At this Missouri retreat, veterans can hunt, fish, be with family — all for free

Chris Wolfenbarger didn’t have a typical military career.

He was 38 when he completed basic training and 40 when he deployed to serve as a medic in Afghanistan. When his 12-month tour started in 2009, he left behind his wife of only a year, and three stepchildren.

Then he was blown up by a suicide bomber.

“That dude was specifically waiting for the medic. The medic was the one they were going to hit,” he said. “And that was scary. I was a desired target.”

Nine years later, Wolfenbarger still struggles with the effects of his time in the military. He has a traumatic brain injury that causes cluster headaches, sleep apnea, a lingering shoulder injury and hearing loss in both ears.

But the toughest part for him and his family is the post-traumatic stress disorder that causes rage control issues.

Recently, for the first time, the Raytown resident brought his family with him to a place that has been helping him heal: Hickory Hills Veterans Lodge, a quaint cabin secluded on 100 acres of wooded property in northern Missouri.

They spent a July weekend bonding and being outdoors on a property equipped for hunting, fishing, archery and four-wheeling.

“It’s just nice to be able to be on common ground and be doing the same thing, but not having to do anything. It’s always so stressful at home,” said Leah Sword, Wolfenbarger’s wife. “We have to do this, we have to do that, and then there’s not time for us. It just makes it very difficult.”

“I have so much shame for the things that I’ve put my family through,” Wolfenbarger said. “Coming to a place like Hickory Hills and being with other veterans who have also done things to the people that they love, that shared shame is often as cathartic as the mission that we go on when we come here.”

Free of triggers, stresses

Wolfenbarger and Sword are just the second family to come through the lodge, which belongs to Kansas City resident and construction company owner Orin Jackson. He opened the cabin in 2016 as a resource for veterans from across the country, but he’s been bringing veterans to the property for 20 years.

The cabin itself is simple, its concrete floors adorned with cedar baseboards. There’s a living area with a couch, several recliners and a TV. Three hand-crafted wood beds line the rest of the main hallway, almost resembling a rustic barracks, while private rooms and a full kitchen sit just to the right.

There’s no internet, and phone service is limited at best.

And that’s the way it was intended: A place for America’s veterans, especially those with PTSD, to get away from the stresses and triggers of everyday life and simply be with nature, one another, and their families — free of charge.

Though he never served himself, Jackson said he has a strong sense of patriotism. He especially wanted to help a sect of veterans struggling after returning from a deployment: those who have PTSD but want an option other than taking a mouthful of pills for treatment.

“Let’s get them up there and make them feel like they’re a part of something again,” Jackson said. “That’s the whole factor of what made me decide to do this.”

Operating the nonprofit costs several thousand dollars annually. Jackson opens the property to veterans and their families on request, and once he has enough interest, he begins work coordinating everyone’s schedules. The entire trip, including travel for service members from out of state, is free, paid for by donations.

Having the cabin, which Jackson built and funded through donations and around $100,000 of his own money, allowed him to begin including veterans’ families, too.

“I’m trying to be a leader and doing the important work of getting the family the help as well,” he said. “It’s not just the husband who has to be healed. It’s the whole family who has to be made a unit. And our family units are suffering in America.”

A time to reconnect

The cabin helped Wolfenbarger reconnect with his family and forget about the time he threw a footlong chili cheese hotdog from Sonic at the wall in a fit of rage.

Or the time he angrily tossed pizza rolls into the ceiling fan, spattering them all over nearby Venetian blinds.

Or the time he felt unappreciated for the things he provided, so he took a roofing hammer and destroyed every TV and mirror in the house before taking his kids’ cellphones to the backyard, putting them in a container with an inch of gasoline, and striking a match.

Hickory Hills’ most redeeming quality, Wolfenbarger said, is how it allows service members and the people they’re with to return to specific moments in their deployment where everything changed.

“There was a fork in the road in that service member’s life when they got wounded, and they went this way,” he said. “What Hickory Hills Lodge lets them do is go back to that fork in the road and go forward on their own terms.”

Wolfenbarger described a retreat he attended where the group went duck hunting. While cleaning the bloody ducks afterward, a veteran who had been a sniper began to shake as he flashed back to images from his time in combat. The others offered to take over, but the veteran was adamant he needed to finish what he started, to help overcome his demons.

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Orin Jackson (right) built Hickory Hills Veterans Lodge to give veterans the opportunity to be outdoors with other veterans and heal. Retired Army medic Chris Wolfenbarger (not pictured) brought his family to the lodge recently and, thanks to Jackson, said he was able to keep a promise he made to his 17-year-old stepdaughter Morgan Sword (driving) about getting on an ATV. Morgan is riding with her sister Madison Wolfenbarger, 13, as his mother-in-law Connie Dukes (left), an Air Force veteran during the Vietnam War, watches. Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Martha Childers, a Kansas City counselor who works with veterans, said studies have shown being in nature can positively affect the struggles veterans have — such as anger and anxiety, mental fatigue, problem-solving skills and feelings of empowerment — in a way that other methods can’t.

“I feel like nature feeds us and ultimately we’re part of nature. If we live separately it’s not healthy,” she said. “(All healing methods are) very important. I think using all the tools is very useful, but there’s all kind of things that when people get out into nature, they’re going to trust each other.”

Sword and Wolfenbarger brought their now-teenage daughters Morgan and Madison, and Sword’s mother Connie Dukes, to Hickory Hills.

Dukes served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, working stateside to coordinate flight plans. She lost her husband Ray several months ago, and said that while he was physically unable to serve during his life, he would have loved the quiet nature aspect of Hickory Hills.

“This is just beautiful. Wouldn’t it be cool if a family, a soldier and his family, could come down here and see what I see. How much peace is drawn from that?” Dukes said.

Jackson said the cabin was created with input from many veterans about what they need most in a comforting space.

“I call it two words: ‘I listened.’ Before I ever put a stick of wood down in this place, I had meetings with veterans and said ‘What do you need?’” he said. “I’m here to try and help heal everybody. That’s my mission and my goal is to get everybody included.”

Jackson said the next big projects for the nonprofit are to build a place to house outdoor equipment as well as buying a Polaris Ranger ATV to transport veterans who are unable to walk the sprawling property. His website is collecting donations through PayPal or GoFundMe.

“That ATV is mission critical,” Jackson said. “It’s almost going to be a necessity.”

Jackson described his project as a “labor of love,” and that five words he hears from veterans let him know that what he’s done is worth it.

“When can I come back.”

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Retired Army medic Chris Wolfenbarger (second right) has been to Hickory Hills Veterans Lodge, built by Orin Jackson (left), a few times. He said he was very excited to be able to share the experience with wife Leah Sword (right) and their family on a recent trip. Wolfenbarger’s mother-in-law, Connie Dukes (second right), who spent 8 years in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, called Jackson one of God’s angels for helping veterans. Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com