The retired Air Force major has just spent the better part of the afternoon chatting with a steady stream of military veterans and their families, all of whom have come to get a closer look at Camp Liberty, a rehab facility of sorts designed to help wounded soldiers and those suffering from brain trauma.
Now, he’s enjoying a drive through the property’s northwest end in a Polaris multi-seat ATV. He is away from the crowds. Away from the rumblings of the nearby roads. Away from the jack-hammering of the nearby construction.
All that can be heard now is the gurgling of the nearby Raisin River and the wind gently bending the wildflowers in a vast field within the 137-acre complex. Briggs points to a landmark in the distance and begins to tell one of his favorite stories. It’s apparent that he’s told this tale many times in the past year.
Just last year, Briggs recalls, Britani Lafferty, a 29-year-old veteran who spent time in Iraq as a combat medic, visited the Camp Liberty site. Suffering from debilitating physical and mental wounds from her tour, Lafferty tried countless medical treatments to no avail. Desperate for something that might work, Lafferty turned to the healing power of nature. Invited to spend time at Camp Liberty, Lafferty tried her hand at deer hunting. From a blind overlooking the Raisin River, Lafferty bagged her very first buck. And for Camp Liberty, it marked the first successful hunt for their program.
To Briggs, the moment symbolized that Lafferty could overcome her own afflictions, that she was still able to do things without the help of others. This is the sort of therapy Briggs and the Camp Liberty project hope to impart.
“I know vets who are really dealing with severe difficulties,” Briggs said. “They don’t want to be around people. They won’t go to a mall. They won’t go to a movie. We have actually gotten them out here and back to where they can get out and start doing stuff.”
And that’s Camp Liberty’s ultimate goal.
“When we get out here doing recreation with guys,” Briggs said, “it gives them the opportunity to listen and realize that PTSD is treatable. These guys don’t want to believe it. They don’t want to think about it. They don’t want to admit they’re dealing with it. ”
The story of Lafferty is just one example of what Briggs thinks could be a new way to tackle the effects of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) to both the body and mind. And with the construction of a new program facility, scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, the full vision of Briggs and his friend Allan Lutes is within reach.
Childhood friends, Lutes and Briggs aim to construct a wilderness recreation facility focused on helping military veterans recover from debilitating injuries, brain trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Frustrated by the lack of attention paid to veterans (just two years ago, Michigan ranked dead last in the U.S. in military spending on vets), the two vowed to make a difference. And after years of planning, preparation, and fundraising, the project, which is located just a few miles from the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, is nearly complete.
With the help of volunteer crews, Lutes and Briggs are overseeing one of the last steps of the project, the construction of a 2,880 square-foot, handicapped accessible lodge that has taken shape over the past five months. Upon completion, the three-bedroom, two-bathroom structure will allow injured veterans and their families to lengthen their stay and take advantage of all of the outdoor activities the massive site has to offer – and it won’t cost them a cent.
Amidst this huge habitat stand ten state-of-the-art hunting blinds and wildlife observation towers, all fully handicapped accessible, that program participants can use. Along with guided hunting expeditions, the veterans can fish in the nearby Raisin River, hike along numerous nature trails, and enjoy the serenity of a reflection area and outdoor chapel.
From hunting to fishing to kayaking, Camp Liberty offers veterans—particularly those who have suffered injuries in combat or are challenged by traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder—a quiet, tranquil location where rehabilitation can flourish, says Lutes.
“Hunting is just a small part of what we offer here,” he said. “Every inch of this facility has been thought through as a way of something that is going to make someone feel comfortable, feel at peace, feel part of nature, and be able to reflect on their life.”
An ambitious project like this doesn’t just happen, of course. The financial barriers would be too daunting for most people, even if they were smart enough to come up with such a unique vision. Briggs, Lutes, and the Camp Liberty team have raised close to $300,000 toward their building projects and have recruited a slew of volunteers to help with completing the site’s projects. The primary contributor, said Lutes, has been the Eisenhower Center, the country’s leading brain injury facility, which has donated over $200,000 to the project. Among a bevy of donors, Atlas Roofing Corporation has provided almost $30,000 in building products for the construction of the program facility, including the ThermalStar® Radiant Comfort™ in-floor heat panels that will regulate heating within the complex, ThermalStar® LCI-SS™ insulated structural sheathing, AC Foam® Crossvent® Insulation roofing product, WeatherMaster Ice and Water Shield, Gorilla Guard EverFelt Underlayment and Pinnacle Pristine Green Shingles.
