Men and women of the military who have been scarred in battle, either physically or mentally, soon will have a place to turn to for help and healing.
In what was a dream of co-founders Rick Briggs and Allan Lutes, is soon to be a reality as Camp Liberty, a 137-acre property in Norvell Township on the shores of the River Raisin off Austin Road in Jackson County, will soon be opened and serving disabled veterans and those with traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorders. Veterans from across the state had the chance to visit and view progress at the camp Saturday during the facility’s open house.
“Camp Liberty started with the concept of helping young men and women coming back from military deployment dealing with the invisible wounds of combat, as well as the moral injuries of combat,” said Briggs, a retired Air Force major who served during Vietnam and on through Desert Storm. “After looking for property for nearly five years, we settled on the property in Norvell Township, developed a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with a 10-member board of directors, and have about two dozen advisors who are specialists in diverse areas.” The group employs an all-volunteer approach to get things done.
“The more that word gets out, the more that we can help the veterans,” said Lutes, who lives in the Brighton area. He owns a design and building company in Ann Arbor and contributes much of his knowledge and skills to the development of Camp Liberty. Lutes, though not a veteran, has been a lifelong friend of Briggs.
“We could see that there was a need to reach out to the veterans and educate them in an environment where they would be receptive to the message that brain injuries can be treated,” he said. “We decided that it would make sense to use a property like this to benefit people, especially the veterans who have sacrificed so much for us.”
Briggs now works for the Eisenhower Center based in Ann Arbor on its After the Impact program, which helps military veterans dealing with post traumatic stress disorders, blast injuries, and other effects of being deployed overseas. The Eisenhower Center has a satellite office in Manchester called the Enrichment Center which not only deals with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD, but also helps NFL football players deal with the effects of concussions and related injuries.
“The Eisenhower Center had a lot of faith and could see our vision and provided the seed money to help purchase the property and some operating capital to get us through the first few years,” said Lutes. “Through that, we’ve been able to get the word out to many people. We’ve already seen several veterans who’ve had to deal with injuries and have gotten back to living happy, well adjusted lives with their families and being productive members of their communities and really enjoying life again.”
A 2,800 square-foot main building structure on the property is nearly complete thanks to a 100-percent donation of materials and equipment in the range of $180,000, Briggs said. Habitat for Humanity supplied all the labor at no charge. There is no mortgage on the building. Upon completion, the facility will have a great room for programs and dining, two handicap-accessible bedrooms with accessible clothes racks, a fully universal-designed accessible kitchen with special appliances, two bathrooms with accessible showers, a storage room, a state-licensed game-cleaning station, and a dog grooming station. A pole barn is also in the near-term plans for the property. Camp Liberty currently has four Action Track chairs available with four more on the way – all donated. The chairs allow veterans to access the wilderness when they would otherwise be unable to do so.
“The Track chairs will allow paralyzed veterans the ability to come out here and access the facility, go through woods, and go hunting or fishing,” said Bob Vance, acting vice president of the Michigan chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which provided a couple of the Action Track chairs to the camp. “We’ll have the ability to freely move around.” Vance served in the Air Force for more than four years and while serving, fractured his skull and broke his back at an AF snow-skiing meet.
The main building at Camp Liberty. It is scheduled for completion this fall.
Camp Liberty is operated through a long-term land-sharing agreement. Under the agreement, the camp will utilize the property for recreational and therapeutic programs. A multi-year conservation plan has been implemented to restore the property to native Michigan habitat in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, and with the support of conservation organizations such as Pheasants Forever, Safari Club International, Trout Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Volunteers at Camp Liberty have planted numerous fruit trees and berry bushes to provide food for wildlife throughout the camp, as well as rye grasses in some of its open fields. A pond will also be installed this fall.
“We’re trying to provide a place for them to come, get them outdoors, and participate in support programs,” Briggs said. Though the facility will be primarily focused on veterans’ programs, if the facility is not being used by veterans at a given time other organizations dealing with health challenges will be able to use the facility.
Camp Liberty’s vision is to build a stronger veterans’ community by providing inclusive outdoor recreation programs that aid in the reintegration of U.S. military service members, veterans, and their families, with an emphasis on assisting those with PTSD and TBIs.
“It’s a quality of life thing – and that’s what Camp Liberty is really focusing on,” Briggs said. “We want to give these young men and women a purpose and a reason to go forward – to get back to their families and their communities and not put the gun in their mouth.”
Briggs shared the shocking figure that there are 22 military veteran suicides a day, a good chunk of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also indicated that, sadly, many of them come home to a life of crime.
