Four Gold Star parents, family and friends of two young soldiers from Lee who were killed slightly more than five months apart in Iraq are not only always there for each other, but they also are there for any veteran and his or her survivor family to help them cope with the loss only those who have experienced it can know.
Sgt. Joel House, 22, son of Maine Master Guide Paul and Deanna House of Lee, was killed on his mother’s birthday, June 23, 2007, by a bomb in Taji.
His friend, former baseball teammate and fellow Lee Academy alumni, Sgt. Blair Emery, 24, son of Bill and Quie Emery of Lee, was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle Nov. 30, 2007, in Baquobah.
Since those unbelievably sorrowful days immediately after the deaths of these two young men who were so full of life and spirit, something wonderful has been created to ensure their memory lives on in the great outdoors that was their backyard.
In 2008, Paul House created House in the Woods Inc., A Military and Family Retreat which now has its official 501(c)3 nonprofit status, Paul told me.
The way the program works, he said, “is we try to get three or more veterans and family members together” for a Maine outdoor experience that can range from ice fishing and open-water fishing to turkey, bear or partridge hunting, kayaking, canoeing, hiking and bird or moose watching.
As much as these retreats are about the outdoors, it is the camaraderie that is also a major component, he said.
“When vets come to one of these hunts, they are very comfortable even though they don’t know each other. They start opening up and talking. We have Vietnam vets who teared right up ‘because someone is doing something for us.’ You can see the bond, and the healing process take place.”
Paul told me, “Our program is increasing. It is growing, and we hope it will be national shortly.”
He believes now is the time to update people on what has happened in the past year and what the future holds for House in the Woods, which relies on many, many generous people to operate.
He said the only cost for any veteran or survivor family “is to get here, and they have to buy a hunting or fishing license. But all the food and lodging is provided, at no cost.”
Money to support the program comes from fundraisers such as fishing tournaments (one is planned for July) and donations.
Other fundraisers are in the works but, Paul said, “we haven’t written much for grants yet.”
The lodging is kindly donated by sporting camp owners, so participants can visit sites in places such as Oxbow, Bridgewater, Upper Sysladobsis Lake, Palmyra, Dixmont and beyond.
Paul said the organization hopes to someday build a lodge in Lee that is accessible to the handicapped and has a common room and sleeping cabins on either side to house 50 people.
And while openings are still available for open-water fishing, the next “bear hunt is pretty well filled,” Paul said.
Any veteran is welcome but, Paul stressed, “we don’t have counselors” for those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s really a good-old-boy atmosphere,” he said. “To me, it’s not work.
“It’s to be there and for them to experience what we have; see the vets be happy and laugh, even if that means being happy for a day, a week or a few hours.”
The program “has really taken off from a year ago,” Paul told me.
“Every time we go to an event, people come up and donate or offer a camp or something else.
“We want people to see the difference it does make.”
One of those differences, he added, is that some of those who participated in the program last year “are now volunteering for everything, and that’s good. They are getting involved.”
Of the sons who are so loved and missed, Paul said his Christian faith helps him understand “God doesn’t make mistakes. You can always go positive or negative.
“We’ve always been positive, so we do this in honor of all the soldiers who serve; as a thank-you to them for fighting for our freedom; for the sacrifices we’ve made as families. That sacrifice continues.”
Joni Averill, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402; firstname.lastname@example.org; 990-8288. I am on vacation. My column returns to this section Wednesday, April 27.