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At Maine Camp, Veterans Take Time to Heal, Reconnect With Families

September 13, 2010 at 7:00 PM EST
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Ray Suarez reports on a special camp in Maine dedicated to help veterans and their families to heal from the emotional wounds of terror and war.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, a quiet place to step back from the traumas of terrorism and war. Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: In an outdoor cabin on the edge of a glistening lake in Maine people gathered at Camp Kieve, as they did in many places over the weekend, to remember September 11th, nine years ago.

MAN: This cross was given to us last year by one of the firefighters. This was carved from steel of the Trade Center that went down.

RAY SUAREZ: Several of the families at the remembrance had their lives transformed by that day. It set them on a long journey that would eventually bring them to a weekend in the Maine woods. This has been a summer camp for boys since the 1920s. After the 2001 terror attacks, Kieve reached out to the families of victims from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and now is helping reintegrate veterans with their families as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan, the wars that followed those terror attacks.

WOMAN: There you are.

RAY SUAREZ: Camp Kieve brings enlisted men and women and their families here after the summer kids have gone home, giving them a chance to talk, play, relax.

MAN: Did you see that?

RAY SUAREZ: They entertain for up to a week. This isn’t a therapeutic setting. It’s not heavily programmed with a tight schedule to keep. After breakfast, you might wander over to a pottery class, paddle out from the dock and bait a hook. Or this weekend, trade stories with veterans from earlier wars, get away from home and its demands and its pace.

DICK KENNEDY, father founded camp : That’s good too.

RAY SUAREZ: Dick Kennedy, whose father founded the camp his son now runs, says he got the idea for veterans camp watching a group of just-returned servicemen getting off the plane from Iraq.

DICK KENNEDY: They were scared to go home. They had been in a horrible environment — dangerous, hot, nasty environment. And what their real fear was, was going home and wondering how it was going to work — how they were going to work as part of a family, and how their family would work now that they were returning to it. And that was my “ah-ha” moment. I mean, I said, gosh, these guys need the same stuff that our 9/11 people need.

RAY SUAREZ: Nancy Kennedy, co-directors of veterans camp but no relation to Dick, agrees.

NANCY KENNEDY, co-director: There’s an awkwardness among some of the families. And I think it really relates to the fact that they haven’t spent a whole lot of time with each other. They almost have to learn the language of being in the family again.

RAY SUAREZ: The Taylors, Maine National Guard helicopter pilot Rick, his wife Carolynn, and his step children, Hannah (ph) and Josh, headed to the indoor rock-climbing wall. They cheered and helped (ph) each other up the walls, struggled and laughed.

WOMAN: Good job.

RAY SUAREZ: Out of the helmets and harnesses and back on solid ground, the Taylors looked back on Rick’s deployment to Iraq.

MAN: It was pretty scary having Rick gone.

CAROLYNN TAYLOR: His deployment was very rough. We had some very unexpected things happen. And so — but we survived.

RAY SUAREZ: But it was the return home that was toughest for Rick.

RICK TAYLOR, Maine national guard helicopter pilot: Because we did MedEvac, and we always pulled out these injured people and stuff. And so you get that attitude that you kind of turn off the emotion. That, you know, it’s like nothing matters. And that’s how you get through the day, and that’s how you are able to get back in that helicopter the next night and go get somebody. But then you get home and you still have it. So you can’t really have that attitude when you have a wife and kids. You know, you just don’t care about stuff.

CAROLYNN TAYLOR: I said to him when he first came — not when he first came home, but probably, maybe I’d say maybe three or six months later, I’m like, “You are not the same person you were when you left. Before you left, we never argued. We got along famously.” So that was very difficult. That was — there was a change. There’s definitely been a change.

RAY SUAREZ: While Rick was in Iraq, Carolynn broke her neck in a fall from a ladder. She told Rick not to come home after he got the news, and she relied heavily on friends and neighbors during a long recuperation. They all agree it was tough, but that they will be much better prepared when it’s time for Rick to head to Afghanistan on his next deployment. Fifty years old, married, two kids, more and more of the burden of America’s wars is being carried by soldiers like Rick Taylor.

MAN: How about a nice hand for this girl right here?

RAY SUAREZ: For some of the veterans’ camp families the time away was nothing more serious than a fun weekend away from home, but Nancy Kennedy says she often sees a big change in just a few days.

NANCY KENNEDY: There’s definitely a difference in families. They’re holding each other. They’re laughing eagerly. They’ve gotten each other’s rhythms kind of back again. They remember old jokes. And it almost, like, gives them a little jump-start to this dynamic that had been there that has been interrupted.

RAY SUAREZ: The plan is to expand the concept to camps across the country. The Kieve program has the encouragement of the Department of Defense and the support of Chaplain Andy Gibson of the Maine National Guard.

LT. COL. ANDY GIBSON, chaplain, Maine National Guard: What this does is it touches the person at a deeper level, at a spiritual level, at a personal level. And it allows them to reunite with their families not just in the technical areas that they may need a little bit of help with, but on the more personal side.

RAY SUAREZ: Marine Lance Corporal Philip Reardon, who spent the day fishing, still has a ways to go. Recuperating from injuries sustained in Iraq, he freely admits he’s still a little uncomfortable being back in the U.S.

So what is the hardest part about being back?

LANCE CPL. PHILIP REARDON, U.S. Marine Corps: Just really dealing with people. Like just, you know, the way people — what people do really gets on my nerves.

I can’t really stand being around all that many people for a long periods of times. They kind of aggravate me. So when I heal up and all that, just trying to get back in and — life was so much simpler, really.

RAY SUAREZ: The vets and their families pay nothing to be here. Kieve, a nonprofit, raises all the money. The cabins, the meals, the staff, the activities run about $1,000 per person, per week.

DICK KENNEDY: I think probably it’s a good deal. I think probably we’re saving somebody a whole lot more money and a whole lot of terrible, wrenching experiences, if we can get them back where their feet are on the ground and if their family is squared away.

(BELL RINGING)

RAY SUAREZ: The dinner bell calls vets’ campers to a Saturday night feast, a lobster bake. Steamed under a blanket of seaweed, sweet corn, clams and young potatoes.

More than 24 hours into the program an easy familiarity has set in among people who were strangers a little while ago, clearly charmed by what generations of boys in aging black-and-white photos have known for a long time. Whether offered as welcome thanks or needed therapy, camp can be a blast.