For two decades a local nonprofit organization has served veterans, and worked to enrich their lives.
Now, the group and the family who started it are looking back to its successes and growth in those years.
The SS American Memorial Foundation is celebrating its 10th year serving active-duty soldiers, and its 20th anniversary, which coincidentally follows its most successful year of operation to date.
“As we’re finishing up 2019, we have one last group coming out next weekend, chaplains, who will be using a lodge that we have dedicated for their use so they can get some respite care and retreat,” SS American Memorial Foundation President Craig Russell said. “We’ll finish up the year with a little over 4,000 on our registry for active-duty soldiers to attend, and that doesn’t include veterans or private groups.”
Although the location has seen immense growth within the past year, it still has more room for expansion, Russell said.
“Randolph Air Force Base came out about 45 days ago, and they are looking to fully engage the location next year, and that could easily double those numbers,” he said.
The reason for the location’s success is word of mouth, Russell said.
“Every battalion has an assigned chaplain,” he said. “When we started with the Warrior Transition Battalion back in 2010 — which is the battalion that all wounded soldiers are attached to when they get to Brook Army Medical Center — that chaplain started bringing wounded warriors out … so the word spread from within the chaplaincy to the other battalions. As the chaplains met, they realized the therapeutic value that their soldiers were getting out of coming to the place.”
The idea of what would become the SS American Memorial Foundation began nearly 20 years ago when Russell decided to use his property, known as Lazy U Ranch, to host a yearly gathering for the fellow veterans he served with during the Cold War, he said.
“I’m a former submariner,” Russell said. “So in 2000, my submariner veterans came back together on Fourth of July at our location for the first reunion in 15 years since we served, and we’ve got back together every year proceeding. Eventually, we opened it up to friends and family, and it became a large event with upwards of 600 to 700 people in attendance.”
In 2012, a World War II veteran spoke to the audience and inspired Russell to expand the foundation even more.
Since the beginning, more than 30,000 civilians, school children and veterans have used the grounds at no cost, Russell said.
“We love people and we love seeing people happy,” he said. “We live in times that can be not so happy all the time, and the greatest pleasure is when we see them come out there and see how happy the place makes them feel. That’s the ultimate reason why we’ve done what we’ve done. We know how much the people have enjoyed themselves over the years from the letters, testimonials, and the verbal thank yous; it has literally saved peoples lives.”
Although the location is used for numerous activities, one of the predominant reasons for the traffic is a day-long getaway every Saturday for active-duty soldiers from local bases, Russell said.
“Whether it’s the returning troops or trainees that are getting ready to go over, they come in and attend what they call spiritual fitness days,” Russell said. “It’s a day to get away from the elements of the regular military regime where they can clear their minds. Whether it’s going fishing, relaxing, unplugging, or just regular human social activities. It’s all about decompressing and taking it easy.”
Spiritual days or “R and R” (rest and recreation) have become increasingly necessary due to the growing amount of tours that soldiers experienced, making locations like the SS American Memorial Foundation a vital part to a servicemember’s well being, Russell said.
“It has been very hard for the soldiers because of this long war,” he said. “A lot of these soldiers from other conflicts like Vietnam would do one tour of 12 months. Today it’s not uncommon for a lot of the soldiers to have five or six tours under their belt of anywhere between six to 12 months. I know soldiers that have had upwards of 10 tours.”
When the grounds aren’t being used for spiritual days, Russell said that they have other programs for military members to engage in the other six days of the week.
“Sunday is utilized by the Brook Army Medical drug addiction program,” he said. “They come out and bring their soldiers that are going through drug addiction. During the week, the cadre will come out on what they call organizational days, and they’ll have their family days. So it’s all facets, from the wounded warriors to the trainees that are going through school to get ready to go overseas into combat, from the returning soldiers that are coming off of combat or an organizational day.”
The foundation plans to commemorate its 20th anniversary during its annual Fourth of July bash, Russell said.
“We will have an International Barbecue Cookers cook-off, and we call it our firecracker cook-off,” he said. “And this year, for the first time, it will be a fundraising event.”
A “master plan” is in the works aimed at expanding upon what the grounds have to offer, Russell said.
“We are looking towards a potential build-out of the rest of the property,” he said. “I say potentially because we’re just seeing how it evolves. As it evolves, my family will be willing to donate more land, and what we are talking about now is a sanctuary. We’re looking at a library and also a building that can house and provide on-location services to the soldiers and veterans that come out.”