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Retreat gives soldiers R&R in Bassett
Veteran Will Willhelm (left) throws his bag during a game of cornhole while Fred Russell waits his turn. Willhelm is among the Army soldiers being treated to a long weekend retreat at Russell’s house in Bassett, courtesy of the Newport News-based Big Game Hunters Hook ‘n’ Horn Club. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
For a few days at least, 10 wounded Army soldiers on a retreat to Bassett have some respite from memories of the horrors of war.
They are staying in a house in the 200 block of Lacky Hill Road owned by Fred Russell of Newport News, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam.
Russell began hunting and fishing in this area in 1999. He liked the area and its people so much that about five or six years ago he bought the house and formed the Newport News-based Big Game Hunters Hook ‘n’ Horn Club.
“They’re having a ball and relaxing,” Russell said of the soldiers on the retreat.
R&R (rest and relaxation) is the No. 1 priority — “They can sleep all day if they want,” Russell said. “There is no schedule.”
In addition to resting, the soldiers have been playing cards, dominoes and cornhole, fishing for trout and other fish, sightseeing and going out for pizza. They also planned to go to a karaoke night.
Healing after being injured in war can be a long process.
“I know what these guys went through,” said club member Rene Sarian, who retired from the Army as sergeant first class with 22 years of service, including service in Iraq.
“They’re probably traumatized by the experience” of being injured in war, said Sarian. “They get flashbacks from war.”
Even though he was not wounded during his military service, Sarian said, “I’ve been through it. Once in a while I get flashbacks.”
Sarian said getting the wounded soldiers away from the military environment, such as barracks and military uniforms, gives them the opportunity “to forget the experience of war for a few days — what they’ve been through.” He added, “We never talk about the war.”
The soldiers taking part in the retreat are from the Warrior Transition Unit at Ft. Eustis.
According to an Army website, the Army created Warrior Transition Units at major military treatment facilities to provide personal support to wounded soldiers who require at least six months of rehabilitative care and complex medical management. Soldiers have one mission — to heal. Each soldier develops a comprehensive transition plan to help him or her return to the Army or civilian status.
Master Sgt. Kathryn D. May, an Army Reservist, was injured in Afghanistan. “I came here to rest and relax and just be me,” she said Saturday.
With 29 years of service, May, 51, of Prince George, plans to retire, she said.
Specialist Thomas Pickering, 44, of Moundsville, W.Va., said he’s been enjoying fishing, playing cornhole and cards and talking with the other soldiers.
“It allows us to open up” in a close-knit group in an informal atmosphere, he said. In a military environment, he said, wounded soldiers may be reluctant to open up and draw attention to themselves because “everybody in the military has given so much,” he said.
Pickering, who has served 15 years in the Army, suffered neck, back and shoulder injuries in Iraq, he said. He has had one back surgery so far and will have to have three more back surgeries, one neck surgery and one shoulder surgery, he said.
He will be discharged in several weeks and plans to go to a university (probably Marshall University) to study sociology and become a counselor, he said.
Sgt. Will Willhelm, 34, said of the retreat, “Everybody needs to unwind once in a while.” His back was injured in the Iraqi war.
He is studying gunsmithing and plans to return home to Paris, Tenn.
The soldiers said they appreciate the club providing the retreat. “We don’t expect anything. We do our job like anybody else,” one soldier said.
This year’s retreat, which began Thursday, continues through today. Russell said. Last year was the first year the club held a retreat for wounded soldiers, and the club plans to continue holding the retreats, Russell said. Club members come as a group or individually and stay at the house, Russell said.
Russell, Sarian and Richard Catron, who lives across the road from Russell’s house in Bassett, said they think this country owes the wounded soldiers a debt of gratitude.
Wounded military personnel often “come back with arms off and legs off and can’t get no job,” Catron said, adding he thinks the government should do more to help them.
While the wounded soldiers are in Bassett, Catron said, “They have a good time.”
Russell said Friday was one soldier’s birthday. The group celebrated with birthday cake, sang “Happy Birthday,” and the soldier received a gift, Russell said.
He said the club solicited donations to provide the retreat. Russell and Sarian estimated the cost at about $2,500.