greet the guests with applause.
“Let’s give this young Marine a warm welcome,” says retired Navy pilot John McLaughlin as Lt. Josh Galle and his family enter the dining hall on a Saturday morning.
“We need to honor these men and women who are coming back,” says McLaughlin.
”They are fighting a very, very difficult war. They come back; they are injured; they’re uncomfortable going back into public settings because they’ve been changed. We want to provide the stepping stones to come back comfortably.”
Galle, 26, who was injured during three tours of duty in Iraq, enjoys being able to relax at Collinswood with his wife, Jessica, and their 6-month old son, Ty.
“Having a facility like this where veterans can just relax, where people are focused on abilities, not disabilities…I think it will open veterans’ eyes and their hearts,” says Galle. “I’m excited not just for myself, but also to experience this place and tell other veterans from other branches.”
Quinn suffered a disabling knee injury in Baghdad during his last tour of active duty and his son, Trey, has cerebral palsy. He was glad Collinswood is a universally accessible property from its residential cabins to the paved nature trail and the lakefront dock.
United Methodist Men’s groups, primarily from the North Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church, built wheelchair accessible nature trails and ramps that lead to the dock.
“Trey … uses a walker,” Quinn says. “Here at Collinswood he goes wherever he wants … whether it’s down to the dock, onto the boat, on the trail. He has the freedom to go where his heart leads him.”
While boat rides and nature walks offer one kind of healing for returning veterans, camaraderie provides another.
“All veterans need opportunities like this,” says 64-year-old Jack Merritt, a retired member of the Army helicopter cavalry. “We have Iraqi veterans coming back who are in my anger management class who are as angry as we were when we came back from Vietnam. We need to help them replace the negative images of violence, ill will, and combat that soldiers collect during service, with happy times like those made here. Those memories of war are not what the Lord wants us to hold on to.… He wants us to remember times like this.”
Galle cradles his 6-month-old son and gently helps him into an infant life vest for Ty’s first boat ride.
Galle says his wife “may not have served any time in combat, but she has definitely been in service. She was behind me every moment I was over there.”
The young couple sits on the boat gazing across the lake and toward the future.
“We just bought a house outside Atlanta,” Jessica Galle says. “We’re building our future. These men and women who serve … they have to come back and get used to doing everyday activities with their families again, even driving, going places together. It takes time to readjust to everyday life. It is real outreach when the church makes this camp available to families.”
*Robinson is a freelance producer based in Winston-Salem, N.C.