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Veterans’ retreat growing, moves to Fairy Stone Park
Fred “Russ” Russell of EGH Sportsmen for Veterans passes out gift bags to veterans at a shelter at Fairy Stone State Park on Friday. The veterans are taking part in a retreat here this weekend. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Sunday, May 19, 2013
By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer
Now in its fourth year, a retreat held locally for military men and women who were wounded in battle has outgrown one location and moved to Fairy Stone State Park.
The retreat for wounded warriors was organized by Fred “Russ” Russell of Newport News. The three past retreats he has organized largely have taken place at Russell’s home away from home on Lacky Hill Road in Bassett. But for the fourth retreat, being held this weekend, Russell needed more room.
At the last retreat in October 2012, Russell hosted four soldiers at his home. This year, about 20 soldiers and their family members signed up.
The soldiers mainly come from the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU) at Fort Eustis in Newport News. Last May, Russell asked a captain with the WTU how many people he had in the unit. The officer told him there were roughly 120.
“I said, ‘Next May, what if I can bring you all to a state park?’” Russell said. “He said, ‘That would be awesome.’ I got home and reserved every cabin and lodge that was (in) this place except one.”
As the date drew near, many of the soldiers ended up canceling their plans, largely due to medical concerns. But Russell still ended up with the largest group he has hosted.
“We also have a couple Marines here,” Russell said. “We’ve got two Purple Heart recipients ... I made sure that anybody that could get their family to go, I would help” make that happen.
Including family members was another first for the retreats.
The goal of the retreat is simple, Russell said: The soldiers are here to relax and have a good time. To that end, there were a number of different events planned between Thursday and today, including fishing, fly fishing lessons from a representative of the Dan River Basin Association, horse riding/equine therapy from Susan Warren of Tackfully Teamed Riding Academy, two comedians, corn hole, a Texas Hold ’Em tournament, music and tours of the Martinsville Speedway, Blue Ridge Aquaculture and Philpott Dam.
Russell has plenty of volunteers willing to help with the event, including Richard Cox, an Air Force veteran and member of American Legion Post 105 in Stuart and the Patrick County Memorial Honor Guard.
“Mr. Russell had sent a memo down to the county administrator’s office requesting contact with the VFW and American Legion, telling them about the event and asking for their support,” Cox said. “I called him back and got to talking with him, and I liked the idea of what he was doing. I agreed to come out and assist in some small way, making sure this was a successful event. So far, it’s turned out to be a great event.”
Cox said that talking to the soldiers about their experiences has been interesting.
“I’ve had an opportunity to talk to some of the veterans, and just sitting there and listening to them talk is fascinating,” he said. “Some of their experiences that they’ve had and some of the things that they’ve undergone ... it’s not all been pleasant.”
Cox said when he served during the Vietnam era, veterans often were treated poorly when they returned home. He is glad to see that has changed.
“These guys are coming back as heroes, which they well deserve,” he said.
When the soldiers arrived in Martinsville on Thursday, they gathered at Martinsville Speedway, Cox said. From there, they traveled to Fairy Stone, escorted by the Virginia Patriot Guard motorcyclists.
“Darrell Bowling is a member of the Patriot Guard,” Cox said. “His son (Jonathan Bowling) was killed in (Iraq). Each year, they do a memorial ride for him. ... (Darrell Bowling) was responsible for getting the guard to turn out in numbers. He deserves a lot of credit for that, because usually on a Thursday, it’s hard to get people.”
On Friday morning, two soldiers, Sgt. Kalim Fernandez and Spc. Aaron Gabriel, said the retreat already was a hit.
“Fishing, woods, cabins, relaxed environment ... it’s even better than what I expected,” Fernandez said. “Yesterday, we got together with some volunteers. We ate together and we talked two hours, old veteran stories. It was pretty cool.”
“I like having no schedule,” he said. “At your own leisure, you know?”