“The incarceration level is going through the roof right now with our young folks who are not coping,” he said. “They start out with alcohol because it’s legal and socially acceptable. Even our own service organizations – a guy walks in to the American Legion or VFW and they say ‘come on over and I’ll buy you a drink’. It’s not good when you’re dealing with a brain injury or PTSD. Alcohol inhibits the recovery process.
“The homelessness, the joblessness, the incarcerations, the suicides – all that comes into play,” Briggs said. “We want to give them hope and purpose.”
The camp will provide an environment conducive to therapeutic experiences for veterans in a natural wilderness setting.
“We’re going to be running men’s and women’s programs, programs for couples,” he said. “A lot of times when they come back from war, their spouse is left dealing with a lot of combat-related issues – secondary and tertiary-level PTSDs – both in the spouse and in the children.
“The first step that has to occur for reintegration back into the community is for the veteran to recognize they’re having issues, to open up and talk about it, and be willing to get treatment. In order to do that, they have to want to get better. We have to give these young men and women who served hope and a purpose to move forward.”
Briggs said Camp Liberty will use outdoor recreation as therapy.
“Research indicates that the more a person is involved outdoors with Mother Nature – not just hunting or fishing, but camping, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, photography, just going for a walk in the woods – the more they interact with Mother Nature, the more healing and soothing her power is. It helps with the recovery process.”
Camp Liberty co-founder Rick Briggs is kneeling at the site of where the chapel at the camp will be located.
Allison Miller is a retired Air Force veteran of 22 years who visited Camp Liberty’s open house. She was a heavy equipment operator deployed in various overseas convoys in combat zones and also served as a special air mission flight attendant out of Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C.
“I tell these guys (at Camp Liberty) I can drive your heavy equipment, I can cook your food, or help you plan an event,” Miller said. “Other veterans I know may want to come out and help out, too. It’s not just for those with an injury – other veterans and people can volunteer. A lot of people want to help vets but they don’t know how.” Miller also plans on helping put together the women’s programs at the camp. “There are women with TBIs and PTSDs, not just men.” Miller added she had a great time serving her country.
Retired state trooper, veteran, and longtime friend of Briggs, Paul Rambo, will be Camp Liberty’s caretaker who will live on site and manage the property.
Briggs said he already has 11 faith-based programs scheduled over 11 months and they’ll be trying to tie in scripture with outdoor recreation.
Other programs on the books at Camp Liberty include a fishing rod building class and a trout fishing fly-tying class to name a few.
“A lot of it is giving them a hobby they can take home. It works on their fine motor skills and, especially with TBIs, it’s retraining the brain.”
Briggs said one thing the outdoor activities help with is getting the veterans to listen to other people more.
“They open up,” he said. “They’re more receptive to hearing about their problems and that’s the big bottleneck up front. If you ever know a combat guy, they don’t want to talk about what they went through. They have to understand and recognize they’re having issues, and they have to want to get better. The system has to be there when they do need help. A lot of times our own VA and DOD are not there. They’re not doing all they can do – especially in the brain injury end of it.”
Briggs used the awareness and public knowledge of breast cancer – once with a stigma attached to it – as an example of where he’d like to see veterans’ brain injuries be.
“Over 50,000 people in Michigan this year will sustain a brain injury,” he said. We’ve got up to 450,000 people to date that have come out of Iraq and Afghanistan that have traumatic brain injuries primarily caused by ballistic shock waves. They’re surviving stuff they never used to survive. The survival rates are just insane. You have to care for them when they do get back. It’s a dual-edged sword.”
Briggs said the relatively small U.S. military is a major factor to the problems of TBIs and PTSDs
“The system wasn’t ready for the survival rate. The military wasn’t designed for a person to have eight to 10 deployments. We shouldn’t be asking that much of anybody. I think it’s an injustice to our military personnel to ask them to serve that much. We’ve got one young man who just completed his third deployment in a four-year period. There’s supposed to be a 1 ½ to 2 years of down-time in between to let them recoup and get their feet back under them.”
The camp will bear the costs of helping veterans who may not otherwise have gotten the help they needed.
“It’s costly to help them up front, but nowhere near the cost of the incarceration rate, a lifetime of community mental health services – all the costs associated if you don’t take care of them and they have these issues the rest of their lives,” Briggs said. “It’s a burden on everybody – financially and otherwise.
“Plus we owe it to them. They went over there on our behalf and we owe it to these brave men and women.”
Briggs conducts around 120 presentations a year on military-related brain injuries and what Camp Liberty will do to help those with them. He has also been on major broadcast media throughout the state. For more information about Camp Liberty, contact Rick Briggs at 810-908-1901, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit campliberty.org. Those interested in volunteering at Camp Liberty can sign up there as well.