A place to heal

Soldiers find freedom outdoors

Eric Cravey
Posted 10/18/16

MELROSE – After four deployments in both the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars against terror, Patrick Ferguson returned to the U.S. injured and needing two hearing aids, but most of all, he felt like he …

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A place to heal

Soldiers find freedom outdoors

Posted

MELROSE – After four deployments in both the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars against terror, Patrick Ferguson returned to the U.S. injured and needing two hearing aids, but most of all, he felt like he didn’t fit in anywhere anymore. However, he could not tell he was hurting.

“I don’t think they see it,” said his wife, Trish Ferguson, 35. “They don’t understand it, so it’s the people around them that see it and notice it. And it’s not so much as what they portray on TV, like those big crazy or irate or whatever [actions], it’s more just, you go to war and you just see and do and participate in like an adrenaline level that nobody can ever understand and then you come back and I think you feel like you just don’t fit in.”

While serving six years as an infantryman with the 1st Ranger Battalion out of Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga., Patrick, 40, saw platoon members get killed and children abused while serving on foreign soil. He returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder, frustrated and struggled to get control of his life.

“I didn’t really think at the time anything was wrong with me because, in my point of view, I just lived my life,” Patrick said.

He tried his hand at running his own construction company in Marion County, but that was taking longer than his family needed to bring in a steady income. Trish gave firm, but loving support to get him motivated again.

“I used to tell him, ‘Life’s not done with you.’ You came back. I know you lost your friends there and I’m sorry, but you got a second chance and you’ve got to use what you’ve been through to move forward,” Trish said.

Patrick eventually used the GI Bill to go to school and become a paramedic and EMT. One thing led to another and has completed a bachelor’s degree with the goal of becoming a physician’s assistant. Along the way, he discovered a Melrose-based nonprofit called Soldiers Freedom Outdoors, a nonprofit that brings veterans from all stations in life together for weekend retreats.

The program gave Patrick a chance to relax and take his oldest son hunting. But he also got to hang out with other veterans during the all-expenses paid weekend.

“Really, just being able to sit out in the woods and be with my son and enjoy that time as a father-son event, I was at peace out there and I realized that there’s more to life than looking over your shoulder all the time. I guess ultimately it’s that I just found peace there,” Patrick said.

Patrick had such a positive experience on his retreat that he said yes when he was asked to become a board member for the nonprofit. He said his new mission is “to be something stable for veterans, whether it’s with Soldiers Freedom Outdoors or with being a PA.”

He became involved with the group after one of his Ranger friends met Daniel DiMarco, founder of Soldiers Freedom Outdoors at a conference. For the past two years, DiMarco has been leading active and former military from all branches and wars on these free retreats. He funds the retreats, which cost about $400 per guest, solely on donations and fundraising while working a full-time job.

“When the recession hit, I took a look at what was going on with my life, and what I’ve done, and wanted to do something a little more and I like the outdoors. I like horses, I like to hunt, fish, and I know what the healing power of nature does for your mind,” said DiMarco, 44, of Hawthorne.

Each retreat can host up to eight attendees. The nonprofit holds an all-women retreat and one co-ed retreat each month at the 350-acre ranch in Melrose that includes two houses, a small lake and 10 horses. Attendees can take part in a list of scheduled activities, DiMarco said, or simply hang out all weekend in a hammock on the back porch. However, the goal is to connect, veteran to veteran.

“It’s counseling but not in a direct way. We do 7-8 veterans an outing, so it’s not big, it’s personal and just by being there, they get the counseling they need. You might have one vet that’s already been through what another vet’s going through – post-traumatic stress – he’s already dealt with that, he’s able to help,” DiMarco said.

Just in the short time, the nonprofit has been running, DiMarco said he sees how these retreats have improved attendees’ lives.

“We see real change. We have repeat people that come back,” DiMarco said. “They help each other and they’re able to open up to people they don’t know. It’s easier sometimes to talk to somebody that’s not active duty.”

Soldiers Freedom Outdoors is holding the “Freedom 5K Walk/Run” on Oct. 29 at 9 a.m. at camp Freedom located at 4342 8th Ave. in Melrose. Registration is $25 and participants can also make additional donations to fund the veterans retreats. For more information, call (800) 875-0309.

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