“I think the right word [to describe his reaction to the financial support] would be overjoyed,” Lutes said, “overjoyed that other people have bought in to our vision, that other people have seen the value and need for helping our veterans and to help people who have mobility issues enjoy the outdoors. I mean, that is really heartwarming.”
To Charlene Zezawa, the project would have been stalled from the outset had it not been for Briggs’ uncanny ability to advocate for the camp’s vision. So taken by a presentation by Briggs at a golf fundraiser several years ago, Zezawa signed on to help out. Before she knew it, she was asked to serve on Camp Liberty’s board of directors as its secretary. Briggs’ passion is contagious, she said.
“Rick is the best fundraising person I have ever met in my entire life,” Zezawa said. “He will go after it. You have to have heart. And Rick has heart. And that’s what drives him.”
Zezawa is among a steady stream of volunteers who have lent a hand. Throughout the summer, members of the Jackson County Habitat for Humanity jumped on board to lead the construction of the program facility’s foundation, structure, and roof. The crew, ranging in age from 60 to 93, spent the better part of the summer in what crew chief David Behnke called “a wonderful experience”
“If you can’t get behind this project, you can’t get behind anything,” he said.
Lutes and Briggs have their eye on January 1, 2016, when they hope Camp Liberty will be fully operational and ready to host families of wounded veterans.
And those like A.J. Mikulka are excited for their turn. The 33-year old Army National Guard veteran has been hunting since she was a kid, learning how to carry a shotgun from her father. She is not unlike many of the veterans that Lutes and Briggs hope to help. On August 9, 2007, Mikulka, serving in Mosul, Iraq, was in the midst of helping to train Iraqi police when the station started taking enemy fire. When she stepped out from behind a barricade, insurgent forces launched a rocket-propelled grenade.
“It was a direct hit. It took my leg clean off,” she said. Mikulka now walks with a prosthetic, which is attached to her leg just below the knee.
Her physical recovery didn’t take nearly as long as the emotional recovery, though. Mikulka believes that the mental recuperation offered by Camp Liberty will have a “profound effect” on wounded veterans like herself.
“There’s always going to be stuff that you deal with [emotionally],” she said. “I know a lot of [injured veterans] who are still dealing with it years later. The hard part for me was [dealing with] the loss of career.”
Lutes and Briggs hope that Camp Liberty will be a place that people like Mikulka can come to heal and feel “normal again.” Research supports their hunch. A 2013 study by the University of Michigan indicated that time spent in nature can improve cognitive abilities, particularly for those who suffer from post-deployment issues.
“The research clearly shows that extended outdoor recreation helps combat-injured veterans,” Briggs said. “And the more severe their injuries, the more significant the outcomes.”
It’s nearly impossible to not come away impressed by what has happened in this remote area in southeastern Michigan. Roger Barnett, a 66-year-old veteran, who was “in the mud” in Vietnam, spent an afternoon with his wife Dottie chatting with other visitors at a recent Camp Liberty open house.
“It’s just really great to have for these guys with disabilities,” Barnett said. “It’s all set up for them. It’s all set up for recreation, for them [to have] some kind of an outlet and get together and spend time in front of the fireplace and relax. It’s great. It’s just what they need.”
Now, Briggs and Lutes are just antsy to get the construction completed. While they enjoy bringing attention to Camp Liberty, raising funds, and chatting with the press, they’re eager for the property to begin hosting those who need it the most.
“We hope to be able to help the veterans realize that they may have a TBI issue or a PTSD issue,” Lutes said, “and that there is a treatment option that can improve it without them sacrificing their jobs, their military rating, or their relationships. We’ve proven to ourselves that what we do can change lives for the better.”